Developing Democracies Face Communication Challenges

by Cara Abercrombie | 11/8/95 6:00am

I felt both empowered yet slightly unnerved when the deputy head of foreign affairs for the Ministry of the Environment said, "that's a really good point!" to one of my suggestions and meant it in earnest. Empowered because an important official might actually use my recommendations for policy making. Unnerved because the suggestion I made seemed to be so obvious.

Earlier last week I was seated in the Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, in the ministry cafe, across the table from Andres Kratovich, discussing the pending Environmental Framework Agreement between Russia and Estonia. I was assisting Gulnara Ishkuzina-Roll, director of the Lake Peipsi Project (LPP), a non-governmental organization (NGO) which is attempting to establish a transboundary management regime for Lake Peipsi, which makes up two thirds of the border between Russia and Estonia. One of LPP's goals is to establish a local agreement between the two countries regarding management of the lake. We were concerned with the framework Agreement because it will affect legislation regarding the Lake Peipsi region.

Over the course of three years, both sides have written their own draft agreements and soon will begin negotiations in order to sign the final agreement by spring 1996. However, if past agreements and recent events are any indication of current policy style, there is a very strong possibility that the agreement will be signed with little concern for its effectiveness. The negotiations will likely focus on political concerns, such as the present border dispute, rather than issues vital to the success of the agreement.

At this informal meeting in the cafe we were discussing the development of a commission of representatives from both countries which would decide future joint environmental policy. The legislation to create such a commission stems from the Framework Agreement. A similar commission had been established in an earlier agreement but never materialized because it did not specifically delineate the logistics for its materialization.

The new agreement makes no attempt to learn from past mistakes and speaks vaguely of the new commission, listing its duties, but failing to establish a mechanism for its materialization. Thus, I simply asked that in the document they provide some means for the commission's implementation (i.e. state who will fund its meetings, who its members will be and when they must hold their first meeting). This is the suggestion that was deemed a "really good point!" Luckily, we had printed out our list of suggestions, and judging from Kratovich's reaction, the list will be present with him at the negotiations next week. Whether or not he will use them remains to be seen.

In this new democracy, it's politics as usual, Soviet-style. The exchange of information continues to be a problem and it paralyzes effective policy-making. The mMinister of the Environment unabashedly told us that they are not hoping to make any changes through the Framework Environmental Agreement. Rather, its existence is important so that in the future if anyone happens to be interested, (and they are not interested right now, he said) the framework will have been established already and will be there to guide new policy. But the framework as it is written now is so devoid of effective rules that it cannot guide anyone as much as it gives an idea of goals the two countries would like to attain sometime in the future!

The problem of informational exchange is more obvious when looking at this situation from the Estonian perspective. Hoping to quickly sign the agreement without controversy, the two Estonian officials directly in charge of the draft agreement arranged a meeting with the Russian negotiating team without informing any of the other Estonian actors, including those who had written the draft agreement! Furthermore, the Estonians now are not entirely sure that the Russian delegation can even make it to the meetings due to problems with obtaining visas to Estonia. Of course, this is only one of the logistical problems affecting Russian policy makers today. Several ministries are impossible to contact because their phone service has been canceled because of budget deficits.

At Dartmouth, where we are all connected twenty-four hours a day by our beloved BlitzMail, it is difficult to imagine life without the availability of instant communication. Yet we have better access to information than leading government officials in many countries.

The best informed institutions in the former Soviet Union are universities or organizations which are funded by the West. Many government offices are falling apart, (there was a fire in the Estonian Ministry of the Environment a few weeks ago, and they are literally working amongst the rubble) and there is no money to furnish them sufficiently, let alone supply them with the latest telecommunications technology.

Until a proper informational infrastructure is established these new democracies cannot be expected to work up to our standards. In the meantime, the new governments have to rely upon non-governmental organizations who do have access to western funding (such as LPP) to do the informational gathering for them.