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Russia: Analysis from Washington -- Environmental Disasters May Renew Nationalism

Washington, 1 June 1998 (RFE/RL) --Environmental disasters, some left over from Soviet times, others the product of the actions of weak new governments, and still a third group the result of the activities of foreign firms, may reignite nationalist passions in many post-Soviet states.

There are three reasons behind this somewhat surprising conclusion.

First, as a recently released poll shows, citizens in the post-Soviet states appear to be even more concerned about the environment than are residents of other countries around the world.

Second, the leaders of many of the national movements in these countries started as environmental activists in Soviet times and thus are now as a result of new ecological disasters simply returning to their roots.

And third, the media have focused increasing attention on such disasters, especially when corrupt local officials or foreign firms appear to be to blame.

The United States Information Agency last month released the results of two surveys its researchers conducted in late 1997 in the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Kazakhstan on popular attitudes toward environmental issues.

These polls found that majorities in all three countries -- including more than 65 percent in the Russian Federation -- said they favored protecting the environment even if doing so meant that they would have to put up with slower economic growth. Such support for environmental activism would be impressive anywhere; it is especially striking in countries whose economic situation is anything but good.

In addition, the survey showed that the citizens of these three countries were extremely critical of what their respective governments were doing to clean up environmental pollution. Some 70 percent of Kazakhstanis, 85 percent of Russians, and a like percentage of Ukrainians felt their national governments were doing a poor job in this respect.

Not surprisingly, politicians both in power and in opposition are sensitive to such attitudes, seeing them either as a threat or an opportunity. And that is particularly the case with those political figures who began their careers as spokesmen for ecological causes in Soviet times.

In the 1960s and 1970s, environmental concerns were among the few issues that opposition groups, especially in the non-Russian regions, could raise without falling afoul of the Soviet state. Many of these environmental activists subsequently became historic preservationists when that became possible. And later still, they adopted an openly nationalist agenda as the Soviet state crumbled around them.

Now in the post-Soviet environment, these same people are drawing strength from others appalled by the environmental degradation visited upon them by past Soviet practices, by the failure of their own governments to prevent new disasters, and by the poor ecological record of many Western firms now operating in these countries.

And just as in Soviet times, they are focusing attention not so much on the environment in general but rather on conditions in their own country or even in a one part of it. According to the USIA poll, only one person in 50 was concerned about global climate change, but virtually everyone was worried about more immediate environmental degradation.

The media in each of these countries are playing up these issues, frequently with an increasingly nationalist gloss directed either at the Soviet past, an uncaring and corrupt local regime, or foreign firms.

In the last few weeks, for example, the press in Kyrgyzstan has called attention to the environmental disaster visited on that country's Lake Issyk-Kul by a Canadian gold mining concern. Ukrainian media have continued to discuss the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident, a disaster made all the worse by Soviet policies and the West's unwillingness to help. And the Georgian media have raised questions about the consequences for that country if a dam is built by Turkey on the border between the two countries.

Many in the West and in these countries as well may be inclined to dismiss such concerns as being relatively unimportant to the political life of this region. But the experience of these countries in the past and the intense feelings that environmental issues can still arouse, point to a different conclusion.

They suggest that future environmental disasters in this region may quickly lead to a nationalist response, particularly if those responsible are foreign in one sense or another. And that conclusion in turn indicates that anyone seeking to do business with these countries must be especially environmentally responsible lest he set off a popular movement that no one will be able to control.