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Russia: Environmentalists Criticize Kremlin Conference As Blatantly Pro-Industry

Leading ecology groups in Russia are sharply criticizing the Kremlin and big business for continuing to disregard the environment, despite claims to the contrary. They note the irony of having some of Russia's biggest polluters sponsoring a three-day, Kremlin-initiated environmental congress, while lobbying for industry-friendly measures on the sidelines. The congress, which brings together 1,500 delegates from all over Russia, opens today in Moscow.

Moscow, 18 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- An environmental congress organized by Russia's Ministry of Natural Resources and sponsored by leading industrialists began today in the Russian capital.

Igor Chestin is head of the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund. He dismisses the environmental congress as a public-relations stunt that will have little effect on the country's environmental policy. "During the congress, you will hear many favorable comments by state bodies," he said. "We would like to say straight from the start that we do not share that point of view."

Aleksei Yablokov, president of the Center for Environmental Policy, says that out of 1,500 delegates attending the conference, only about 100 are representing environmental groups. The others, he says, are attending on behalf of local or federal agencies.

Environmentalists say the Kremlin has at times sent positive environmental signals. President Vladimir Putin warned that 15 percent of Russia's regions are suffering from critical or near critical environmental conditions. He also called for a single body to manage Russia's environmental policy.

The Natural Resources Ministry is now officially the country's main ecological body but has been the focus of critics who say environmental controls have deteriorated dramatically since the ministry took over.

Critics point out that, ironically, the ministry is also responsible for handing out production licenses to Russia's metals and energy companies, which are some of the country's biggest polluters.

Further, this week's environmental congress is sponsored by some 15 industrial heavyweights, such as Norilsk Nickel, LUKoil, Gazprom, and Siberian Aluminum. Chestin believes their influence will mitigate any final resolution issued by the conference. "The fact that the business people who are sponsoring the event are both in the editorial commission and sitting on the presidium for the [session] in the Kremlin will make it possible for them to block any decisions that we would want to take," he said.

One Russian company constantly in the sights of environmentalists is the Norilsk Nickel Mining and Metallurgical Company, one of the world's top nickel producers. According to a government-endorsed rating published yesterday, Norilsk Nickel is competing with Russia's electricity monopolist EES for the title of No. 1 polluter. Norilsk Nickel's gigantic plants and mines emit sulfuric acid and heavy metals and are strewn over hundreds of square kilometers of the Arctic Kola Peninsula. Pollution by Norilsk Nickel is found to have even reached the Canadian Arctic.

Elena Kovaleva is a spokeswoman on environmental matters for Norilsk Nickel. She notes the company earlier this year adopted a long-term program to drastically reduce toxic emissions. "We are planning a complete overhaul of the technological [production] chain in the next five to seven years that will allow us to reduce by 70 percent the amount of emissions by Norilsk," she said.

Environmentalists are not appeased. Two years ago, the Russian Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Norilsk subsidiary in Komi, freeing it -- and all other polluters -- from paying a "polluter's tax."

A new attempt to adopt a revised ecological-tax system is under government scrutiny but has been criticized by the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP), a lobbying group for big business.

Kovaleva explained why companies are against such a tax: "The essence of the issue is that for companies to resolve their ecological problems, they must first of all renew their equipment and technologies. And for this to happen, companies need to be stimulated accordingly. And this ecology tax is not a stimulating factor. That's why there are so many debates going on now on that issue, and that's why Norilsk Nickel has laid out its position."

Environmentalists acknowledge that some companies are investing money in cleaner technologies but say lobbying efforts are usually still aimed at keeping ecological standards to a minimum. As proof, they cite a recent government decision to reintroduce a list of toxic agents for which companies will be taxed or fined for excessive emissions.

Ivan Blokov, the director of Greenpeace Russia, says the new list is even more lax than the original. "Fifty harmful substances were taken out of the decision and not a single new one was added to the list of those for which you have to pay," he said. "And the amounts that you pay for the harmful substances left on the list are no higher and often even lower than those established in 1993. Do you think this is going to have any effect?"

Mikhail Zhukov, an environmental expert with the Economic Development Ministry, says companies are slowly coming around to more ecologically conscious technologies, citing LUKoil's planned nonpolluting extraction technology in the Baltic Sea. He admitted, however, that "stimulating companies isn't easy." It's not a "coincidence," Zhukov said, that "the word stimulation comes from the Latin for a metal rod used to poke an ox into movement."