Don’t let the faux greens sell off our environment

People like Chris Huhne are willing to talk the talk while in office, but they will usually capitulate to business interests.

In February 2012, the BBC’s then environment correspondent, Richard Black, described Chris Huhne’s departure from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)as “the exit of a minister ... generally regarded as having fought tenaciously for ‘green’ policies”. It was a view echoed by many mainstream, business-friendly “greens”, who were presumably impressed by Huhne’s readiness to talk the talk while in office.

“One abiding set of values that all Liberal Democrats share is a respect for our environment, natural systems and sustainability,” he told the Lib Dem conference in 2011, adding that, with its backing, “We will hold course to be the greenest government ever.” Some may have been less impressed by his promise, a month later, that: “Renewable energy technologies will deliver a third industrial revolution. Its impact will be every bit as profound as the first two.” Apparently it had not occurred to this champion of natural systems that it was the fallout from those previous industrial revolutions that got us where we are in the first place; or, as Robert Burns noted, on a visit to the Carron iron works in 1787: 

We cam na here to view your warks 
In hopes to be mair wise, 
But only, lest we gang to Hell, 
It may be nae surprise.

Still, compared to many of his coalition colleagues, Huhne was at least pro-renewables – well, maybe not solar – so his heart seemed to be in the right place. But was it?

After the DECC, Huhne seems to have had second thoughts about our natural systems. Now we all know about his lucrative consultancy post with the Texas-based company Zilkha Biomass Energy, whose website contains such priceless (if rather alarming) comments as: “Today we let much valuable forest resource go unmanaged. A managed forest, compared to an unmanaged forest, is able to sequester much more CO2, making trees better solar batteries.” And recently, unburdened by the need for conference-friendly rhetoric, Huhne seems to be letting his true colours shine through.

He has never opposed fracking (“Shale gas may be significant,” he wrote in 2011; “If it comes good, we must be ready to take advantage of it”), but talking to John Humphrys on the Today programme last September, he came over as something of an enthusiast, at least for importing cheap, US-produced shale gas.

His disregard for natural systems became most apparent on 19 January, when he called for more greenfield sites to be given over to development. “The brave political promise would be to recognise that the supply of housing land and sites – brownfield or greenfield – is ultimately the government’s responsibility,” he wrote in the Guardian. “The tougher the planning controls, the higher are house prices.”

Huhne’s words were carefully chosen – we cannot help but agree that people need houses – but history teaches us that calls for the relaxation of planning laws are never about homes, as such; they are always about development – and the consequence, always, has been the loss of woodland, meadow and wetland habitats: “our” natural systems.

As Fiona Reynolds remarked in 2011, when she was director general of the National Trust, what little we have left of those systems “has all been protected through good planning and the moment you let good planning go, it’s lost forever”. Recent developments, such as the Trump Organisation’s Scottish government-backed destruction of the dunes at Menie, in Aberdeenshire, show that what our environment needs is more protection, not less.

But then, that wouldn’t be business-friendly. And, as every politician knows – faux greens such as Chris Huhne included – to be business-friendly is everything.

Paradise lost: Menie in Aberdeenshire in 2007, where Donald Trump recently built a golf course. Photo Jeff J Mitchell/Getty.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge