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Henry M. Robert

Nikolai DENYSOV: “I wish that the beautiful views of the Carpathians, Polissia, and the Black Sea coast were not just on postage stamps”

High-profile projects being launched to improve the environment
18 March, 2008 - 00:00

With every passing day, water is becoming the cause of increasingly more conflicts among people, entire regions, and states. Aware that pure water and clean air and soil are more precious than oil and gas, the international community is trying to find more effective ways to solve environmental problems and ensure security in the world.

On the one hand, environmental pollution is turning into a stumbling block and a source of serious political conflicts worldwide. On the other, cross-border environmental problems can lead neighboring states to join forces. Since 2003 international organizations, like UNEP, OSCE, the UN European Economic Commission, and NATO, have been successfully adopting a new approach as part of the initiative “The Environment and Security” in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. International experts have studied dozens of conflicts in various regions and offered ways to resolve the environmental problems that are behind them.

The report The Environment and Security: Transforming Risks into Cooperation, Ukraine-Moldova-Belarus was recently presented in Kyiv, where experts discussed ways to improve cooperation among state institutions as well as civic and international organizations. The Day’s correspondent asked Mykola DENYSOV, UNEP representative in Geneva and one of the project initiators, what chances Ukraine has to make its environment safer.

In 2003, during the fifth ministerial conference “The Environment for Europe” that took place in Kyiv, the UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) announced a new project called The Environment and Security: Transforming Risks into Cooperation. Please tell us briefly what prompted you to adopt this new initiative. How does it differ from other UN projects?

“First of all, this was not strictly a UNEP initiative; it involved two other partners: the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a well-known pan-European mechanism for discussing political issues, and the UN Development Program (UNDP). This is one of the key features of the initiative: instead of competing, several international organizations are cooperating closely, if not daily, and jointly tackling difficult problems. Countries are benefiting. As to what prompted us, after the events of 2001 in the US global interest in problems of security markedly increased not only in the traditional meaning of this word but also with respect to so-called asymmetric risks that cannot be removed by a military force. Some of these dangers are linked to environmental problems and can only be settled by actions at the juncture of environmental protection and policies in the security sphere.”

Among the partners of this initiative are many well-known international environmental organizations, such as the Regional Ecological Center. But why are NATO and the OSCE interested in it?

“They are interested in the political aspects of environmental problems, when likely ecological conflicts may affect the political stability of countries and relations among them. Nature-conservation cooperation can also reinforce the efforts of countries and international organizations to launch a dialogue in difficult situations.”

You have visited a lot of countries to promote this project. What ‘hottest’ points has the initiative spotted in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe?

“The initiative’s sphere of interests is the intersection of environmental and security issues. From this angle, the following problems deserve attention: joint water management in the Caucasus and Central Asia, ecological problems in areas of ‘smoldering conflicts’ (Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan), and a number of resource and environmental problems in the Fergana Valley, which is ethnically diverse and crisscrossed by state borders. There is an ever-present risk related to industrial sources of cross-border pollution, for example, mines and quarries in the Balkans and substandard pesticide storehouses throughout the ex-USSR. Finally, countries are not always able to neutralize the environmental consequences of defense activities by themselves. We have drawn up detailed regional analytical reports illustrated with maps and photos of problem spots.”

Your report on Eastern Europe focuses on three former Soviet republics: Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus. What does Ukraine’s environment look like compared to Moldova and Belarus (if such a comparison is possible)? What are the top-priority security problems?

“Like the other regional reports, the ones devoted to Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine include maps that are usually drawn up on the basis of consultations with experts from these countries. Obviously, there are problems everywhere. Ukraine, the largest country in the region, has the longest borders. So, in some respects its problems are on a larger scale. Suffice it to recall the 16,000 tons of old rocket fuel that needed to be disposed of or the mass smuggling of hazardous wastes across the border in the early 2000s. There are some untapped resources for cooperation with Ukraine’s neighbors in the basins of the large Dnister, Danube, and Prypiat rivers. The countries in this region still face an energy dilemma because they are moving towards greater energy independence by eliminating the consequences of the Chornobyl disaster. Of course, the most difficult political situation is in Moldova’s Transdnistrian region, where it is also worthwhile seeking opportunities for nature- conservation cooperation.”

There is much useful information illustrated by maps about facilities in Ukraine and Moldova. The most interesting information appears on postage stamps that depict Ukraine’s flora and fauna, and folk costumes. The stamps are usually positive in spirit. Are such stamps being designed in order to confirm the idea that the environment is beautiful not just on stamps but also in the real world?

“That is one of the goals. Stamps are truly carriers of information in every sense of the word. They are a reflection of countries and peoples’ views of the world, themselves, and their environment. Naturally, this view is often positive, but there are also stamps that show terrorism, the Chornobyl disaster, and the Holodomor. One can admire the elegant lines of warplanes and naval ships and take pride in the power of tractors and locomotives. But one can also think about the effect that the beauty of machines has on the environment. In other words, it is a multifaceted picture. And, naturally, I wish that the beautiful views of the Carpathians, Polissia, and the Black Sea coast were not just on postage stamps.”

What recommendations for improving the environment are international experts giving Ukrainian officials in the report?

“We analyzed situations where a joint solution of ecological and security problems can benefit the countries and this region as a whole. We offer concrete ideas for a number of cross-border basins and industrial areas (the Donbas in Ukraine), specific sources of pollution (including former military bases), and measures for strengthening ‘institutions’ that are working at the juncture of ecology and security. The latter applies to various governmental bodies as well as the non- governmental sector and the media.”

In light of this report, have your partners and you decided what to do in Ukraine? Is it difficult to work with our government?

“In keeping with the report, the partners of the Environment and Security initiative, together with the countries in this region, drew up a work program, which is included in the report. This is a portfolio of top-priority projects. Some of them are already being carried out: for example, work on the Dnister and Prypiat river basins, cooperation with Donetsk oblast and the Crimea, and a project to increase the Ukrainian government’s preparedness for putting an end to the illegal smuggling of hazardous wastes. A few others are in the pipeline. The projects need funding, and looking for funds is also a major part of our work. As for working with officials, well, we are also officials and very much aware of the difficulties of working in the civil service. We are seeking joint decisions.”

I understand you have Ukrainian roots. What do you personally think the Ukrainian environment should be like?

“You know quite a lot. Incidentally, the English-language version of The Day is very popular among UNEP officials in Geneva because you focus attention on environmental problems. Yes, I have roots in Kyiv and Kharkiv (smiles). I have always liked coming to Ukraine and I have even managed to travel around the country. Naturally, I would like for beauty to be left to our children and grandchildren. There was once a book called To Us and Our Grandchildren by David Armand, one of the first Soviet professional environmentalists. I want us to be able to take in big, deep breaths without fear and to knock as seldom as possible with a mop on the ceiling of our neighbors in the common European house.”

Interviewed by Hanna HOPKO, The Day