Only a few years ago a purple haze of toxins hung over Albania's
Elbasan Valley - effluents of a massive industrial complex built in
Once the pride of communist planners, the complex produced much
of the country's heavy industrial output while blighting the crops
of what were once the most productive farms in the country.
Elbasan breathes freely these days, but at a high price. Like
the rest of Albania's industry, the dirty, antiquated complex lies
virtually idle, and two-thirds of its 11,000-person work force has
been laid off.
Shepherding is a major occupation in the area now. Shepherds
tend sheep and goats that graze among the slag heaps and silent
This is how Eastern Europe's environment has improved since the
collapse of communism.
In the absence of massive foreign aid, cash-strapped governments
from Albania to Russia have had to make do with what the invisible
hand of the market has seen fit to clean. As unprofitable
factories, mines, and power plants close, the environment has
gained, at least in the short term.
But many of the most severe environmental problems, exposed when
Communist regimes collapsed from 1989 to 1991, remain unaddressed
for lack of financial and human resources, with serious
consequences for East Europeans.
"The Western countries made it clear early on that 95 percent of
the resources for cleaning up the environment would have to come
from the East European countries themselves," recalls Janos
Zlinszky, head of external relations at the Budapest-based Regional
Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe.
"We had been hoping for grants or soft loans, but found only
commercial loans would be available," he adds. "Most countries
already have serious debt burdens and are unable to take on new
loans, especially since most environmental projects don't generate
revenue with which to repay a loan."
Because of this lack of funding many critical problems have been
ignored, especially in poorer countries in the Balkans and the
former Soviet Union.
Take the Black Sea, for example. For millennia its bountiful
fish and shellfish stocks nurtured the human civilizations that
populated its shores - ancient Greece, Byzantium, the Ottoman and
Russian Empires, contemporary Turkey, Romania, and Ukraine to name
a few. In the past two decades, modern fertilizers, industrial
effluents, untreated sewage, and fishing trawlers have radically
altered its aquatic life.
Twenty of 26 commercial fish species have vanished since 1970;
the anchovy harvest fell more than 95 percent between 1984 and
1989. In their place are monstrous blooms of photoplankton, which
feed on human waste, and the North American jellyfish that preys on
the photoplankton. …