Might a Green Phoenix Rise from Red Ashes? Is Sustainable Development for Ukraine and Other Post-Communist Nations Possible after the Previous Regime's Singleminded Focus on Industrial Expansion Was Accomplished through the Ruthless Exploitation of Natural Resources>?

By Vovk, Viktor; Prugh, Thomas | USA TODAY, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Might a Green Phoenix Rise from Red Ashes? Is Sustainable Development for Ukraine and Other Post-Communist Nations Possible after the Previous Regime's Singleminded Focus on Industrial Expansion Was Accomplished through the Ruthless Exploitation of Natural Resources>?


Vovk, Viktor, Prugh, Thomas, USA TODAY


Is sustainable development for Ukraine and other post-communist nations possible after the previous regime's singleminded focus on industrial expansion was accomplished through the ruthless exploitation of natural resources?

THE METHANE EXPLOSION that blasted through the Gaegova coal mine added seven names to the list of nearly 4,000 Ukranian miners killed in accidents since 1991. Newspaper reports said the victims were suffocated or crushed beneath tons of coal. Several other miners were injured or poisoned. Although such incidents occur ,every few days, they represent only the acute face of mining-related trauma. As in many coal-rich nations, Ukraine's miners also suffer a shockingly rate of lung disabilities that shorten and degrade their lives.

Mining is dangerous work, and the human cost is evident in the grimy, fatigue-etched faces of the miners. Yet, there are other costs, too. The industry is drowning in debt, losing money fast, and operating only by $2,300,000,000 a year in government subsidies. Most mines are outmoded and inefficient, and prospective private buyers are scarce. Closing the mines to save money would be a difficult task anywhere, but in politically unstable Ukraine--where 450,000 Ukranians still work in mining and have few other choices, and economic output, though rising, remains below pre-independence levels--closing mines is almost impossible.

The dilemma of the Ukraine mining industry reflects a general theme: Like most of the nations that once formed the Soviet bloc (either as "republics" or as client states), Ukraine is struggling through a wrenching and unavoidable transition away from state socialism. Most people living in these 27 post-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union celebrated communism's collapse. But once the euphoria of sledgehammering the Berlin Wall and toppling statues of former Soviet leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin subsided, they awoke to a stark legacy of corruption, economic rot, and colossal ecological devastation. Moreover, generations of oppressive state control and bureaucratization have bred a widespread sense of powerlessness and distrust of institutions.

Under the circumstances, it might seem frivolous to talk about sustainable development. However, it may be indispensable. The people living in the post-communist "nations in transition" nurtured great hopes of shifting to democracy and market economies, and a belief that such a transformation swiftly would create better lives. Too often, they have seen these hopes crushed. Current policies are unlikely even to restore old standards of living, much less raise them. The post-communist nations need a vision that offers an appealing future--not only brighter than the troubled present, but better than any the existent course might lead to. A sustainable society could fulfill that vision, and the turmoil of transition offers an opportunity to shape expectations and steer development toward sustainability.

Many of the problems of the post-communist nations can be seen in the experience of Ukraine. It is helpful to begin the story of Ukraine with a quick historical review, because how these nations got where they are, and why sustainable development policies might help them move onward, cannot be understood without a look back at the USSR and the policies the Soviet government inflicted on its own people and environment.

In the 1959 "Kitchen Debate" between Vice Pres. Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Nixon memorably told Khrushchev that, while Russian rockets were more powerful than U.S. rockets, "there may be some instances in which we are ahead of you--in color television, for instance." This vignette reflects a key difference between the two Cold-War rivals: Soviet economic development policy paid almost no attention to consumers. Its goal was global military and ideological domination, and, in the planner's minds, that required primacy in heavy industry, not TVs and stereo equipment.

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