Select Committee on European Communities Thirty-Third Report


The Environment of Russia and the New Independent States



  184.    The quality of the environment of the former Soviet Union, and indeed that of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEECs) currently in a state of transition, is of immense significance to the rest of the world. The Russian Federation alone accounts for about 15 per cent of the world's land mass; with the other New Independent States (NIS) and CEECs in transition the percentage is nearer 20. On the one hand there is a legacy of appalling environmental degradation and pollution from misconceived and poorly managed industrial activity, which have created serious public health problems; on the other hand there are vast tracts of virgin territory, particularly in Russia, which are rich in wildlife and other natural resources but in many cases remain vulnerable to unsustainable exploitation through lack of enforcement of environmental legislation.

  185.    There have been some positive developments. For example, in the Russian Federation, the Sakha Republic (Yakutia, Central Siberia) recently agreed to protect 70 million hectares of pristine boreal forest—an area roughly twice the size of Germany and representing more than two per cent of the world's entire forest area; and the Komi Republic (Central Urals) has announced measures to protect one of the largest surviving areas of untouched woodland in Europe—the forests of Pechora-Ilych—representing 16 per cent of the territory of the Republic (which is about the size of the Netherlands). Both these initiatives were in response to the World Wide Fund for Nature's "Forests for Life" campaign.[60] According to WWF, Central and Eastern Europe (including Russia) is now the region of the world where the opportunities for conservation are greater than anywhere else. "The governments' readiness to set aside lands for sustainable use and for national parks is much greater there than in the West. There's much more openness there to all these problems."[61]

  186.    Concern for the environment is not only central to the development of democracy and civil society and to the protection of the consumer; it is also vital to successful economic transformation. But in the short term the transition from command to market economies in the NIS is a painful process: the citizen has more immediate things to worry about—not least the current financial crisis and problems of food distribution—than far-away forests in Siberia; even the need to tackle the fumes from the local factory and their associated health hazards may be seen as a lower priority than the sheer struggle of getting by from one day to the next. The environment, however, presents a long-term challenge; it requires sustained effort and a determination to meet the challenge, whatever the immediate distractions.

  187.    It is in everyone's interest that the present crisis in the Russian economy, with its repercussions in the rest of the NIS, should not blow the transition process off course. We are concerned at suggestions that bilateral and multilateral assistance to the NIS should be slowed or even halted. The European Union's Tacis programme, whatever the criticisms of its past record or current performance (many of which we address in this Report), has been plainly beneficial, in particular by helping to build trust and mutual respect between Western Europe and the NIS. Eight years after their unique experience of 70 years of Soviet rule and the command economy came to an end, the NIS even today remain to a large extent in an institutional and social straitjacket, from which it is not proving easy for them to break free. One example of this constraint is the persistence of a managerial class which, although highly qualified technically, has yet to come to terms with taking responsibility as opposed to following orders. One of the priorities for Tacis should be to help with the "management of change" in this area.

  188.    Tacis has done much—and has the potential to do much more—to stimulate awareness and the capacity to be involved in a host of social and environmental issues at the grass roots level. In the environment field in particular we see the "empowerment" of non-governmental organisations as one of the most important tasks for Tacis. We also attach great importance to NIS participation in the "Environment for Europe" programme, and look forward to an enhanced supporting role for the European Environment Agency, embracing NIS as well as CEECs.

  189.    We strongly endorse the new emphasis in Tacis on delivering technical assistance through partnership. True partnership requires an understanding and willingness to adapt to different cultures, whether as donor or recipient. We recognise that conditions in the NIS present particular problems for the European Commission—in particular an imperfectly developed rule of law and difficulties of enforcement, unresolved questions about ownership of land, uncollected taxes and other charges, corruption and organised crime, persistence of Soviet-style bureaucracy and the dead hand of the former nomenklatura. Some of these are, of course, symptoms of the "grey economy" and the "ability to improvise and adapt", as Professor Holman has put it (p 98), which have enabled generations of Russians and their fellow citizens in neighbouring territories to survive hardships and arbitrary rule from Tsarist times. We also accept that there are legitimate concerns (themselves the cause of complaints about "Brussels bureaucracy") about safeguarding Members States' taxpayers' money. Obviously these concerns must be addressed. But we see a need for more courage on the part of the Commission and Member States and a willingness to take some risks, especially when spread over the smaller "people to people" Tacis programmes: the longer term aims of Tacis and other aid programmes are unlikely to be achieved in a climate of total risk-aversion.

  190.    Although wider questions about the organisation and methods of delivering Community aid and technical assistance to third countries were outside the scope of the enquiry, it may be timely for the Community to review whether present arrangements strike the right balance between Member States' natural concern (and that of the Court of Auditors) for financial propriety and value for money, and the efficient handling of what is largely a technical and managerial process. We were struck by the degree of detailed scrutiny of individual programmes and project proposals (much of it amounting to second-guessing of the Commission) which we were told Member States' representatives insist on at meetings of the Council Tacis Committee. Some of us feel that an arm's-length EU development agency, modelled on the agencies in Sweden and Canada, might be a more effective vehicle for managing Community aid programmes than the present arrangements in DG 1A, even with the improvements promised with the setting up of the new Common Service Directorate.

  191.    On the environment specifically, we saw encouraging signs, from the evidence and from conversations with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), government representatives and locally based Tacis staff during the visits to Ukraine and Russia, that despite all the present difficulties there is genuine popular and official concern to tackle the legacy of environmental neglect and to safeguard the abundant resources that remain. For example, we were impressed by the Ukrainian Government's plans for maintaining biodiversity, by the technical competence of the management team of the St Petersburg water undertaking and their determination to improve standards (if only their funding problems could be resolved), and by the activities of the Baltic Fund for Nature (based at St Petersburg State University) in promoting environmental conservation in the area. The Russians and their NIS neighbours are, of course, not alone in their love of nature, the simplicity of country life, and the peace and solitude to be found in vast forests and open spaces. With the rich natural heritage and traditions of old Russia that have survived the Soviet period—however much they may appear to be pushed aside by current economic concerns—many NIS countries have at least the potential, and in the long run could well have the incentive, to develop policies for environmental protection of a level approaching that of Scandinavia.


  192.    We turn now to specific issues arising from the enquiry, with conclusions and recommendations. Our recommendations (in bold type) are for the most part addressed in the first instance to the Commission, but they are also relevant to the United Kingdom Government's and other Member States' consideration of future policy for Tacis and the revision of the 1996 Regulation when the Commission's proposals come forward to the Council. For readers who find a list convenient, we have brought together the recommendations in Appendix 5. We must, however, emphasise that the recommendations are inseparable from the paragraphs which precede them in this Part of the Report, as well as the general observations in paragraphs 184-91; in no sense should they be regarded as an "executive summary".

The profile of the environment in the NIS
Environmental priorities, as perceived by Russian respondents to a survey by the Conservation Foundation:[62]

     developing adequate institutional structures and legislation

     establishing the safety of the country's nuclear power stations

     identifying pollution hot-spots and investing in their elimination

     promoting environmentally responsible mining practices

     improving water treatment processes

     giving priority to energy-efficient plant

     adopting a holistic, whole-basin approach to river management

     promoting environmental education and courses on environmental awareness

     promoting sustainable development and use of natural resources

     maintaining biodiversity, including updating information on "red data" species[63]

  193.    One of the central problems of the former USSR was high consumption of resources coupled with low technological efficiency. As a result, large areas of Russia and Ukraine are blighted by industrial, chemical and radioactive waste, causing grave pollution of air, water and soil. The potential costs of clean-up and land restoration are unprecedented. Another key difficulty is the ability of the authorities to protect some of the most important ecological areas in the world. As we have seen, there are some welcome exceptions; but too much of the Russian Federation (although ostensibly having good environmental legislation in place) is at risk for lack of resources for implementation and enforcement. There is little evidence that agricultural policies are taking environment in to account. There have been some criticisms, e.g. by the Moscow-based NGO Eco-Accord (Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development), that linkages between Tacis programmes and national environmental policies and priorities are not properly agreed or articulated.[64] Representatives of leading NGOs, including former advisers to Presidents Gorbachov and Yeltsin, have deplored the downgrading in 1996 of the Russian Federal Environment Ministry to the status of a State Committee. (paragraphs 118-20)

  194.    Tacis should always fully demonstrate the public and clearly-agreed linkages between individual national environmental policies and Tacis policy and environmental programmes. NGOs can play a key role as a spur to action.

The question of culture

"The activity of international organisations such as the World Bank and Tacis cannot be described as successful. The reason for their failures is a lack of thorough understanding of the situation in Russia and a lack of professionalism on the part of their Russian counterpart organisations." (Professor Sergei Baronovsky, Russian Academy of Natural Sciences and Executive Director, Russian Green Cross)[65]

"Russia is an extremely special place, and many of the solutions we have, whilst fundamentally useful, are not necessarily perfectly adapted for the Russian cultural, social and socio-economic scene." (Representative of an international financial institution)[66]

"If one assume(s) that they want to get to being western in total, then that may not be a particularly good starting point. They may wish to take certain things from the West but still keep certain things of their own. One very much has not to impose a solution which happens to be right for this country and think it is right for them." (Mr Bob Barker, Environmental Protection Manager, NE Region, Environment Agency (England and Wales))[67]

  195.    The evidence to this enquiry has consistently brought out the point that effective dialogue and working with the NIS is not simply a question of language and possessing the relevant knowledge to hand on. It requires a willingness and ability to understand the real differences in culture which exist between the NIS and the West. At a macro level it may still be appropriate to view these differences as part of the cultural polarisation that developed during the long stand-off between the USSR and the West; and the dominant position of the Russian Federation (if only in terms of sheer size) means that generalisations about "Russian" culture and society persist. But it must be recognised that out of "Russia" has emerged a rich pattern of cultures, which is becoming increasingly diverse as the new states assert their true independence from the ancien régime. It becomes even more important, as the NIS come out of the melting pot that was the USSR (and the Russian Empire before it), that Western donors and advisers acquire a thorough understanding of the cultural environment in which they seek to work. (paragraphs 121-23)

  196.    Understanding differences of culture is an essential part of effective delivery of development assistance, as it is of international relations generally. Organisations seeking to engage with the New Independent States, particularly those in Europe, must beware of superficial similarities which can, in fact, be deceptive.

Co­ordination of technical assistance programmes

"Lack of co­ordination (is) one of the biggest problems with donor agencies, including the individual EU countries and Tacis and the United States....One colleague said that very often they do the same things with the same people and making the same mistakes." (Dr James Hindson, Field Studies Council)[68]

"There is still a tendency for the IFIs, in particular the World Bank, to re-do appraisals to their own satisfaction. At best this duplicates work already done by other donors, Tacis included. Closer and better strategic co­ordination should reduce this problem and improve synergy." (Government of Ukraine)[69]

  197.    A frequent theme in the evidence has been the need to develop closer linkages between the Tacis programme, International Financial Institutions, and other bilateral or multilateral technical assistance programmes on the regional and world scale. As all the agencies involved are concerned with the regional and economic development of the European areas in which they are operating, such closer co-operation needs to be achieved as rapidly as possible. A co­ordinating mechanism already exists through the Environmental Action Programme Task Force and the Project Preparation Committee, for which the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) provide the secretariats respectively; it is, however, suggested that more could be done to co­ordinate Tacis activities with those of other donors.[70] The new Common Service Directorate for management of all external EU external assistance could provide an impetus to greater progress in this direction, though it is not yet clear how the Directorate will actually work. (paragraphs 155-57)

  198.    We consider that Tacis should urgently seek much closer co­operation and co­ordination of policy and activity with other appropriate technical assistance programmes, including the activities and lending policies of International Financial Institutions. It should in particular build on the mechanisms provided in the Environmental Action Programme Task Force and the Project Preparation Committee. This would be consistent with the Declaration of European Environment Ministers meeting in Århus, Denmark, in June 1998.

Transparency, accessibility and user-friendliness
"Tacis has a terrible reputation among the people with whom I work. It is very slow and bureaucratic. People do not answer letters and it is difficult to telephone people. It is slow to make decisions. Timescales lapse by three, four, five, six or nine months. That puts off a lot of NGOs who are even thinking about using the opportunities that Tacis can provide." (Dr James Hindson, Field Studies Council)[71]

"I felt ill when I saw the (application) form to start with, frankly, but then I was cheered with the thought that people think the EU is a soft touch, and it certainly is not as far as this is have got to produce reams of documents to get the money from them." (Mr Graham Jeffs, Chief Executive, Mendip District Council, England)[72]

  199.    Much of the evidence has stressed that both potential and actual partners in Russia and Ukraine, and also consultants and others from the EU area, have found Tacis procedures and documentation difficult to understand and follow. For example, it was pointed out to us how much simpler (compared with Tacis) were the application forms for grants under the UK National Lottery Charities Board International Grants Fund. Part of this problem is due to the fact that the concept of tendering is still alien to much of post-Soviet society, but even among Western experts it is usually only the larger firms that have the resources and staying power to engage with the Brussels bureaucracy. The other aspect to this is that NGOs and citizens' groups in the NIS feel frustrated over the lack of opportunities to engage in dialogue with EU and national authorities about the design and aims of Tacis activities, even when they do not aspire to being partners in particular projects. We feel that the Commission should put considerable effort into ensuring that Tacis operations, programmes and personnel are more accessible, transparent and user-friendly to all concerned, and not least to smaller organisations and institutions, including NGOs. Since Tacis claims to welcome interest, bids and applications from an ever-increasing range of organisations, greater transparency will be essential if potential applicants are not to be discouraged by perceived complexities, difficulties or sparse information. (paragraphs 124, 166-67)

  200.    We feel that the European Commission should demonstrate much greater transparency and easier accessibility in Tacis programmes and processes in order to encourage a wider range of would-be applicants and tenderers. More needs to be done to make Tacis responsive to the needs of civil, rather than government, stakeholders at the local and national level. At the level of the European Union, there should be processes of consultation that allow full participation by national and international NGOs. The Commission and all States Parties to the Århus Convention of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe must bear in mind that the principles of public access to environmental information and rights of participation apply just as much to the Tacis Programme as they do in other areas of environmental policy.

60   WWF-International press releases. Back

61   Dr Hartmut Jungius, Director, Eastern Europe/Central Asia, WWF-International, quoted in Conservation Foundation, op cit (see paragraph 117). Back

62   Conservation Foundation, op citBack

63   The "Red (data) Book" is a catalogue published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), listing species which are rare or in danger of becoming extinct, globally or nationally. Back

64   Comment by Olga Ponizova, Executive Director, to members of Sub-Committee C visiting Moscow. Back

65   Quoted in Conservation Foundation, op citBack

66   ibidBack

67   Evidence, Q 332. Back

68   Evidence, Q 270. Back

69   Evidence, p 100. Back

70   The European Court of Auditors, in its Annual Report for 1997 (see footnote to paragraph 3) has stressed this point too, at paragraph 5.27. Back

71   Evidence, Q 277. Back

72   Evidence, Q 47. Back

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