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The inventor of perestroika sets his sights on a greener world

01.01.70

Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, who ended the cold war and made it possible to dismantle the Berlin Wall, has never been a man of modest ambitions.

When he became Soviet leader 21 years ago he invented perestroika to restructure the ossified edifice of the state and the Communist party, only to see his creaking empire fall apart six years later. For that he is revered internationally and reviled by many of his fellow Russians.

Today, Mr Gorbachev has a new agenda: to transform international attitudes towards the environment, to guarantee clean drinking water for more than 1.2bn people, to scrap the vast stockpiles of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons left over from the cold war, and to find alternative energy sources that may eventually replace nuclear power and hydrocarbons.

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, he is launching a twin appeal to persuade the world's leading governments to set aside at least $50bn (41bn, 28bn) to develop renewable energy supplies, and to seek a more modest $50m from the private sector to galvanise efforts to provide healthcare for Chernobyl victims, and guarantee clean water and sanitation for the world's poorest people.

One month after his 75th birthday, Mr Gorbachev is back on the road preaching his new green gospel to audiences in America, Asia and Europe, to raise money for Green Cross International, the non-governmental environmental pressure group he has chaired since 1993.

"We need a value shift to get people to put an end to the superiority complex when man condescends to nature: the idea that man is king of nature," he says. "This is a delusion that has to be overcome."

His first target is to persuade the business community that financing environmental campaigns for clean water and basic sanitation, plus renewable energy supplies, is in their commercial interest, as well as being socially responsible. His second is to galvanise civil society to support the campaign, and persuade national parliaments to press their governments into greater support for sustainable energy.

It will cost millions to ensure that we can go forward in getting safe, clean water for everyone," he says, in the unlikely surroundings of a Florida golf and beach club, halfway through a whirlwind US speaking tour. "We want to appeal to the business community, to CEOs who can make a real difference to help Green Cross achieve this goal."

Environmentalists may blame big business for social and ecological problems, he says, but they also must recognise that private corporations are often the only institutions with the expertise and finances to solve them.

"There is no point in demonising multinationals or leading a charge against big business. The problem is not business. It is the state of the economy, which is decoupled from social concerns. The economy has become divorced from society. It functions according to its own logic, that of maximising profits, minimising investments and reducing the payments on one's debts to the greatest extent possible. And that is occurring on a global scale, with no concern for ecology."

Chernobyl, one year after Mr Gorbachev came to power in Moscow as Communist party leader, was not the only cause of his passion to protect the environment but it was the most dramatic symbol of other ecological catastrophes that had been covered up across the Soviet Union. "Everyone was taken unawares. It was a unique drama and a real tragedy."

Yet his conclusion is not to abandon nuclear power entirely. "Even if we were to admit that nuclear energy is an 'evil', we would also have to recognise that this 'evil' is inevitable: we simply cannot do without it," he says. "Today, renewable sources of energy [excluding hydro-power] provide just over 1 per cent of humanity's needs.

"You don't actually solve problems by finding solutions that create more problems down the track. It doesn't add up economically, environmentally or socially. Of all the energy options, nuclear is the most capital- intensive to establish, decommissioning is prohibitively expensive, and the financial burden continues long after the plant is closed."

In the US, he says, nuclear energy received direct subsidies of $115bn between 1947 and 1999, with a further $145bn in indirect subsidies. In contrast, subsidies to wind and solar combined during the same period totalled only $5.5bn.

Mr Gorbachev is writing to the parliaments of all the Group of Eight nations meeting in St Petersburg in June, where energy security has been put top of the agenda by President Vladimir Putin. He will urge the parliamentarians to lobby for more attention to be paid to renewable energy, rather than just securing supplies of oil and gas, plus a boost for nuclear power.

The former Soviet leader gets most passionate on the subject of water resources and agriculture. That is the real inspiration of his environmentalism. He admits he has never lost his southern Russian rural roots. He is still a peasant at heart.

"That was my first university: my peasant upbringing," he says. "One cannot imagine a wiser person than a peasant, because he has to know how to handle the soil, what to sow, what not to sow. A peasant is very dependent on nature."

Mr Gorbachev claims credit for launching a genuinely open debate on pollution and the environment in Russia in the 1980s, thanks to his policy of glasnost, or openness, in the media.

"When we announced glasnost, people rallied round the clock in almost 100 cities, demanding improvements in their environment," he says. "Most were concerned about chemical production facilities. As a result, the Politburo decided to stop production at 1,300 factories."

He believes people are still angry about environmental issues in Russia. The difference is that they are debated in the Duma as well as on the streets. He admits there is an assault on the freedom of the press, particularly in the Russian regions. But he rejects international criticism of Mr Putin for being undemocratic. "The issue of the freedom of the press, and of how we minimise authoritarian tendencies in the Russian government, is a serious issue," he says.

"Without freedom of the press, public opinion will not be able to realise its potential. But when people live in hardship, when many of them do not have enough to feed and clothe themselves, for such people democracy is not as important as it is for you and me.

"Now that Putin is consolidating the country, now there is some governance - and no Russia can succeed without governance - you are demonising Putin. What happens is that Putin's popularity is very high, and getting higher. "I want our western friends to bear in mind that Russia is making a transition from a totalitarian society, and it is developing democratic institutions," he says. "It still has a long way to go for us to say this is an advanced democracy.

"Russia is changing. [But] our country needs time, and intelligent policies, so don't rush us. We will go our own way to our own democracy. China will have its own democracy. It will not be American democracy. Iraq will never have American democracy. It will be a different democracy based on the mentality and history of the Arab countries, the Islamic mentality and values."

Expert opinion

Halter Marek

02.12.06

Halter Marek
Le College de France
Olivier Giscard dEstaing

02.12.06

Olivier Giscard dEstaing
COPAM, France
Mika Ohbayashi

02.12.06

Mika Ohbayashi
Institute for Sustainable Energy Poliy
Bill Pace

02.12.06

Bill Pace
World Federalist Movement - Institute for Global Policy
Peter I. Hajnal

01.12.06

Peter I. Hajnal
Toronto University, G8 Research Group