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Balkan crisis and environment


Environmental story ideas and tips on news to watch in Central and Eastern Europe

June 2, 1999 * Volume 2 Number 3



The following address on the topic of environmental security and the Balkan crisis was delivered by Jernej Stritih, executive director of the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC), on May 27 in Prague, during the Seventh Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Economic Forum.

"Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me start by thanking the Norwegian chair and the Secretariat for inviting the REC to make this presentation at the OSCE Economic Forum. I see the organisation I work with as one of the international mechanisms for improving environmental security in its broadest sense in the CEE [Central and Eastern Europe], and I believe that it is no coincidence that stakeholder dialogue, access to information, public participation and support to NGOs are at the core of our mission. In this respect I would like to thank those delegations that mentioned our work in their statements in the preceding discussions.

At the time of a raging violent conflict in the Balkans, with a variety of negative environmental impacts, I believe it is high time to discuss how to link environment, public participation and security in the activities of the international community. The keynote speakers before me covered the importance of access to information, public participation, and access to justice for environmental policy development and implementation in general. REC has been and is very active in the process of the development and implementation of the Aarhus convention, and I would be very happy if the OSCE made the ratification and implementation of this convention one of its core priorities. I believe that broad acceptance of this convention would by itself significantly improve environmental security in the OSCE region.

What I would like to concentrate on is our experience with promoting public participation and information dissemination in the CEE region, and in particular the lessons that should be taken into account in the solution to the current Balkan conflict.

The role that the environmental movement played in the revolutions of Central and Eastern Europe is well understood. Environmental issues, then and now, transcend politics. The environment presents a set of problems that all humans must deal with, together. In the late 1980s in CEE, the environment presented a context for real social debate, based on truth, which led to the downfall of an unsustainable system. Yet it also let to international disputes, such as the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros case between Hungary and Slovakia.

During the period of transition, the role of environmentalism has been somewhat forgotten. Large parts of the region have been preoccupied with economic transition, and several countries are well on the way towards relative prosperity.

In areas of instability, though, environmental issues have been lost as countries have descended into territorial disputes or war. In these latter countries, environmental issues will again play a role in the post-war scenario.

Environmental issues will reappear in two main areas:
1. Reconstruction and clean-up not just of the environmental damage caused by war but also of the inefficient socialist industrial base.
2. Democratisation, nation building and regional stabilisation.

Both of these areas require a measure of environmental justice. In the case of the reconstruction and clean-up, the responsibility for environmental devastation must be apportioned fairly. The NATO action has wiped out the pre-existing situation on the ground, making the solutions applied in other countries meaningless and providing an opportunity for a fresh start in sustainable development. The NATO countries should consider taking on much of the responsibility for environmental cleanup and rebuilding the infrastructure. In this way, they can prove in real life that their intervention is not aimed at the general public in Yugoslavia and the neighbouring countries and can stimulate fast transition to a more sustainable development pattern.

Reconstruction is more than physical clean-up, however. The experience in the CEE and NIS gathered by OECD within the Environment for Europe process shows that technical measures (investment projects) are only successful (even possible) after sufficient environmental management capacity has been established at various levels within the country. This is where cleanup and reconstruction meet the institutional capacity of the society. The UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision- Making and Access to Justice in Environmental matters (the Aarhus Convention) makes the link between the environment and democratisation.

The drafters of the Aarhus Convention understood that only through the guarantee of rights to information and to participation can the people actually begin to take control of the way their societies deal with the environment. The environmental empowerment of the people also requires there to be a fair and efficient system of administration and working justice system. The Aarhus Convention is therefore like the Helsinki Final Act in that it internationalises what was formerly a part of domestic law the treatment by authorities of the public in respect of their exercise of basic rights relating to the environment.

Our experience also shows that a lot can be achieved in transboundary cooperation by supporting joint NGO, governmental and business activities within the areas of shared environmental values. One such example is cooperation between Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania on nature conservation and eco-tourism that started with an NGO project to protect the Balkan Bear population. Another example is participation of representatives of countries that were at war at the time in regional environmental policy meetings, where they all expressed their intention to harmonise their environmental standards with the EU.

As a more direct example, in Bosnia and Herzegovina the conflict is over and formerly warring sides have started the process of reconciliation. There, the first issues upon which the formerly warring parties have cooperated related to clean water, clean air and clean soil. But there are many lessons that can be learned from the implementation of the Dayton Accord that can apply to any post-war scenario. The development of environmental law and policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina provides an example.

The first problem evident in BiH is a 'donor addiction syndrome.' During the war many qualified people emigrated, creating a shortage of viable local partners for the international community. Furthermore, the international community is under such pressure to deliver tangible results, that it cuts corners that would be unacceptable anywhere else. The result is a mutual dependency in which local partners are obsessed with power and money, while the international community feeds those who can get quick results and is not really interested in fast democratisation.

The result so far in BiH has been expedient, short-term technical fixes, which were very badly needed, but many of which will not have a positive long term effects because of the failure to develop viable indigenous institutions to manage them.

A broader, participatory approach was proposed in connection with the drafting of a joint environmental law for the two entities in BiH: Federation BiH and Republika Srpska. The process was supposed to include published drafts with the opportunity for the public and NGOs to comment. The Ministries of Environment of the two entities agreed to work together through this open and transparent process, assisted by a group of international legal experts, many of them from countries in transition. The response of the representatives of the international community was , first, to eliminate the public participation provisions in the draft agreement, and them later, to cut short the drafting efforts of the two entities. The OHR Federation is still waiting, the RS has proceeded to introduce a new draft project, based o the Council of Europe's model framework act of 1994. In this way, an opportunity to develop an environmental framework law that would be in effect the first publicly accepted state-level law there, is being lost. It would be better in the long term if the international community to de facto promoted the framework of sovereignty that it de iure set up for BiH at least in an area like environment.

The current conflict in the Balkans has a several environmental faces: there is destruction of industrial and infrastructure facilities, causing increased pollution, there are sanitation problems for the refugees and for the populations where infrastructure is overloaded or damaged, and there is an overload on environmental institutions including NGOs that may lead to their breakdown. Our Country Offices in Belgrade, Skopje, Tirana, Sofia and Bucharest are collecting information on these impacts. At the same time, we are trying to develop emergency projects of environmental awareness raising for the refugees who within days had to move from largely rural settings to overcrowded refugee camps with minimum infrastructure.

But the main challenge of integrating environmental and security concerns lies ahead, in the post-war reconstruction. Environment, apart from basic sanitation, will not be a top priority in the first months of reconstruction. But we believe that significant medium to long term benefits can be achieved if environmental concerns are properly integrated into the reconstruction strategy from the very beginning. There are a few recommendations I would like to make in this respect:

First, there must be transparency in reconstruction. The massive scale of reconstruction will inevitably lead to rushed decisions and therefore mistakes. But on the scale of Yugoslavia, Albania and Macedonia mistakes can have very serious consequences. A maximisation of transparency will increase dialogue and therefore public involvement in, and support for, solutions.

Second, environmental considerations must be at the heart of reconstruction. The destruction will eliminate an unsustainable system, but if it is not replaced by a much more sustainable one, then many will question the motivations of the international community. Environmental issues can provide the basis of co-operation among formerly antagonistic peoples to establish a new status quo. Building good environmental institutions will prove to be the most cost-efficient way of solving environmental problems in the medium and even short term, and using environmentally safe technologies may save significant new clean-up costs later on.

Third, the international community should support the development of environmental civil society organisations in any plan for post-war Yugoslavia. The strengthening of legal mechanisms for the exercise of environmental rights must also be supported. The Aarhus Convention provides one avenue for support. But it must go hand-in hand with support of grassroots initiatives making use of local networks of experts and citizen environmentalists. An integrated approach will produce better results through the identification of common values, the reduction of conflict, and the establishment of rules of the game to resolve the environmental, and potentially other, problems of the next century.

With its continuing presence in the region, REC stands ready to provide its input into the shaping and implementation of the reconstruction strategy as required."



Green Horizon is a free newsletter designed to help journalists stay ahead of environmental news in Central and Eastern Europe. Twice a month, we'll offer tips on upcoming stories to watch for, as well as information and ideas to help you develop in-depth pieces about the region's environment. Green Horizon is produced by the Media Information Service (MIS) of the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe. The goal of the MIS is to assist the media in covering environmental issues. It is funded by the European Commission's DG-XI and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

For a free subscription, research assistance or to find a source: Send e- mail to:, or call Tom Popper at (36-26) 311-199, fax (36-26) 311-294.

Copyright 1998 by the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe

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