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Big Fix?

Environmental policy in Eastern EuropeŚMatt Auer wouldn't let this story die

Matthew Auer remembers the pictures, how they were everywhere at first, and then nowhere.

“In the early 1990s,” recalls Auer, “there were these photos on the front page of the Boston Globe: Polish kids in hospital beds fighting for every breath. And on the cover of National Geographic, in the town of Copsa Mica where there’s a carbon black factory: pictures of these little boys covered head to toe in soot. And then the stories just stopped coming.”

Yesterday’s news, as Elvis Costello dryly observed, is tomorrow’s fish-and-chips paper. But when news of environmental policy in Central and Eastern Europe receded from public view, Auer decided it was time for serious follow up. Was the region still filthy with pollution? Which countries were leading the way in environmental change and which were lagging behind?

The answers, by turns disheartening and hopeful, are the basis of Auer’s edited volume, Restoring Cursed Earth: Appraising Environmental Policy Reforms in Eastern Europe and Russia (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), which focuses on five post-Soviet era nations—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Estonia, and Russia.

others Auer’s interest in the region first stirred when he served as a Presidential Management Intern at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). One of his first assignments was in Eastern Europe, where he developed environmental aid programs for Poland and Estonia.

“Before the Berlin Wall fell, we’d heard rumors that the environment was badly damaged. Now the doors were open and we could go in and see for ourselves.

“Ironically, we observed a number of largely untrammeled areas, including coastal zones and forests that were de facto ‘preserves’ because the military forbade ordinary people from venturing there.

“But there was also serious environmental decay, especially in industrialized zones. There were parts of Communist-era Poland, the Baltic States, and Russia that I’d liken to a hacking cough.” As Auer put it in the introduction to his book, the Iron Curtain was gone, but a grimy curtain still separated East from West.

Among the most damaged areas was Upper Silesia. This region of southwestern Poland “had become a dense footprint of dirty industries,” Auer says, polluted by coalmining, steel production, smelting, and heavy chemicals. It was a region where birth defects and mental retardation were much more common than in the rest of Poland. Cancer incidences were high among children, as were lead poisoning and respiratory disorders. “They had no stack emissions controls so there were all kinds of nasty poisons pouring out of those smokestacks. Unhealthy levels of toxins, including heavy metals, were in the air, the water, the crops.”

As democracy took root, so did environmental reforms, with financial help from USAID, the World Bank, and, especially, the European Union. But as excitement over Communism’s collapse subsided and post-Soviet bloc nations began standing on their own wobbly legs, attention and resources shifted to other regions of the world. For instance, “USAID got out of that business because others, namely the EU, were emerging as the region’s saviors,” explains Auer. “They could exit gracefully and let Brussels take care of cleaning up Eastern Europe. They also recognized that eastern European countries would listen to Brussels if they wanted to join the EU.”

Internally, citizens, too, shifted their attention elsewhere. Now that it was safe to complain, they no longer used the environment as a platform for protest. “In the late Communist era, you saw a lot of ordinary citizens speaking out against despoliation of the environment because it was one of the few grievances that people could safely air. If you did it discreetly without pointing fingers, you could complain about pollution or habitat loss without getting thrown in jail. So what you had was a lot of displaced rage. People were really angry about living in a police state, about political persecution, and being deprived of freedom. But they couldn’t complain about that, of course. So they complained about the environment.”

As a result, environmentalists of Central and Eastern Europe were actually in the vanguard in bloodless revolutions against Communism.

Once Communism collapsed, however, the environment ebbed as a public concern. “Economies are unraveling and people are now worrying about bread-and-butter issues. How am I going to put food on the table? Will I keep my job? Russian-speaking citizens are wondering if they’ll be deported to Russia. In extreme cases, they are not complaining about polluted water because they are afraid water services will be shut off.”

With attention from within and without focused elsewhere, Auer knew it was time to take up the issue again. “There had been some scholarly interest in whether Central and Eastern Europe would fit in with the European Union, but there wasn’t a whole lot of interest in asking that larger question: Was the EU model a sturdy enough foundation for sustainable development in the first place? And in addition to this broad question, we wanted a rather forensic level of detail as to the causes and consequences of post-Communist environmental reforms.”

Among Auer’s and his colleagues’ findings:

  • Industrial pollution from smokestacks declined during the 1990s and early 2000s in some CEE countries. The bad news? These environmental gains were partly negated by surging emissions from other sources like cars and trucks. These trends were especially pronounced in major cities like Prague and Budapest.
  • The emergence of new institutions for environmental good is accompanied by old institutions for environmental bad. Late into the 1990s, high- and mid-level forestry officials in Romania took bribes, rigged timber auctions, misappropriated public funds, and engaged in other corrupt acts—habits formed in the Communist era when graft was a survival strategy.
  • Estonia is one of Central and Eastern Europe’s unheralded environmental success stories. By attracting copious aid, by reforming its laws, and by dint of its close cultural and commercial connections to Finland, it reined in pollution emissions in the 1990s and made progress cleaning up grievously polluted industrial and ex-military sites.
  • Environmental activism in Russia has all but disappeared. The fact that Vladimir Putin’s policies aren’t friendly to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is only part of the story. NGOs in Russia have failed to create robust organizations and rely too heavily on the West for cash. More broadly, there is a dearth of trust in Russian society, precluding the development of a vigorous civil society.

Auer is on to other projects now, among them, working with the U.S. Forest Service on negotiation strategies for upcoming multilateral talks on global forest management. He moves into this new project with lessons learned from his last one. “In both cases, the rule of law, foreign aid, and foreign direct investment are essential ingredients in the policy mix. In the case of Eastern Europe, these elements catalyzed cleanup. Similarly, we can expect stepped-up enforcement, foreign aid, and investment to make or break efforts to reverse rapid deforestation in the developing world.”

Matthew Auer is an associate professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. His research focuses on comparative industrial environmental politics and the politics of foreign aid. Auer is also assisting the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of State on new initiatives for global-scale sustainable forest management. Auer received his Ph.D. in 1996 from Yale University.