Daily Archives: April 9, 2007

The Dead Zone: Annals of Russian Environmental Contamination

The Beeb reports that a BBC team has entered a remote region of Russia normally closed to foreigners that produces almost half the world’s supply of palladium – a precious metal vital for making catalytic converters. But, as the BBC’s Richard Galpin reports, it is accused of being the world’s largest producer of acid rain. Click through to the Beeb link to watch video shot in Norilsk.

It took more than two months for the Russian authorities to grant us permission to travel to the secretive Siberian city of Norilsk. For decades it has been closed to foreigners (only briefly opening up in the late 1990s) because it is deemed to be a strategic region. It was once ringed by silos containing intercontinental ballistic missiles. But nowadays it has something else it wants to hide from the rest of the world – chronic pollution.

Toxic cocktail

From a distance it looks like a front of bad weather moving in and obscuring the otherwise pristine Arctic sky. But drive closer and the source of the long streams of “cloud” flowing over the city and far beyond becomes clear. To blame are the clusters of huge chimneys at three smelting plants which surround Norilsk. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the chimneys pump out a toxic cocktail of pollutants which the company responsible openly admits is mostly sulphur dioxide. Once in the atmosphere this gas turns into acid rain.

The company Norilsk Nickel – currently worth about $34bn (£17bn) – also admits that other pollutants including heavy metals are being pumped out, though in far smaller quantities. “In the summer the winds change and often the gas falls onto the city,” says local cameraman Andrei Razdevilov. “It’s felt by everyone and it becomes difficult to breathe.” Norilsk Nickel, which owns the smelters and all the nearby mines containing the precious metal ore, allowed us into the largest of their smelting plants, which they call “Hope”.

Built in the late 1970s, it is the most modern of the three plants. The oldest dates back to the 1930s, when the metal industry and Norilsk were built from scratch by prison labourers – victims of Stalin’s brutal Gulag. The inner sanctum of “Hope” is a deafening, choking cauldron. Vast furnaces roast the ore extracted from the mines, eventually disgorging streams of red-hot liquid metal into containers that dwarf the workers standing nearby. A rich mix of metals is produced here, including nickel, copper, palladium, platinum, gold and silver. But the ore also contains a large amount of sulphur.

‘Dead zone’

Our guide, acting chief engineer Igor Dmitriev, was candid about the amount of pollution the plant is producing every year “Nine hundred thousand tons of sulphur dioxide is emitted by this plant,” he told me. “That is the amount agreed with the government.” According to figures provided by the company, the total amount of sulphur dioxide produced by all three plants is almost two million tons a year – a figure which has only decreased by about 16% since the last days of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The environmental organisation Greenpeace Russia says the pollution has created a 30km (19 mile) “dead zone” around the city and quotes scientists as saying the acid rain has spread across an area equivalent in size to Germany.

Health fears

We drove to one of the woods just outside Norilsk to see for ourselves what has happened. We soon found many trees which were either dead or dying. According to local residents the evidence is even easier to see later in the year. “Things start to grow green then,” Doctor Svetlana Golubkova told us. “But the gas cloud goes over and they die.” Even more worrying for her is the impact on the health of the population, particularly children. She says she has detected a clear trend. “In the 1960s a lot of people came here and they were all healthy. But now there are very, very few healthy children being born here and that is all because of the environment.” She’s worried about her own teenage daughter, who has eye problems, and wants her to move to a different city.

But for the company Norilsk Nickel, which employs most of the city’s workforce, there is a huge amount of money at stake. It is the world’s largest producer of both nickel and palladium. It made more than $2bn net profit in the first half of last year alone and company officials told us there is enough ore in the mines around Norilsk to keep them in business for at least another 30 years.

Cutting emissions

The deputy general director of Norilsk Nickel, Tav Morgan, told me the company accepted responsibility for what had happened to the forests, but insisted they were taking action to cut the pollution. “For the period up to 2015-2020 we expect to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by approximately two-thirds,” he said. “Looking at the pace we’re resolving these problems you can compare it favourably to other facilities worldwide.” But he later admitted it was hard to guarantee this pace of reduction because he said they were still developing the technology. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace are deeply sceptical. They say the company faces the significant problem of what to do with the huge amounts of sulphur which will remain if it is not burnt off. Transporting it to world markets is difficult because Norilsk is located in such a remote Arctic region. Environmental campaigners are also wary because they say there is a lack of independent scrutiny of the amount of pollution created by the company.

Kasparov with an Apple in his Mouth

Sometimes, people ask La Russophobe why she’s so hard on Russians. Well, here’s why.

Last week was not a good one to be a Garry Kasparov fan.

First, the Moscow News reported on the danger to Kasparov’s life resulting from his opposition to the Kremlin:

Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, now a political opposition leader in Russia, said that his personal safety is more of concern now, although he played down the danger of being poisoned following the murder of dissident Alexander Litvinenko. Kasparov said he never touches the food and drink when he flies on Russian carrier Aeroflot. “I don’t consume any substances there on Aeroflot,” Kasparov told Reuters in an interview in London, where he is promoting a new book “How Life Imitates Chess.” He said he has two bodyguards when in Moscow and four or five armed guards when he travels within Russia. He tries not to take international flights on Aeroflot when he can avoid it. “Does it reduce the risk? No. If the state wants to go after me they will, but what else can I do? I live in peace with myself.”

There was just one small problem: Kasparov chose to make this revelation in connection with a publicity tour for his book “Garry Kasparov: How Life Imitates Chess.”

Here’s what Amazon says about the book:

‘In this book, chess is a teacher, and I aim to show it is a great one.’ – Garry Kasparov. World Chess Champion, Garry Kasparov shares the powerful secrets of strategy he has learned from dominating the world’s most intellectually challenging game for two decades – lessons about mastering the strategic and emotional skills to navigate life’s toughest challenges and maximise success no matter how tough the competition. Drawing on a wealth of revealing and instructive stories, not only from his finest games, but also from a wide-ranging and perceptive knowledge of current affairs, Kasparov reveals the strategic ways of thinking that always give a player – in life as in chess – the edge. With a raconteur’s engaging charm, a great chess strategist takes us inside a brilliant strategic mind. As Sun Tzu distilled the secrets of the art of war and Machiavelli unveiled the lessons to be learned from courtly intrigue, Garry Kasparov – a player whose record is likely never to be rivalled – reveals how and why the game of chess is a fitting and powerful teacher, of how to be prepared for, and how to win in, even the most competitive situations.

In other words, it doesn’t exactly seem to be about the struggle for democracy in Russia, and nobody seems to be saying he intends to use its proceeds to further that purpose. One could suggest that Kasparov’s time might possibly be better spent in other pursuits.

Then, the OntoInfo Blog noticed that Kasparov is a member of something called the “Center for Security Policy.” The group describes itself thusly: “An independent, non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to the security of America and its allies.” Now, not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to keep America and her allies safe but, to put it mildly, this is not going to go over too well with the nationalists in Russia. It’s not exactly going to increase Kasparov’s viability as a presidential candidate, nor contribute to the viability of protest groups he associates with. It’s exactly the kind of thing that Putin’s propaganda machine will use against him.

Is Kasparov another Grigori Yavlinksy (ringleader of the circus known as Yabloko, the “apple” party), someone who will get going when the going gets tough, someone who will disappoint, someone who can’t cut the Russian mustard, someone who’s bound to self-destruct? He’s on the ground at Ground Zero. He’s risking a lot by being there. He’s entitled to admiration and support for doing that, and neither he nor any other opposition figure is getting remotely enough of it from the West. On the other hand, he’s not there all that often and when he is he doesn’t really do or say anything all that memorable.

This is the kind of thing that makes La Russophobe see red. If there is any silver lining here, it is that at least we get to show we are not sycophants of Russian critics or the U.S. This criticism of Kasparov paired with last week’s pummeling of George Bush (both here and on Publius Pundit) ought to show that beyond any question.

Tymoshenko Speaks

Newsweek‘s Anna Nemtsova interviews Ukraine’s Yulia Tymoshenko (pictured above):

NEMSOVA: Is this all about Russia’s influence over Ukraine?

TYMOSHENKO: The president’s decision to call new elections was the only way to save Ukraine from Russia. For a long time now, the Kremlin has refused to allow us to set our own course and done everything it can to keep Ukraine under its control. Ukraine’s dependence on Russian energy supplies has been used very effectively by Moscow to pressure us. And today we are seeing a gangster-like takeover of Ukraine’s state energy company. This is all done in order to control Ukraine. It’s a deliberate policy coordinated between Moscow and our own pro-Moscow politicians.

Do you mean Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych? Is he the Kremlin’s proxy?

Russia has grabbed Yanukovych by the throat. They don’t let him take a step to the left or right without their say-so. Every time he has tried to step away from the path Russia originally drew for him—for example, when he refused to fire the [pro-Western] foreign minister and Defense minister—he immediately feels the Russians’ embrace go freezing cold. They remind him all the time whose son, whose child, he is.

Yet Kiev is full of Yanukovych supporters today.

Indeed. Thirty percent of voters in Ukraine want to return to their Soviet past. So they close their eyes to Yanukovych’s criminal record, to the fact that he came to power with the support of shadowy business clans. In the last election he campaigned on an anti-Western ticket, promising Ukrainians to reconstruct the Soviet Union. But that is impossible. Soon, Yanukovych’s supporters will realize that he cannot deliver on his promises. He will be a naked king.

How do you propose to reduce Russia’s influence?

Before every past election, Ukrainian politicians sought some kind of blessing from outside our country. Later they had to pay back the power they sold their souls to. I want to break that bad habit. I want our politicians to realize that this path has no future, as the so-called support we get from Russia is empty. Once we accept dependence we are unable to make decisions in our own country. I do not want the West to read my words as being unfriendly towards Russia. Rather, I believe that Russia and Ukraine can have a balanced relationship. But I will never support the scenario in which Russia constantly plays the role of a dominating power.

You’ve criticized President Viktor Yushchenko in the past for “betraying the democratic principles of the Orange Revolution.” Are you really ready to put your quarrels aside?

Yushchenko is not a weak politician any longer. He demonstrated enormous political courage by dissolving the Parliament. Like any other politician, Yushchenko made many mistakes. But I am convinced that through his last decision he corrected most of them.

Many powerful businessmen wield political clout in Ukraine. How will you tackle them?

Pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians who quote Russian ideas and share Russian ambitions sold out to big businessmen. Old-guard politicians like them came to power just to grab as much property as they could. These politicians just promise everybody whatever they want in order to get into power. That’s the opposite of what a politician should do—which is think strategically for the best interests of his country.

The United States has plans to deploy missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. How will this affect the region’s politics?

Both Poland and the Czech Republic have their own sovereign right to either agree or disagree with the American idea to install missiles in their countries. As far as I know, there is no talk of American systems being installed in Ukraine.

Who is winning the battle for Ukraine’s hearts and minds?

Ukraine should not be a battlefield between the West and Russia. We can find common language with both. Once we win and get power, we’ll find the way to defend both Russian and Western interests in Ukraine. Both the West and Russia should accept that the moment for independent politicians in Ukraine has arrived. We will be devoted only to our own people.

Annals of Neo-Soviet Propaganda

It’s difficult to comprehend the extent to which Russians, just like their Soviet predecessors, continue to be victimized by propaganda. When the Kremlin controls every TV broadcast, it can tell Russians that Europe loves them and hates America, and they will believe it. Thus, Kommersant was able to report that “24 percent of Russians think that they live in the European Union, according to a recent opinion poll. 28 percent found it difficult to answer this question while 48 percent know that Russia is not an EU member.” Russians have no earthly idea how Europeans feel about Russian behavior in Chechnya or Russia’s aggressive weaponization of energy. They live in a world of propaganda illusions.

This kind of ignorance brought the USSR to its knees, and it will do the same to Russia.

Annals of Russian Tennis

If La Russophobe were to tell you, dear reader, that over the weekend a highly-ranked Russian female tennis player (world #7 Nadia Petrova, born and resident in Moscow, wearing a particularly ridiculous white visor with a huge Russian flag embazoned on it, the first such conspicuous display of nationalism on a tour tennis court LR can remember) had the opportunity to play for a WTA tour title (in Amelia Island, Florida), where she was the #1 seed, against a much lower-ranked Frenchwoman (world #20 Tatiana Golovin) who lives in Miami (where she learned her game — and who, interestingly, was also born in Moscow, from where she defected) and who had never before won a tour event, what would you say the result probably was?

If you predicted that Petrova (pictured above in all her patriotic glory, before the drubbing) would humiliate herself, winning only three of 15 games played and getting blown off the court in one hour and fifteen minutes, you’d be right.

April 8, 2007 — Contents


(1) The Sunday Photos Part I

(2) The Sunday Photos Part II

(3) The Sunday Funnies

(4) Mad Max: Beyond Putindome

(5) Happy Easter!