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In Russia, ‘Not in My Back Yard’ Motivates Autonomy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a long day of bossing around burly truck drivers at the Chelnya lumberyard, Lyubov N. Matveyeva has only to turn on the faucet to see that local industry produces more than paychecks.

Black smoke from incinerated logging scraps, toxic residues from paper mills and untreated sewage from logging camps conspired through decades of breakneck Communist development to contaminate the water table throughout the Republic of Karelia on the Finnish border in Russia’s northwestern tip.

The brown rivulet that tumbles from taps here is judged the dirtiest drinking water in all of Russia, yet it is far from the worst sin committed by the former regime’s central planners against the Russian environment. What is notable about the Soviet-era scourge of Karelia is that it has inspired the region’s people and leaders to demand the right of self-government to help reverse humanity’s crimes against nature.

In the post-dictatorial age of expanding autonomy for Russia’s diverse regions, Karelia demonstrates that those with a stake in the local community are the best stewards of their surroundings and that sovereignty can be achieved without provoking armed conflict.

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A relatively smooth transition of power from Moscow to the Karelian government has reinforced a nascent sense of responsibility among people here, especially in matters affecting the quality of life.

“We could live like the people of Finland if we cut down all of our trees to sell for hard currency,” says Matveyeva, a forewoman and 35-year-old mother of two. “But we have to leave something for our children and grandchildren. The only chance for them to have a good life is if we protect the environment.”

Such views might border on heresy in the timber towns of North America or Western Europe. But in Russia, the price of wanton ecological destruction is so painfully apparent that it has become one of the most powerful sources of regional discontent with the federal government.

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From the distant remove of Moscow, Communist dictators dumped nuclear wastes in northern waters. They hijacked rivers to irrigate cotton fields in the deserts of Central Asia, creating dust bowls and salt storms where seas had been. Underground nuclear blasts and overland rocket tests rained radiation and toxins across Siberia, and valuable minerals, furs and forests were exploited to near-extinction.

Today, environmental champions--from these dwindling woodlands to the melting permafrost of the Pacific Far East--are decrying the pathetic track record of those who managed Russia from a strong center.

But as the regions wrest new powers from Moscow to decide their own fates, the federal government is finding it increasingly difficult to levy taxes, maintain transportation networks and ensure reliable supplies of food, power and services for all Russians.

Karelia’s recent vetoes of plans for a nuclear power plant and an oil refinery to process Siberian crude illustrate the mounting problems of coordinating the economic demands of a sprawling empire and the self-preserving instincts of the people in its separate states.

“It’s not a question of political autonomy for us in Karelia. We have always coexisted peacefully inside Russia, and we always will,” says Tamara A. Kolesova, a senior editor of the Petrozavodsk daily Severny Kurier (Northern Courier). “But we must be masters of our own destiny in matters that affect our health and environment--our very future.”

She concedes that the 1992 vote to reject a nuclear plant was prompted by emotion rather than identifiable risk, as memories of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster still haunt the people of Russia.

But such decisions must be made at the local level, she insists, by those on the receiving end of any project’s benefits and drawbacks.

Partly because of Karelia’s refusal to host federal power projects, the republic’s 800,000 people suffer severe energy shortages and are unable to buy fuel to heat their dirty tap water in summer.

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Since Karelia proclaimed autonomy after the 1991 Soviet breakup, its nascent ecology movements have forced an aluminum plant in the city of Nadvoitsy to cease dumping chemical wastes into a reservoir. Nature preserves have been designated in each of the republic’s 24 counties. And as state-owned paper mills and timber-processing plants have been sold to employee cooperatives and private investors, the republic government has made environmental improvements a condition of the transactions.

Nevertheless, environmentalists complain that the Karelian government is still doing too little to dissuade Moscow from further ravages.

Alexander M. Sheleknov, a forestry expert with the ecology-oriented political movement known as the Assn. of Karelian Greens, accuses the local leadership of collusion with federal authorities in planning to log old-growth timber along the Finnish border.

But Sheleknov concedes that the people of Karelia have far more clout now in controlling their environment, and he advocates further strengthening of the region’s powers.

Far away in remote Yakutia, another activist makes the same argument--that the final word on development must rest with the regions.

“For 40 years they’ve been mining diamonds, gold and whatever else they could get at with no heed whatsoever of the damage to nature,” says Valentina I. Dmitrieva, chairwoman of the Public Ecological Center in Yakutsk.

Cities, towns and settlements were built on pilings drilled into the fragile permafrost, and the population’s wastes were pumped to storage vessels and then dumped into rivers once winter ice thawed.

Yakutia and other areas of Siberia face the most disastrous consequences of thoughtless federal planning, because the permafrost communities will literally collapse as global warming melts the frozen surface.

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“The melting of the permafrost is fraught with dire consequences for all of the Earth, as oceans will rise and eat away coastlines,” Dmitrieva says. “But it is a particularly harrowing issue for us, because whole cities will simply sink and disappear.”

While the industrial recklessness filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases could be curtailed and the impending doomsday delayed, ecologists are finding it tough going to galvanize any government to take action against a disaster still decades or even centuries away.

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In Moscow, the chairman of the Interagency Commission on Ecological Security, biologist Alexei V. Yablokov, condemns the current federal leadership’s handling of environmental issues as no better than that of its Soviet predecessors. He says Russian government and industry leaders remain enraptured by the Communist tenet for development embodied in the words of the late horticulturist Ivan V. Michurin: “We cannot wait for nature to give us its graces. It is our duty to take them.”

With such a view prevailing in Moscow, regional authorities have been working to loosen the federal grip on planning and development powers by enacting restrictions on what can be built in their back yards.

Karelia’s governor, Viktor N. Stepanov, says his was the first of Russia’s autonomous republics to enact laws requiring environmental impact studies of all proposed building projects. That has helped the region stave off federal schemes to bury wastes or build new sources of pollution here.

Ecology activists agree that their influence is expanding.

“With the growth of democracy in the republic, we’ve been able to speak on the radio, give interviews to newspapers and generally to get our message directly to the public,” says Dmitri Rybakov, a leader of the Karelian Greens party.

Federal laws have long been on the books requiring industries to meet clean air and water standards. But the edicts were never accompanied by funds for refitting errant enterprises, leaving industrial managers little choice but to go on polluting and local authorities little choice but to let them.

Republic leaders may be more responsive to local demands for environmental cleanup, but they too have little in their coffers.

Like much of the rest of Russia, Karelia has seen its economy shrink drastically since the Soviet Union disappeared. Its vital timber industry has suffered a 50% drop in production because antiquated equipment can’t be repaired without costly imports; lumberjacks have been defecting to more comfortable jobs in the cities, and Russia’s chronic problem of one region not paying for what it orders from another has bankrupted many businesses here.

One reason ecology movements have fared more peaceably with Karelia’s government and industry than they have in most areas has been the decline in the region’s timber production, which has caused a corresponding drop in polluting side effects.

But republic leaders insist that their newfound autonomy is the main reason Karelia’s environment is on the mend, because broader authority at the regional level has made those in power more responsive to the public here than any federal planner 450 miles away in Moscow would be.

“Even the most insensitive bureaucrat who lives here has to think about the consequences of his actions on his own family,” says editor Kolesova, who believes Karelia is emerging as a model of balanced power between the provinces and the federal center.

Dependent on Moscow for energy and defense while contributing more than its share of wood, paper and mineral resources, the republic has also carved out a role for itself as Russia’s gateway to Scandinavia.

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That Karelia’s myriad disputes with the center have been resolved peacefully has generated a confidence here and in Moscow that some power struggles can end with both parties winning.

When Stepanov, the governor, explains his secret formula for a bloodless breaking away from Moscow, he answers with a mischievous glint in his eye.

“I have a tank, just like [Chechen separatist leader Dzhokar M.] Dudayev,” he insists, poking through memorabilia in his huge office.

Finally, he locates his T-55--a brass paperweight commemorating the 50th anniversary of Karelia’s liberation from the Nazis by the Soviet Red Army.


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