Red Past. Green Future? Sustainable Development for Ukraine and the Post-Communist Nations

By Vovk, Viktor; Prugh, Thomas | World Watch, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview

Red Past. Green Future? Sustainable Development for Ukraine and the Post-Communist Nations


Vovk, Viktor, Prugh, Thomas, World Watch


The methane explosion that blasted through the Gaegova coal mine last October added seven names to the list of nearly 4,000 Ukrainian miners killed in accidents since 1991. Newspaper reports said the victims were suffocated or crushed beneath tons J 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 high rate of lung disease and other 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. But there are other costs, too. The industry is drowning in debt, losing money fast, and kept going only by $2.3 billion 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 politically difficult anywhere, but in politically unstable Ukraine--where 450,000 Ukrainians 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 (CEE) and the Former Soviet Union (FSU)* (see map) celebrated communism's collapse. But once the euphoria of sledgehammering the Wall and toppling statues of Lenin subsided, they awoke to a stark legacy of corruption, economic rot, and colossal environmental devastation. Moreover, generations of oppressive state control and bureaucratization have bred a widespread sense of powerlessness, distrust of institutions, and apathy.

Under the circumstances, it might seem frivolous to talk about sustainable development. But in fact 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 would swiftly 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 better than the troubled present, but better than any the present 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's helpful to begin the story of Ukraine with a quick history review, because how these nations got where they are, and why sustainable development policies might help move them onward, cannot be understood without a look back at the Soviet Union and the policies the Soviet government inflicted on its own people and environment.

Development, Soviet-Style

In the 1959 "Kitchen Debate" between U.S. President 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 planners' minds that required primacy in heavy industry, not TVs and stereo equipment. For example, by the time the whole system collapsed in the late 1980s, Soviet steel production capacity exceeded U. …

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