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The winds of glasnost propel Soviet environmentalists

UFA is a fairly good-size Russian city about 700 miles southeast of Moscow in the Soviet Union's second-largest oil-producing region. The city is a nexus for the region's oil and gas pipelines, as well as the center for its petroleum refining, petrochemical, and chemical industries. ``Come wind or calm,'' according to M. Merzabekov, a Moscow journalist, ``there forms over Ufa a barely visible bluish haze made up of a multitude of ingredients which, to put it mildly, do not add to people's health.''

For many years, nothing was said or done about the increasing pollution in Ufa. Environmental data showing that pollution levels in the city vastly exceeded the government norms were carefully kept from the public.

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``But,'' Mr. Merzabekov continued, ``the winds of glasnost brought their purifying breath to this polluted city also.'' When government authorities insisted on locating yet another chemical plant within the city limits, the people of Ufa finally cried, ``Enough!''

The controversy surrounding the new chemical plant in Ufa is similar to the public debate in many Soviet cities over industrialization and further pollution.

Environmental problems have evoked outcries from the generally close-mouthed Soviet society since well before Mr. Gorbachev came to power in 1985. Yet, the Soviet leader's campaign to democratize and reform the Soviet system has given the populace an unprecedented opportunity to speak out.

At first glance, it appears that those protesting the country's environmental ills have many other complaints against the regime. Youth in the Baltic republic of Estonia, long a stronghold of nationalistic sentiment, have led protests against increased phosphate mining in the region. The citizens of Armenia, the scene of intense ethnic unrest and wide-scale demonstrations, also boast a number of environmental activists. Demonstrators in the Armenian capital of Yerevan decry air pollution so intense that it conceals Mt. Ararat, just 30 miles away in Turkey, and thought to have been the resting point for Noah's ark.

But it is not only those of delicate or grumbling disposition who are concerned about their murky water and air. Late last year, 50,000 people signed an appeal to protect Lake Baikal, the continent's largest freshwater lake. Early this year, more than 6,000 citizens of the city of Kazan sent a telegram to the government newspaper Izvestia protesting the construction of a biochemical factory in nearby forests.

Gorbachev's liberalized policy for the state-controlled media has allowed environmental activism to receive greater, more candid coverage than ever. The press is joining the people in calling out problems and demanding their solution.

Soviet press articles and government statements indicate that the authorities are acknowledging the severity of their nation's pollution problem. Furthermore, they are recognizing the right of Soviet citizens to express their concern, to be informed about the extent of the problem, and even to be involved in finding solutions.

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Clearly, glasnost has been good for the Soviet environment. But will environmental activism be good for glasnost?

A government trying to cope with a deep economic malaise has scarce resources for attending to environmental ills. Meanwhile, mothers in many industrial cities cannot let their children play outside, the air is so toxic. And the drinking water in Moscow, which normally has what one Soviet commentator termed a ``fishy, slimy smell,'' acquired a distinct odor of petroleum in early 1988, when the water purification plant developed a fuel leak. Glasnost could confront the Soviet leadership with ever-more-violent protests against its inability to deal with such hazardous problems.

If the sooty city of Ufa is any indication, the Soviet government and the Soviet people may develop a modus vivendi. In the city square, 2,000 Ufa residents gathered and waved slogans demanding ``Clean Air for Ufa!'' After the demonstration, city officials talked with representatives of the public about ways to protect the environment and keep the people informed. Merzabekov noted, ``With all this drama, events in Ufa have served as a lesson for democratization. A difficult lesson.''

Christine Westbrook has been a student of environmental issues in the USSR, as an academic and as an analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to assist the author in eliminating classified information, if any; that review, however, neither constitutes CIA authentication of material nor implies CIA endorsement of the author's views.

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