WHEN the Berlin Wall crumbled and then the former Soviet Union fractured, activists saw it as a plus for the environment. Democracy and a freer economy, they felt, would open the way to protecting natural resources and reducing pollution.
But since then, the opposite has occurred, say activists and lawyers from those new and newly freed countries.
Severe budgetary problems have dried up funds for environmental restoration and law enforcement. Decentralization has brought more corruption than under Communist Party apparatchiks. With the desperate search for hard currency following the plunge of the ruble and other local currencies, the selling off of natural resources like timber has accelerated, and the poaching of animals - some endangered - has also become rampant.
And while some countries have new environmental laws, and others are pushing for them, none are rigorously enforcing these as economic growth, privatization, and basic survival take precedence.
Meeting at a University of Oregon School of Law-sponsored conference last weekend, representatives from Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary painted a bleak picture of environmental protection in their countries. ``I'm afraid environmental issues are not at the top of the agenda,'' said Jerzy Jendroska, a member of the Polish Environmental Lawyers Association who helped draft new laws in Poland.
``Our laws are not bad, but we lack a well-organized system of environmental enforcement,'' said Svetlana Kravchenko, environmental-law professor at Lviv State University in Ukraine and a consultant to the environment ministry.
Ms. Kravchenko estimates that just 0.4 percent of the gross national product is devoted to environmental restoration. ``It is very, very minimal,'' she says.
In Environment magazine, Vladimir Kotov and Elena Nikitina wrote that the cost of Russian environmental damage equals between 15 percent and 17 percent of GNP, while just 1.3 percent of GNP is devoted to environmental protection.
Mr. Kotov, Moscow Academy of Transport and Tourism professor, and Ms. Nikitina, Russian Academy of Sciences senior researcher, warn: ``Conditions are likely only to worsen over the course of the next decade.'' They say about 80 percent of all industrial enterprises in Russia would go bankrupt if forced to comply with environmental laws. ``Russian politicians, who are all engaged in fierce internal battles, cannot afford to allow the bankruptcy of these enterprises because that would result in massive unemployment.''
In many ways, it's as if the Pacific Northwest ``jobs vs. owls'' debate had exploded over the country. ``Russian people are mostly concerned with problems of their own survival,'' said Andrei Borsuk, legal adviser to the grass-roots environmental group ``Putnik.''
In some cases, those charged with protecting environmental values have become part of the problem.
Olga Maiboroda, who is from Sochi, Russia, near the Black Sea, reports that at a nature reserve in the Caucasus region, ``The people [whose jobs] are to protect the reserve are the worst poachers because their salaries are not even enough to feed their own families.'' Ms. Maiboroda is an environmental activist now in graduate school at the University of Montana.
But local hunters aren't the only ones at fault, she adds: ``Poaching has been encouraged by foreign hunters who can offer hard currency. You see a lot of foreign big shots going to reserves and poaching. It's not a secret. Everybody knows it.''
In her region, Maiboroda says, many local officials take bribes to allow polluting industries to foul the Black Sea. ``The attitude is: Grab as much as you can and run,'' she says.
The views presented by these observers are shared by Western experts.
``The market economy has brought unexpected pressures on resources and has transcended the new environmental consciousness,'' says Armin Rosencranz, professor of international environmental law at the University of California's Boalt Hall School of Law.
New leaders contribute
``The `new Russians' have taken over, the increasingly rich entrepreneurs, and perhaps unexpectedly, they have become the models for others,'' he says, listing resulting problems: ``Very little implementation of environmental laws ... decentralization which has given local elites less accountability ... lots of illegal felling of trees ... lots of bribery ... virtually no effective environmental assessment ... enterprises routinely hiding their true incomes ... pollution payments that are purely symbolic [due to severe inflation] and have no meaningful impact on behavior.''
The breakup of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact left a dire environmental legacy: pollution at abandoned military sites, industrial plants dating from the '40s and '50s, nuclear-power plants unsafe by Western standards, and water-diversion projects that have caused problems for newly independent countries.
An example was the diversion of water sources for the Aral Sea in order to grow exportable cotton in the central Asian republics.
The resulting water and air pollution, says attorney and environmental activist Marat Ametov of Uzbekistan, adds to a regional political situation that is ``very volatile ... very unpredictable.''
There is a broader international dimension. Russia is not yet complying with international agreements on ozone protection and transboundary air pollution. Environment ministers from the Group of Seven industrialized nations on March 13 warned of the ``serious and alarming'' safety risks posed by nuclear-power plants in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Japan and several Western countries have offered to help with environmental restoration there. But, in the end, it is likely that political and economic reform will have to come first.
Says Maiboroda: ``The old system is destroyed, but the new one is not created yet.''