Environmental Damage in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe

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Environmental Damage in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe


By: Chris Niedenthal

Date: March 21, 1992

Source: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

About the Photographer: This photograph was taken on the Romanian shore of the Danube River in the town Giurgiu, which contains Romania's largest shipyard. Air pollution and abuse of the river are rife here, as along much of the Danube's course through Eastern Europe.


The photograph gives a glimpse of some of the disastrous conditions that industry has created along the shores of the Danube River. The Danube, which begins in Germany, flows eastward, and empties into the Black Sea, is the second longest river in Europe. Its drainage basin includes much of Eastern Europe; parts of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Moldova, Poland, Switzerland, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia; most of Austria, Croatia, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia; and all of Hungary.

Until the breakup of the Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR) in 1991, control of the Danube's basin was divided between deeply hostile military-political blocks, namely the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO, led by the United States) and the USSR; cooperation for environmental quality was a low priority for both powers. Today, several of the individual states flanking the Danube, such as Romania and Bulgaria, are still preoccupied by national feuds. Although most of the Danube states joined in the early 1990s to establish an integrated program for the control of water quality throughout the Danube's basin, severe pollution and other problems persist along the river. Particularly troubled are the parts of the river running through states that were part of the USSR until 1991.

Overuse and pollution feed the Danube with raw sewage, agricultural chemicals, factory waste, and bilge oil flushed by shipping. Mining and manufacturing are the biggest polluters: in 2000, for example, a tailings lagoon at a Hungarian mine ruptured, spilling hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of water heavily laced with cyanide and heavy metals into the Tisza river, a tributary of the Danube. Hundreds of tons of dead fish had to be removed from the river using power equipment. Because of water pollution, the Danube's fishing industry is essentially dead. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 clogged the Danube with rubble from destroyed bridges and released chemical spills from bombed factories near the river. Rivers are among the most vulnerable of all ecological systems, second perhaps only to landlocked lakes like the Aral Sea (completely destroyed by Soviet-era civil engineering projects that have starved the great lake of water): both rivers and lakes eventually receive all toxins that are added to water in their watershed, no matter how distant.



See primary source image.


The Soviet Union controlled Russia, most of Eastern Europe, and much of Central Asia from 1922 to 1991. Officially socialist, the USSR considered economic development and military power top priorities: protection of the environment was a secondary concern at best. In fact, Soviet ideology proclaimed that socialism (as practiced by the USSR) was inherently better for the environment than western-style capitalism, so any complaints about the environment could only reflect disloyalty. Without even the slight restraints applied by citizen activism in democratic Western countries, Soviet military and industrial activities severely damaged the environment. Chemical and radioactive wastes were carelessly dumped or stored; rivers were diverted without regard to the consequences; air pollution went unchecked. When the power structure of the USSR began to weaken in the late 1980s, popular dissatisfaction with the environmental damage caused by the existing regime was one of the factors helping to bring about its final breakup. Politicians agitating for secession from the USSR cited its neglect of the environment as one reason for becoming nationally independent.

Unfortunately, little changed regarding environmental protection after 1991. Economic "reform" in former countries of the Soviet Union has tended strongly toward an extreme free-market ideology that affirms the power of unrestrained profit-making to produce the maximum good—including environmental good—for the maximum number. As one Russian citizen put it shortly after the breakup of the USSR, "We have traded great god Marx for great god Market." Unregulated industry tends to treat the environment as external to calculations of cost and benefit, except insofar as it can supply raw material or act as a sump for waste. In the absence of appropriate legal feedbacks, treating or minimizing waste, whether polluted water or flue gasses or any other type, is always an accounting loss for the polluting enterprise (at least in the short term). In practice, therefore, the breakup of the Soviet Union has not resulted in striking improvements in pollution.


Web sites

"Environmental degradation in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia: past roots, present transition and future hopes." Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. 〈http://www.ceu.hu/envsci/aleg/research/EnvDegradationEastEurope090903.pdf〉 (accessed February 17, 2006).

"The Environmental Program for the Danube River." October 2002. 〈http://www.transboundarywaters.orst.edu/projects/casestudies/danube.html〉 (accessed February 17, 2006).

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