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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Russie. Marie-Hélène Mandrillon « Une catastrophe annoncée »

by Francisco Pérez

“A predictable catastrophe” in Russia according to Marie-Hélène Mandrillon

Translated Monday 13 September 2010, by Gene Zbikowski and reviewed by Bill Scoble

In this interview on Aug. 12, Marie-Hélène Mandrillon of the Center for the study of the Russian, Caucasian and Central European world underlines the responsibility of successive Russian governments.

Is the heat wave in Russia really exceptional?

Marie-Hélène Mandrillon: It is, ever since meteorological records began to be kept in Russia. Tsarist Russia was one of the first countries to have meteorological stations; Russia is one of the founders of the World Meteorological Union. There are records going back over 130 years and this heat wave is really a first.

But can the heat wave alone explain the extent of the disaster? Haven’t the ineffectiveness and the lack of means of the public services also played a determining role?

Marie-Hélène Mandrillon: On the one hand there are causes that date from the last ten years, and on the other hand there are older causes, which are of a structural nature. First, there is the Soviet heritage, where there wasn’t really a policy of protection with regard to the environment; it was only towards the end of the Soviet period, in 1988, that a protection policy was initiated by Gorbachev, at a very late stage. To this, it is necessary to add the policies initiated by Putin when he took over in the year 2000. In his desire to relaunch the Russian economy on the basis of the exploitation of hydrocarbon fuels, Putin considered that any kind of legislation that might in any way constrain or limit the exploitation of natural resources had to be rendered less effective.

Can we now expect some change in direction or in attitude on the part of the Russian federal government with respect to the management of its natural resources?

Marie-Hélène Mandrillon: The positive hypothesis for the environment would be that the same thing will occur as followed the Chernobyl catastrophe. At that time, Gorbachev decided to seize the opportunity to break with past practices. Transparent with respect to foreign countries, he got the necessary reforms adopted while simultaneously firing those who had been resisting those reforms. This could be a hypothesis for the management of the period that will follow the present crisis. Nevertheless, nothing so far permits us to think that this is likely to happen.

Can these events trigger a change in Russian public opinion and in the Russian opposition?

Marie-Hélène Mandrillon: The heat wave could play the role of an electroshock. Once again, I would compare this with Chernobyl. When something that could not happen, which should not happen, occurs, there is a moment when you are frozen by shock. The Russians aren’t just frozen, they are also angry, and this can produce deep changes. But to deduce from that that this will lead to the implementation of preventive policies, that’s going a bit far. It would be necessary for this electroshock to be translated into political measures. While that is what happened at the end of the 1980s, nevertheless it was essential that there be a leader, in the person of Gorbachev, to bring about this translation. Today, we have Medvedev who, since the Copenhagen summit on the climate, has talked a somewhat more protective language regarding the environment than Putin did. Will he be able to play such a role in the post-crisis period? It is possible, but it is not a sure thing, and there is nothing automatic about it. Taking into account today’s political scene in Russia, the bitterness of the victims is not going to be translated automatically into votes in the elections.

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