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East/West: Disagreement Overshadows Environmental Meeting

Copenhagen, 22 June 1998 (RFE/RL) --Disagreements have surfaced between the West and the East ahead of the European Meeting on the Environment to take place next week (June 23-25) in the Danish city of Aarhus.

Fifty-five nations are participating with each sending both senior state officials and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) representatives.

Svend Auken, the Danish Minister of the Environment, has said that the conference will focus on Russia and the other Eastern countries.

Most western environmental aid now goes to Central Europe with less than a quarter reaching the former USSR. Auken fears this may create a 'new environmental wall' between the EU-applicant states and those that are left outside. Denmark, an European Union member state, is a major investor in environmental projects throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

But Ivan Blokov, a campaign director for the Russian branch of Greenpeace, is skeptical. Blokov has been quoted in the press as saying the Aarhus conference will be "just another meeting of sweet-talkers that will work out accords and agreements that Russia will not abide by." He says the Aarhus meeting must instead call on the individual Eastern states to respect their own legislation, which in most cases "looks OK on paper but is not enforced. Western economic aid will make sense only after the governments start applying their own laws ."

According to Blokov, a substantial part of the current western help is wasted. "Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent to bring in foreign experts to look at the environmental situation in the East, " he said. "They produce tons of reports and paperwork but no concrete results. In other instances, the money just disappears down the bureaucratic channels. The portion that really achieves something useful is minuscule."

Denmark alone has invested over $30 million in environmental projects in St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad alone. But according to Blokov, the money is being used to create water-purifying systems in factories that should have been closed down.

According to Auken, the environmental co-operation between East and West is "the only concrete Europe-wide accomplishment after the fall of the Berlin Wall when all other promises of EU and NATO enlargement have failed to deliver quickly."

The previous environmental conference took place in Luzern, Switzerland, in 1993. It paved the way for the creation of national action plans which, according to Auken, are being adhered to "in many countries."

But Blokov remains uncertain. Last week (June 18) the Russian Greenpeace campaigned against an oil company conducting drills in an ancient forest. The drills, according to Greenpeace, were "illegal" but neither the Russian government nor the courts were willing to uphold the law.

Auken acknowledges that Western interest in preserving the environment in what used to be the USSR is relatively limited. "In the whole World Bank program for development in Russia, only half a page is dedicated to the environment," he said. "The same applies to most other international financial and banking institutions."