Russia's fledgling civil society

An environmental battle fires activism. But many doubt whether citizens can affect government policy.

When a Russian oil company announced plans to begin offshore drilling later this year just off the Curonian Spit, a unique nature reserve on the Baltic Sea, local environmental groups swung into action.

They hired lawyers, called on experts, and made extensive presentations at public hearings in May and June. They warned that a bad oil spill might destroy the fragile sandy isthmus, home to several endangered species and a UNESCO World Heritage site. And they cautioned that drilling rigs could wreck this westernmost Russian region's hopes of luring European tourists.

Their campaign was the latest episode in Russia's struggle to develop the citizen participation and give-and-take of a democratic civil society.

Though the environmentalists lost this round – after a drilling permit was awarded to the partly state-owned oil giant Lukoil – they still found something to celebrate: It was the first time in the Russian Baltic territory's history that an open public process had been held on an economic-development project.

"If this had come up even a few years ago, ecologists would have been able to do nothing but protest in the street," says Lena Gorbacheva, a lawyer for EcoDefense, the region's largest environmental group. "The legal basis for public input is very new. While we don't think it was used fairly in this case, the process certainly opens opportunities we couldn't have dreamed about before."

Whether citizen activists can actually affect public policy is unclear, however.

"Civil society is alive in Russia, but that is despite the efforts of the state not thanks to them," says Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent think tank in Moscow. "In the past few years the state has grown much stronger and has managed to return to its traditional position at the head of everything. What we considered to be democracy in the 1990s in retrospect turns out to have been a temporary space created by the weakness of the state. Hence, the scope for public involvement in decisionmaking is narrowing. In fact, it's being locked into limited and formal mechanisms that create the impression that something is done, but which are totally under control.

"Nevertheless," Mr. Makarenko says, "the number of registered public organizations is growing, and at some point, we are bound to see a revival of civil society. But, for the moment, the picture is not hopeful."

Across the country, environmental activists say that President Vladimir Putin has made changes that effectively compel nongovernmental groups and protest movements to become more specialized and legally adept if they hope to get the ear of the state. While this may sound like a Western-style system, the activists say the new rules of engagement simply mask a partnership between government and business aimed at rapid economic development regardless of environmental cost.

"The authorities pretend to go through the motions of legal process, but business always gets what it wants," says Ivan Blokhov, director of campaigns for Greenpeace-Russia.

The rules include mandatory environmental impact assessments for all development projects, public hearings open to all interested groups and the right of challenge in the courts. Many of these regulations have been on the books for years, but are only now being seriously implemented.

But, says Vladimir Yakimenko, a researcher at the independent Institute for Systems Analysis in Moscow, "so far, there is little evidence that these mechanisms are working." Still, Alexandra Korolyova, head of the Kaliningrad chapter of EcoDefense, says there are channels to keep fighting: "We believe there were violations in the procedure of the public hearings, and we are going to sue."

Many environmentalists voice nostalgia for the Gorbachev-era wave of public environmental consciousness and mass popular protests that forced the Soviet government to abandon many of its pet projects, such as a grandiose plan to divert Siberian rivers to ease Central Asian water shortages.

"The mass environmental movement of a decade ago has largely disappeared as the public has reshaped its priorities," says Alexei Yablokov, head of the independent Institute for Ecological Politics in Moscow. "People are more concerned with their living standards and crime, and think ecological security is less important. But, in recent years a number of permanent professional organizations have emerged, and they are growing much stronger. This is where we have to pin our hopes."

Since Putin's arrival in the Kremlin, the main government department that formerly oversaw ecological safety, Goskomekologia, has been abolished and most of its functions handed over to business for self-policing. However, Putin also invited a spectrum of non-governmental groups, including environmentalists, to take part in a large state-sponsored Civic Forum last year, in which he promised a new era of engagement between the authorities and grass-roots public organizations. "We have yet to see any tangible results, but the declarations at the meeting were good ones," says Yelena Subbotina, environmental reporter with the liberal Vremya-MN newspaper.

To show how grass-roots initiatives can be suffocated by bureaucracy, environmentalists cite their efforts to call a public referendum over government plans to finance Russia's failing nuclear industry by storing and processing foreign radioactive wastes. In 2000, a coalition of public groups collected almost 3 million signatures on a petition demanding the referendum, far more than the 2 percent of voters required by Russian law. But the Central Electoral Commission in Moscow disqualified many signatures – using criteria environmentalists say was unfair – leaving the petition 50,000 names short. "We are allowed to participate, and play our role, but we are never allowed to win," says Mr. Yablokov. "This is the hallmark of the Putin era."

A law permitting importation of foreign nuclear waste was passed by the Duma in April 2001.

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