Medvedev Bemoans Pollution

President Vladimir Putin and his likely successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, on Wednesday called for sweeping environmental improvements, saying cleaning up Soviet-era pollution and reducing industrial waste were crucial for the country's economy and public health.

The abrupt focus on a major problem that has received little Kremlin attention adds to an ambitious agenda being set by Putin and his protege Medvedev, who are expected to govern as a team after Putin's term ends in May.

At a Kremlin meeting of the Security Council, both said Russia's remarkable economic boom was coming at the expense of the environment and that the country would not be competitive without a cleanup.

"Working to protect nature must become the systematic, daily duty of state authorities at all levels," Putin said, adding that the government and industrial enterprises must ensure that "economic growth is based on high environmental standards."

Speaking after Putin to reporters, Medvedev said penalties for polluters must be stiffened and that laws aimed at encouraging environmental protection should be introduced this year.

"In the coming years, the quality of the environment will become one of the key factors in the competitiveness of the country," he said.

On Wednesday, Medvedev said environmental legislation was inadequate and that punishments were too soft.

"Enterprise managers very calmly go about violating environmental legislation," he said.

Stiffer penalties are one way to encourage enterprises to clean up their production, Medvedev said.

He also said Russia must deal with the deadly legacy of the Soviet era, when the environment was sacrificed to the government's production goals -- a problem that Kremlin critics say has been repeated under Putin.

Russian environmental group Ecodefense said the country's problems "have been created by the state's pursuit of economic growth at any cost ... using old and ecologically dangerous technology."