ANALYSIS: Russia’s drive though attendance of Rio+20 brings obscured facts and confusing national goals

Publish date: June 25, 2012

RIO DI JANIERO –The near impossibility of putting a finger on Russia’s position at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, which wrapped up with world leaders’ speeches on Friday, finally became clear as Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his negotiation team took the dais: they didn’t really have much to say.

Despite bringing along a team of several dozen, including President Vladimir Putin’s chief climate advisor Alexander Bedritsky, the Russian negotiating position was focused less on what it can do on an international scale, and more on a laundry list of achievements it has made domestically in the way of sustainable development – which rang off key when balanced with the facts.

The importance of Russia’s contribution to the event was vastly undermined when it was announced last Tuesday that Putin would not attend – as he had earlier promised Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff ­­– and sent Medvedev instead.

But what the Russian delegation lacked in substance it tried to make up for in number: Russia’s Audit Chamber alone sent 10 representatives. Various ministries, such as the Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology and the Ministry of International Affairs sent more.

Medvedev steered clear of speaking with the press and with non-governmental organizations, making his appearance before the assembled leaders, and leaving almost as soon as he was done, along with his retinue, including Renat Gizatullin, the deputy minister for natural resources and ecology.

Medvedev’s appearance found little resonance with those of other leaders. Where European leader were troubled by questions of climate change and poverty elimination in Asia and Africa, and the transfer of green technologies, Medvedev spoke mainly of Russia itself and its accomplishments in the sphere of sustainable development.

Only toward the end of his 10-minute speech did Medvedev make explicit reference to international cooperation on the issues he discussed, wrapping up his remarks by saying: “We can make this world a friendlier, safer and more comfortable place for the current and future generations only if we work together.”

The meat of Medvedev’s speech

Russia’s biggest contribution to sustainable development, said Medvedev, was poverty eradication. Since the 1990s, he said, Russian poverty has declined by 60 percent. He also cited improved medical care and access to it, resulting in infant mortality rates that are two times below those seen in the 1990s, according to the official transcript of his speech.

Russia is also undertaking gargantuan efforts against a new global recession by making contributions to the International Monetary Fund and the development and by creating jobs.

Crude sustainable development

But the true source of Russia’s current wealth, which was not mentioned in Medvedev’s speech, has been the spike in oil prices, which rose during Putin’s first tenure as president from about $15 per barrel to $120 a barrel, filling state coffers.

This quite accidental turn of events had nothing to do with Putin or Medvedev’s economic planning – but oil rich Russia’s plans for sustainable development depend nearly entirely on its fortunes – or lack thereof – of the petroleum market.

It is disingenuous, therefore, for the government to take any credit for well planned development.

Few words about the home front

Yet back at home, the federal government continually gives a pass to its most destructive industries, as witness the petroleum industry. Medvedev’s speech included nothing about the country’s weak and changeable environmental legislation, nothing about nuclear and industrial pollution, and certainly nothing about the government’s seeming phobia of adopting legislation favorable for and implementing alternative energy solutions.

Nuclear safety was a primary item that was left swept under the rug.

As recently revealed, the Mayak Chemical Combine, Russia’s only active spent nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, continues to dump radioactive waste into nearby rivers and will continue to do so until at least 2018. Environmentalists are suing the government in the European Court of Human Rights in order to have these rivers covered over by cement, a la Chernobyl. Meanwhile nearby residents continue to swim and fish in the waterways, and grazing cattle drink from it, exposing much of the food chain to radiological perils, and causing generations of cancer and birth defects in humans.

Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation had continually denied that Mayak is a hazard, claiming it adheres to modern standards and norms.

Likewise, the Kola Peninsula smelting plants of the national Norilsk Nickel corporation continue to belch sulfur dioxide into the air, affecting not only Russia but neighboring states like Norway.

Kyoto targets

Medvedev repeated a promise made at the 15th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP 15) in Copenhagen in 2009 that by 2020 Russia will post a 25 percent reduction in its emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. The protocol expires this year.

“I would like to reaffirm that greenhouse gas emissions in Russia will be cut by 25 percent by 2020 relative to 1990,” Medvedev said. “We are prepared to become part of a global agreement on this issue with ‘global’ being the operative word here, since we want all countries to participate, not just several leading economies.”

This was a nod to a deal negotiated at COP 18 last December in Durban, South Africa where it was agreed that talks on a new legal deal to replace Kyoto and covering all countries will begin next year come into effect by 2020.

Of all nations that signed the Kyoto protocol, Russia has weighed in with the biggest cuts – a total of 34 percent – under its 1990 emissions due largely to industrial collapse following the fall of the Soviet Union.

At first blush, that sounds like a huge environmental feat for the nation not distinguished for ecological restraint. At present, Russia is, in fact, the world’s third largest emitter after China and the United States.

But at second glance, the arithmetic shows Russia is actually proposing an increase in emissions by as much as 9 to 14 percent. Though Russia’s emissions may be down by 34 percent at Kyoto’s finishing line, they have risen an extraordinary 15 percent since 1998 under Putin’s economic and industrial upswing during the early 2000s.  

Blame the Soviet Union

Medvedev’s discussion of Russia’s current environmental problems, however, did not include a discussion of this. While acknowledging that Russia’s environment needs improvement especially in the area of waste disposal, he said that “the legacy of the so-called Soviet period is very large.”

It is worthy of criticism– especially in light of first Putin era’s nuclear and oil boom – that Medvedev would lay Russia’s sins of waste on the doorstep of the past. After all, it was during this era that billions of dollars were pouring into Russia via US government programs and agreements with other countries to tackle issues of nuclear waste, due in large part to the outcry of environmental organizations.

Compliment – inside an insult – to Russia’s environmentalists

But Medvedev inserted a slight snub – as well as a backhanded compliment ­– to the environmental community, saying in his speech : “Of course, it’s not always easy to work with them: environmental organizations are complex partners, but that’s precisely why the state should support them.”

However, whether such support will ever materialize is unlikely, especially under the rule of Putin, whose relationship to NGOs of all stripes, and environmental ones in particular, remains one of almost total repression. It was therefore left to Medvedev, whose lip service to the civil society sector while he was president always met with international approval ­– to disguise the truth.

Dmitry Shevchenko contributed to this report from Rio di Janeiro

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