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Russia looks to green alternative as political screws tighten
MOSCOW (AFP) Oct 15, 2004
Encouraged by the defeat of Russia's ruling party in a regional election but fearful of the Kremlin's growing power elsewhere, a group of environmentalists is seeking to make politics here eco-friendly.

"Since our demands are being ignored we decided that creating a party was the only way forward," said Alexei Yablokov, who heads Russia's newest political movement.

Meet Russia's Greens: They are not a party yet but in their first public appearance here on Friday, the group of scientists and environmental activists told a press conference Russian voters were ready for something fresh.

The brainchild of the party is Alexander Nikitin, who spent nearly five years battling the Russian security service when he was charged with treason and espionage for his part in the publication of a report on nuclear pollution.

He was even mentioned as possible contender for the 2004 Nobel Peace prize.

The Supreme Court upheld Nikitin's acquittal in 2000 but for him the fight is still not over.

"Even with my experiences, I have no fear," he told AFP.

The Green movement said it wanted to act locally around the country to fight for Russians' rights to live in a healthy environment.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has become a dumping ground for nuclear waste and industrial environemental standards are among the world's lowest. These factors, smoggy streets and a range of other health hazards have contributed to Russia's steady decline in population and life expectancy.

The average Russian male is now not expected to live to 60 and the population has fallen by half a percent annually over the past decade.

There have been environmentally friendly governors in the past and a number of nebulous pressure groups promoting ecological issues but the Green movement says it is the first to make clear air a political platform.

The nascent party's head, a 71-year-old biologist, sports a snow white sailor's beard and may be too softly spoken to take on the ugly world of politics. But he is confident many Russians care more about their health and the ecology than the spectre of global terrorism.

"Surveys say that 50 to 60 percent of the population are concerned and would vote for a green party if they believed and trusted the people who were running it," Yablokov said.

"Not everybody thinks there's a terrorist hiding behind every tree," added Nikitin.

The party hopes to win 10 percent of the vote in national parliamentary elections in 2007.

United Russia, the Kremlin-backed party with a large majority in Russia's parliament, came only second in elections to a regional parliament in the Far East island of Sakhalin earlier this month. That lifted the Green's spirits.

"It means they can't win everywhere," Yablokov said.

But he said their were still challenges ahead that might prove insurmountable in today's political climate.

After a wave of deadly extremist attacks swept Russia in August and September, President Vladimir Putin proposed a series of reforms that are likely to increase his grip on politics and make it harder for new parties to become registered.

Under current laws, the Greens need to have at least 100 members in at least 49 of Russia's 89 regions before they can be officially registered with the justice ministry as a party.

But if a new bill put to parliament earlier this week is passed, parties will be required to find 500 supporters in each of the regions. Critics say the bill is a Kremlin move to clear "disloyal" parties from the field.

Yablokov said the Kremlin could set other traps for the smaller parties if need be as the next election cycle neared.

"If the Kremlin gives an unspoken command, than we may not be able to overcome those difficulties too," he said.

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