Russia: Total civic environment clean-up

My colleague and journalist Andrey Allakhverdov is kept in an investigative isolation ward in Murmansk. He is one of the Arctic 30 from Arctic Sunrise ship. Andrey has been the head of Greenpeace Russia press service since January 2013. He devoted 20 years of his life to covering environmental and social issues – but it seems like ecological journalism, like any other kind of independent journalism, is not welcome in Russia any more. Andrey left journalism to work for the environmental organisation, to continue doing what he believes in, i.e. protection of nature – for its own sake and for the sake of protecting of public interests. In the end this belief led him on board of Arctic Sunrise – and to the isolation ward in Murmansk.

Some may wonder why the authorities got so “crazy” about Arctic Sunrise; just a year ago a similar action received a completely different response, with no detentions and piracy charges.

For me the answer is quite simple: we live in a country that is different from the one we lived in a year ago. About a year ago the notorious “foreign agent law” came into force. Its main message is any independent public activity is an enemy, secret or vivid; any activity that has to do with influencing the public opinion or governmental decisions is a political one, and it is hostile to Russia’s sovereignty. For the law enforcement machinery the law has become a clear command: “Get them!”

Detention of Arctic Sunrise outside of Russia’s territorial waters is nothing but the implementation of this command. Members of Pussy Riot got two years of prison – just for the sake of keeping others from doing it again. Arctic 30 members can face up to 15 years of imprisonment should the court support the charges of piracy, or at least seven years if they are charged with hooliganism in the end – just for the sake of keeping others from doing it again. Oil is much more important than the “Holy Virgin, cast Putin away!” prayer.

The detention of the Greenpeace activists caused a significant public response around the world. But this is just a visible part of the iceberg, because the campaign of persecution is felt by all defenders of public interests in Russia.

We often speak out about the whole package of repressive laws that has been recently adopted in Russia, but sometimes on certain international fora we get responses like “At least you are not get killed.”

This is not true. Here are just some of the cases only of 2013.

Stepan Chernogubov, a blogger and civic activist, was severely beaten last summer in Pervouralsk, Sverdlovsk Region, after he revealed the problem of dumping of industrial sewage to the Chusovaya river by Russian Chrome 1915 company.

Alexander Tolstov, an environmental activist, who participates in a campaign against forest clearcut in Selyatino settlement near the Russian capital, was beaten in Moscow.

Igor Sapatov, 40, was killed on 18 July 2013 in Ten’ki settlement in Tatarstan. He was killed under his son’s very eyes as he was trying to prevent forest clear-cutting in a conservation riverside zone.

Members of Kolsky Ecological Centre Nikolay Podolsky, 56, and Sergey Malashenko, 51, were shot dead on 20 July 2013 as they were choosing a place for their environmental camp.

These are the consequences of the “Get them!” command. NGOs inspections in line with the “foreign agents’ law” might seem mere red tape in comparison with these horrible stories.

A survey project conducted among environmental activists showed about 80 ecological organisations were subjected to state inspections; about a third of them received warnings and notifications from local prosecutors’ offices. In fact, almost every environmental group in Russia has been inspected by the authorities, some of them even several times. Inspectors paid special attention to activities that were supported by foreign funding and to organisations’ statutes.

“Some organisations were requested to change their statutes to take down any mentioning of goals, objectives or methods that can be regarded as political. Prosecutors’ offices consider as such any kind of campaigning or influencing of decisions of the authorities of any level,” says Alexey Toropov of Siberia Ecological Agency from Tomsk.

For instance, Amur Social Ecological Union received a notification that defined as political one of their statutory goals, i.e. “assisting the state, citizens and organisations in their activities aimed at  conservation and   restoration of the environment, natural and cultural heritage.”

Nature and Youth organisation from Murmansk received an official warning that stated the line of their statutes about “participation in regional legislative process” is nothing but a “declaration of a possibility of their involvement in political activity.”

Baikal Environmental  Wave, an NGO known for its campaigning against building of a pipeline along Baikal, the deepest freshwater lake on earth, received a notification as well. State prosecution officers admit you can’t define environmental organisations as foreign agents – but they suggest Baikal Ecological Wave is an exception. Campaigning in support of the environment, speeches at conferences and appeals to the authorities are considered to be “active lobbying around ecological problems”, and thus they are political activities. All courts the NGO appealed to against such an approach supported the prosecutor’s office.

Environmentalists are not only under the pressure of the federal government; they are also a thorn in local authorities’ flesh. The latter is happy to make use of the “foreign agents’ law” to settle the score with activists.

Muravyovsky Park, the first non-state sustainable development park created for preservation of a rare species of cranes, is a well-known example. Courts of two instances confirmed the fact Sergey Smirensky, the president of the park, collected signatures under a petition to stop spring hunting campaign in 2011 was the proof of his “political activities.” It is worth mentioning that collection of signatures took place even before the “foreign agents’ law” was adopted! Local sources say the whole case is there because of personal interests of the local prosecutor.

The situation around the Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC) is another story. The NGO revealed information about serious violations of environmental laws Russia’s senior officials, including President Vladimir Putin himself, are involved in; the violations became really terrible on the eve of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Suren Gazarian, one of the EWNC activists, had to leave Russia and received an asylum in Estonia because of persecution for his activities – he was facing a long-term prison on bogus charges. His colleagues, including Andrey Rudomakha, the head of the organisation, feel constant pressure from law enforcements.

On 10 October 2013 police officers made an attempt to enter the office of Krasnodar regional branch of Yabloko in search of Andrey Rudomakha.  Andrey Rudomakha is a chair of Yabloko regional branch. They were not allowed in as they did not produce any search warrants, but promised to “come back with riot police.” This year the Environmental Watch on North Caucasus was inspected by the Federal Security Service (FSB), Centre E (a special anti-extremism service) and prosecutor’s office. Law enforcements undertook a separate operation just to hand in a notification about a possible breaking of the “foreign agents’ law” to Andrey Rudomakha.

Andrei Rudomakha's detention in Sochi, 31 October 2013 (photo by Yuliya Naberezhnaya)


The authorities do whatever it takes to close the EWNC down. A local department of the Ministry of Justice issued two official warnings to the NGO not long ago. The text of the last warning says the EWNC was previously asked to submit some organisational documents, and was warned for failing to. But the organisation did not receive neither the request for the documents, nor the first warning. Despite this fact, the organisation can be closed down as two warnings are enough for a court appeal to cancel their registration.

Dmitry Shevchenko, the deputy coordinator of EWNC, was detained in Krasnodar airport on 8 November 2013 under a suspicion he was a terrorist; Andrey Rudomakha received a request not to leave the country; another activist Evgeniy Vitishko is facing a jail term for alleged breaking of the conditions of his previous suspended sentence.

The cases of environmentalists persecution are too numerous to mention in one article. But it is obvious the authorities of the country have gone far beyond merely frightening its citizens off public activities for them not to interfere with pumping of oil and building of luxurious palaces. There is a real war with civil society going on in Russia; this war has its toll, its physical victims, murdered and wounded. The aim of this war is a total clean-up of the field of any kind of civic activism, including environmental.

The biosphere is common for everybody, it is a well-known fact. It is time to realise that the field of civic activism is common as well. The first condition it can be preserved is solidarity of all defenders of public interests.

Those who were murdered would never come back. But it’s not too late to get Andrey Allakhverdov and his Arctic 30 colleagues out of prison; to allow Suren Gazarian to come home; to save the unique Muravyovsky Park. Together we all can make it happen.


Olga Zakharova is the editor of and director of Freedom Files

Talk about this story

More from Russia

This report: "Torture and Ill-treatment of human rights defenders and activists during external and internal conflict situations" reviews the practices of torture and ill-treatment of human rights defenders and civic activists during conflict situations, including armed conflict, as well as civil unrest and mass protests brutally suppressed by the authorities u

Public call by human rights and other organizations in the OSCE region due to the intention of the Russian authorities to wind up two oldest human rights organizations in the country