Vladimir Slivyak | Bellona.org

KALININGRAD–In 2012, Russia adopted the notorious law that forces to register as “foreign agents” non-governmental organizations that engage in “political activities” and also receive funding from abroad. Since then, no organization actually engaged in political activity has come to harm from the new law. Rather, trouble started for those who have always distanced themselves from the political process and focused on protecting the rights of Russian citizens.

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Vladimir Slivyak

Vladimir Slivyak

In 2013, a group of eleven NGOs – with, mostly, human rights organizations as well as the environmental group Ecodefense among them – filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights arguing that the “foreign agent” law violated the rights of Russian citizens. Court proceedings are currently pending.

In June 2014, the Russian Ministry of Justice embarked on a campaign aimed at labeling Ecodefense, which is one of Russia’s oldest environmental organizations, as a “foreign agent.” This is the first such attack against an environmental NGO since a legislative change that came into effect in early June gave the ministry discretion to forcibly include non-governmental organizations on the “foreign agent” roster (thus expanding significantly the authorities’ mandate, which had previously required that a prosecutorial inspection first make a “foreign agent” finding against an NGO and then have that claim supported by a court decision).

This new show of force began with the “foreign agent” designation slapped onto five human rights advocacy groups; now, a show trial is starting against Ecodefense, to “bring into check” the environmental movement.

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Having completed its inspection of Ecodefense in early June, the Ministry of Justice asserts plainly in its summary of inspection that Ecodefense is a “foreign agent” by saying that “the organization has been conducting political activity, including in the interests of foreign [funding] sources.” The ministry has not, however, put us on its “foreign agent” roster yet. One possible explanation for this may be that the ministry is awaiting to see its assertion confirmed in court, where it has already submitted papers claiming an “administrative violation” – the charge being that the organization did not voluntarily register itself as a “foreign agent.” This means that, besides the prospect of being officially labelled a “foreign agent,” Ecodefense is facing fines amounting to several hundred thousand rubles.

So what exactly is at the root of the authorities’ actions?

The ministry’s intentions were clear from the start: Along with all sorts of technical paperwork of general nature, the officials had requested specifically all documents that pertain to the organization’s campaign against the construction of the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant in Kaliningrad Region. The ministry showed no such interest in Ecodefense’s educational or climate change programs or its work evaluating the Russian coal industry’s impact on the environment and public health, or indeed any other projects. And, as it follows from the summary of inspection that Ecodefense received from the ministry on June 16, the organization’s campaign against the nuclear power plant was what in fact served as the basis for this “foreign agent” labeling.

Our campaign against the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant had started in 2007 – when information had just surfaced that the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom was looking to build a nuclear power plant in the enclave of Kaliningrad Region to export energy to Russia’s European neighbors – and succeeded in convincing a number of European banks to deny financing for the construction; several major energy companies in Europe have also declined to invest into Rosatom’s project, and, similarly, no contracts for future electricity have been signed with potential customers. Europe’s financial participation could have given Rosatom the needed market entry to sell nuclear power to European grids – but the plan failed, and the construction was ceased in June last year. Kaliningrad Region has plenty of energy of its own, and there is no exporting electricity to customers who do not want to buy it from a plant no one wants to invest money to see built. Stopping the Baltic nuclear project was a major success for the environmental movement and one for which Ecodefense owes a great debt of gratitude to its partners in Europe, who helped make it happen.

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Now, the justice ministry sees Ecodefense’s campaign against this construction as political, not environmental activity. This, after Fukushima and Chernobyl – two catastrophes that showed to the world what irreparable environmental harm nuclear power can wreak. The accusation appears all the more absurd if one takes into account that opposition to the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant is a sentiment shared by a wide majority of Kaliningrad residents. Apparently, these Russian citizens are all “foreign agents,” too. Or at least they think like “foreign agents.”

There is more intriguing detail. In April last year, Ecodefense underwent a prosecutorial inspection. That was a period when the November 2012 “foreign agent” law had failed to yield the anticipated effect – independent organizations across the country stood up en masse against the law, refusing to register themselves as “foreign agents” – so the state deployed prosecutors in countless raids against NGOs in search of offenders. But prosecutors who visited Ecodefense discovered no violations – no evidence to support a finding that the organization was “acting as a foreign agent.” Having the same identical documents under its examination that prosecutors did a year ago, the Ministry of Justice now suddenly comes exactly to the opposite conclusion. What changed between the two inspections? Nothing other than that the nuclear power plant construction in Kaliningrad Region was stopped.

Furthermore, the summary of the ministry’s inspection lists information about Ecodefense’s activities that was neither in the documents submitted for the inspection nor could have come from media sources. There is nothing sensational or secret about this information – it only details a small part of the organization’s work when the Baltic nuclear project was undergoing various stages of the environmental impact assessment. The ministry unlikely has resources to surveil Ecodefense so closely, not to mention that the work in question took place some five years ago, long before the passing of the “foreign agent” law. So how did the ministry obtain this information? More to the point, why would the ministry be so interested in the minutiae of the work conducted several years ago by an environmental organization opposing construction of a nuclear power plant?

But access to the information that the Ministry of Justice cites in its inspection summary is certainly available to Rosatom. In theory, such information could also be on the files of the Federal Security Service, but the details are of much too insignificant and trivial a nature to draw the attention of the secret service. This is why my bet is on Rosatom as the ministry’s likely source of information. By all appearances, it would seem Ecodefense’s activists have long been under close scrutiny, and there is very serious doubt that this scrutiny falls entirely within the bounds of the law.

That said, that law is pliable is hardly surprising – not when a justice ministry official calls Ecodefense after the formal conclusion of the ministry’s inspection to demand more documents on the ostensible grounds that the inspection has been extended, while it later turns out that no extension was issued and the summary was back-dated… In fact, the very idea of conforming to law looks moot when the law requires an organization to voluntarily brand itself with a demeaning tag for supposedly conducting “political activity” – a concept the law leaves subject to broad enough interpretation so any authority is welcome to read what it pleases into it.

Since being declared a “foreign agent” by the Ministry of Justice, we have received dozens of statements of solidarity from all over the world. Ecodefense is grateful for the moral and other support of the human rights advocacy groups Memorial and Public Verdict Foundation in Russia, Greenpeace, the world-famous anti-nuclear movement BI Lüchow-Dannenberg in Germany, the National Ecological Centre of Ukraine, the U.S.-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service, the German urgewald and BBU, Norway’s Bellona and Friends of the Earth, Climate Action Network Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia, and 350.org, and many others who have spoken out in our defense. We are very thankful to the members of the Left Party and the Greens in the German Bundestag. And besides the kind words of support, and the statements of concern and protest over the Russian government’s actions, there have also been in the past two weeks requests to describe what it is that non-governmental organizations find so problematic with the “foreign agent” status – why are we fighting it? Let me try to explain it from the point of view of Ecodefense.

Working as an NGO in Russia has never been easy. It is without doubt, though, that the “foreign agent” designation spells its own set of difficulties: the increased scrutiny from state authorities that translates into more inspections, or the need to keep additional specialists on staff – lawyers and accountants – which is beyond what a small organization like Ecodefense can realistically afford. Given the scarce resources, the day-to-day work that an organization has been created to do is thus effectively finished; what follows is inspections, more inspections, court hearings, and fines. This naturally forces the organization to stop its activities and close because an NGO like Ecodefense does not earn any money; we are a non-profit organization. The Ministry of Justice, as it was making its decisions, was well aware of our situation. In other words, they are not just intent on closing us down, they are intent on shutting Ecodefense down as a “foreign agent.”

And yet, this is not the main problem, and not the main reason why the status of a “foreign agent” is unacceptable to us. Agreeing to be labeled as a “foreign agent” would mean compromising one’s moral standards and misleading the public and the Russian state. We are being forced to admit to a violation we have not committed.

Ecodefense has always conducted its activities in accordance with decisions made by its board, a council consisting of Russian citizens, and never in the interests of any foreign citizens, organizations, or governments. As a matter of principle, Ecodefense has never in its history participated in politics – elections or any other actions aimed at gaining access to political power. Never has our organization even agitated for or endorsed any politician, Russian or foreign.

Being designated as a “foreign agent” would harm the reputation we have worked for many years to build and would create a false impression that environmental work is undertaken in the interest of some foreign entities when in fact it is undertaken to defend the ecological rights of Russian citizens.

Therefore, Ecodefense will never agree to the “foreign agent” status. We know that Russian courts almost always side with the state, and we do not entertain high hopes for a just decision when we face these charges in court. But some little hope we do hold out – and we will fight to continue our work in Russia. Too severe is Russia’s environmental situation, and too much is left to do yet to abandon this fight.

This comment was written by Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of the environmental group Ecodefense and frequent contributor to Bellona Web, and translated, with slight changes, for Bellona’s English page. The Russian original of this text first appeared on the website of the radio station Ekho Moskvy on June 30, 2014.