Wastelands Beyond the Iron Curtain : Environment: A failure of socialist planning turned the East Bloc into a gigantic industrial dump. Campaigns to correct things may help build democratic institutions.


This ancient capital spreads across a wide valley in the Balkans and was once famed for its mountain air. Today, when the breeze comes from the East, it crosses the huge Kremikovtzi metals plant, turns dun-colored and settles in an ominous layer over the valley floor.

Dirty air is a familiar enough problem. The difference here is the way the Bulgarian government--and, until recently, other governments in the East Bloc--have responded to pollution and to those who complain about it.

Last month, members of a small Bulgarian environmental group, Eco-Glasnost, gathered in Sofia’s Kristal Park to collect signatures on a petition to the government. Suddenly, militiamen and undercover police swarmed through the park. Petitioners and bystanders were kicked and punched, and more than 30 were hauled off in a police bus. The episode was watched by an amazed group of diplomats and other delegates to a large East-West conference on the implementation of environmental-protection provisions in the Helsinki Accords.


As the Iron Curtain rises fitfully across Eastern Europe it is unveiling a huge industrial dump. This reality does not mesh comfortably with the preconceptions that many of us bring to such a scene. Socialism meant planning, and planning excluded the possibility of waste and toxic side effects. If there was something to be feared in the Eastern brand of socialism besides its military power, it was that it seemed all too tidy: broad, traffic-free avenues constantly swept clean by babushki, busybodies in the parks nagging you to keep off the grass and the monotonous tracts of high-rise apartment buildings. Uniformity, predictability, even sterility--not this toxic wasteland.

According to participants at the Sofia conference, Eastern Europe produces little more than one-third of the continent’s gross domestic product but is responsible for two-thirds of its sulfur dioxide, the prime ingredient in smog and acid rain. Eastern European industry burns huge quantities of brown coal and uses twice the energy that the West does to produce the same dollar’s worth of goods. Kaunis, a Lithuanian city of more than half a million people, has no waste-water treatment facilities whatsoever. A smuggled report from the Czechoslovakian Academy of Sciences contends that in northern Czechoslovakia pollution shortens life expectancy by three to four years. (The government pays a bonus--the workers call it “burial money”--to those willing to live in the region for more than 10 years.) The catalogue of East Bloc eco-misfortunes quickly becomes a long one.

Eastern Europe’s independent environmentalists feel neglected by the West. One asked me why Americans are so concerned about Amazon rain forests and the glaciers of Antarctica but so indifferent to the toxins being churned out by the socialist camp. Another complained that Western Europeans want to work mainly with official (that is, government-controlled) groups in Eastern Europe.

While the idea of socialist pollution may not mesh smoothly with some Westerner’s intellectual preconceptions, others may grind their gears at the idea of an anti-socialist environmentalism. Many American conservatives are suspicious of environmentalism; neo-conservative theoretician Norman Podhoretz argues that environmentalism is the way socialism could come to America. Petar Beron, a leader of Eco-Glasnost and an official of the Bulgarian Museum of Natural History, says, “Environmentalists in the U.S. attack private corporations and are on the left. They think that because we attack the government we are on the right.”

At a hearing in preparation for the Sofia conference, Sen. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.), a strong environmentalist, warned that human rights concerns could interfere with negotiations on the environment. But the arrest of Eco-Glasnost petitioners demonstrated that, in Soviet Bloc countries, environmental progress cannot be easily separated from progress in human and political rights.

East European governments eagerly sign international anti-pollution agreements, but if their citizens can’t hold them to these commitments, who will? When governments in this region investigate or fine a polluter, one branch of government is investigating or paying off another. And, when all else fails, the “socialist” polluter states harass or arrest their critics.


Despite these difficulties, environmentalism may be emerging as one of the most effective forces for building alternative democratic institutions amid the slag heaps of socialist failure. From the campaign against the paper mills on Lake Baikal in the Soviet Union to the outrage about the radioactive explosion at Chernobyl, environmentalism has helped dissident democratic intellectuals reach out for mass support. Long-suppressed national pride finds a healthy outlet in demands to protect sites of natural beauty and historical significance.

Environmental issues are now almost universally acknowledged to transcend certain aspects of national sovereignty. By the end of the Sofia conference, pressures forced the release of the Eco-Glasnost protesters, and a delegation of their leaders was even welcomed into the conference. And just one week later, the hard-line Communist Party chief Todor Zhivkov abruptly “resigned.”

But many Eastern European environmentalists contend that the West must demand more than freedom of information and expression in order to clean up the toxic threat from the East. It must also help in establishing alternative democratic institutions. For all the changes in the region, communists still control the governments. Now they are asking for grants of high-technology equipment and large sums of money to stop polluting their neighbors. But, as Polish human-rights and environmental leader Zbigniew Romaczewski recently told a gathering of Americans, “You have to work completely outside the old system. They will just spend your money and misuse the technology.”