Which is better for the environment, democracy or dictatorship?

An authoritarian system can efficiently tackle environmental problems the existence of which it acknowledges. However, it is bad at discerning latent crises.

It is easy to assume that a dictator would not be interested in the wellbeing of citizens or the environment.

“I don’t believe in that kind of evil. I’m certain that even autocrats worry about the future. Everyone does,” says University Lecturer Katalin Miklóssy.

In her research, Miklóssy has focused on the political history of Eastern Europe and particularly the Cold War. Through teaching cooperation, she has come to know many areas that used to belong to the Soviet Union, especially Belarus and Georgia.

Research findings and cooperation have strengthened her view that black and white interpretations of politics should be replaced with a prism: power systems should be studied in all their hues.

“Contempt doesn’t help us to understand authoritarian societies or what kinds of incentives could influence authoritarian rulers.”

As long as we don’t have a nuanced understanding of how various systems work, we will likely fail in promoting democracy, Miklóssy says.

The burden of Finlandisation

Katalin Miklóssy has opened up a new research avenue by studying authoritarian states through environmental history. Industrial towns polluted all the way down to their groundwater, the Aral Sea and Chernobyl must not be forgotten, but other things have happened in authoritarian countries as well, not just catastrophes.

 “For example, in the 1970s Hungary was ahead of Austria in terms of recycling, and eco-cities built in China have received praise.”

Political scientists could really gain from the evidence that environmental history can provide, says Miklóssy. However, joining up these scientific traditions has been uneven thus far. On the one hand, Russians like to point out phenomena that break the division between the Good West and the Bad East.

On the other hand, in the United States researchers focusing on global questions tend to be stuck in their Cold War positions even though they do analyse the political history of their own country from a fresh perspective.

 “Even in Finland it is not generally beneficial to find anything good to say about the Soviet Union. The burden of Finlandisation continues to be so heavy that you might easily be labelled a Putinist.”

Soviet documents

Simo Laakkonen, docent of social and economic history, who has specialised in the environmental history of the Baltic Sea and the Cold War, agrees.

 “We like to embarrass the Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia and label them as environmental criminals. Often there is good reason to do so, but you should still study the background carefully. Soviet archives have been gradually opened in the last 25 years, but their use is still astonishingly rare.”

Laakkonen’s own expedition to the archives of the East already started in the mid-1990s. When writing his dissertation on the history of water protection in Finland, he wanted to find international points of comparison for his observations.

 “I travelled around the Baltic Sea and managed to get ten important cities to participate in the research project supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers.”

900 water treatment plants

Laakkonen was especially delighted with the enthusiasm and findings of his Lithuanian colleagues.  “The Lithuanians were astonished themselves. They had thought they were weak in water protection, but the archives proved otherwise,” says Laakkonen.

At the conclusion of the Second World War, a huge number of waste water treatment plants were built in the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, of which 700 were state-of-the-art biological purification plants.

The material collected from Eastern Europe continues to occupy Laakkonen, two decades later. His next article is due to be published in a book on environmental history for the University of Pittsburgh Press this year.

Scientific communism

According to Laakkonen, his path to sources challenging predominant ideas was not particularly winding. He just had to ignore political rhetoric and delve into expert archives. The study on Lithuania is the first and possibly only quantitative survey of water protection in a Soviet Socialist Republic.

 “According to Soviet rhetoric, there were no environmental problems and, consequently, there was nothing to fix. Beating about this political bush, we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. We were in for quite a surprise when my colleagues reviewed everyday documents related to water protection, water protection management and research in natural sciences.”

Katalin Miklóssy also speaks of the value of engineering and knowledge of natural scientific facts. They are hard currency when the West wants to discuss difficult environmental issues with countries from the former Soviet Union. Technological facts continue to be respected, as they were under “scientific communism”.

 “Facts are listened to more intently if scientifically proven environmental crises are discussed as universal issues transcending national borders.”

Calculated greenness

Many authoritarian leaders keep environmental organisations on a tight leash. However, it can sometimes happen that a government makes the mistake of underestimating the severity of environmental issues: Criticism against the system smouldering in environmental movements may go unnoticed by those in power.

 “Leaders may think that environmental issues are a handy way of collecting brownie points. They may think they have more room to manoeuvre in the field of environmental politics than in clear-cut power politic debates.”

Dictatorships so pure that they could totally ignore public opinion do not exist, says Miklóssy. Especially in hybrid systems, such as Russia and China, leaders need to ensure their genuine popularity.

Consequently, environmental problems should not be overlooked entirely, since popularity among the general public depends on the state of the natural environment and the pleasantness of people’s surroundings.

The bottom line

Authoritarian rulers must also listen to the business community, says Miklóssy.

“Especially in the very poorest countries, companies have the power to talk to decision-makers.”

The state of the environment is a natural topic for these discussions, since most of the time it is intertwined with successful business operations. “Research on third world nations clearly highlights the position of companies between the elite and individual people.”

Miklóssy hopes that especially Western corporations would adopt a firmer stance.

“Companies may operate in third countries in a manner they wouldn’t dare to attempt in their home countries. The operating environment is described as authoritarian, but companies may also assume quite dictatorial operating methods.”

Got interested? Read the latest scientific book about this subject: Environmentalism under Authoritarian Regimes (Routledge, 2018).  Stephen Brain is an Associate Professor of History at Mississippi State University. PhD Viktor Pál works as a Researcher at University of Helsinki.

The article was originally published in Finnish in the Y/01/19 issue of Yliopisto-lehti.