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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Committee's Junking Has Greens Fuming

In what environmentalists called "a step away from the civilized world," President Vladimir Putin last week abolished the federal committee that monitored most of the country's environmental issues.

Last Wednesday, Putin signed a decree abolishing the State Committee for the Environment, the main government body responsible for monitoring and analyzing all facets of the environment except those related to nuclear issues. According to the decree, the committee's monitoring functions will be transferred to the Natural Resources Ministry.

In an interview Monday, committee head Viktor Danilov-Danilyan called the decree "absurd."

"Environmental testing and environmental control must be carried out by an independent body. Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Ministry itself exerts a major negative impact on the environment, and all of its numerous projects are objects of [our] monitoring," Danilov-Danilyan said.

"The ministry ... will certainly kill all environmental activities," he said, adding that if the ministry is entrusted with ecological control, "the environmental activities will begin to degrade rapidly."

According to the decree, the committee's specialists will not be automatically transferred to the ministry, and it is unclear how the ministry will fulfill its new monitoring duties. Abolishing the committee, however, is a lengthy process that may take up to three months, Danilov-Danilyan said, adding that he hoped the country's green lobby would put enough pressure on the government to result in a reversal of the decision to liquidate the committee - which he said should be deemed a government "mistake."

Environmentalists have repeatedly criticized Danilov-Danilyan for his halfway policies. Last fall, for example, the environmental chief publicly supported a project to import spent nuclear fuel to Russia for long-term storage, calling the plan profitable. The project is lobbied by the Nuclear Ministry and is sharply criticized by both Russian and international activists.

On Monday, however, independent environmentalists unanimously supported Danilov-Danilyan, and called the decree a conscious step by a government that does not care about the environmental situation in the country.

"Even the presence of a shabby State Committee for the Environment is better than no environmental monitoring body whatsoever," said Greenpeace Russia spokesman Alexander Shuvalov.

In a news release distributed last week, Greenpeace Russia called the liquidation of the committee "a step away from the civilized world."

"From now on, Russia is absolutely helpless against the army of industrial and commercial moguls who shamelessly steal its natural resources," the news release said.

"This [liquidation] is a step towards de-environmentalization of the state," said Vladimir Slivyak, coordinator of nuclear programs for the Moscow-based Ecodefense group.

"Maybe, the next to go will be the State Nuclear Inspection Agency [or Gosatomnadzor]," a body that monitors and analyzes all civilian nuclear facilities in the country, Slivyak said.

Alexander Nikitin, the renowned environmental activist who heads the Russian branch of the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, said the committee was eliminated because it was "an inconvenient body."

"If the government had a chance to abolish the rest of the green organizations, it would have done exactly that," Nikitin said.

Nikitin spent over 10 months in a Federal Security Service jail and four years under constant surveillance on charges of high treason and espionage for co-authoring a report with Bellona on the environmental hazards posed by the Northern Fleet. A recipient of several international awards for his environmental activities, Nikitin was finally acquitted by the Supreme Court last month.

While Russia has drawn international criticism for punishing its environmental activists, it pays remarkably little attention to ecological problems. According to Danilov-Danilyan, in 1999, the country allocated only 0.2 percent of its budget to support environmental work.

At the same time, the environmental chief said earlier this year that 61 million Russians - almost half of the country's population - live under environmentally dangerous conditions, noting, for instance, that the air in 120 cities is five times more toxic than acceptable levels.