Bellona Murmansk called ‘foreign agent’ in court, receives small fine

NGO Grafitti In November 2012, the day the 'foreign agents' law came into force, unknown individuals sprayed graffiti reading, 'Foreign Agent!' and 'Love USA' on the buildings hosting the offices of three prominent NGOs in Moscow, including Memorial. (Photo: Yulia Klimova/Memorial)

In an evening Murmansk court hearing yesterday to levy fines against Bellona’s local office for failing to register as a “foreign agent” under Russia’s onerous 2012 law governing non-profit organizations, the group received a fine that was far below the typical penalty.

The Bellona-Murmansk further avoided a direct penalty to its director, Andrei Zolotkov, a fine that is also a stipulation of the vague and controversial laws – all of which was greeted with releive by Bellona Executive Director Nils Bøhmer.

He said that during a four hour hearing, Bellona Murmansk was ultimately fined 50,000 rubles ($934), well short of the 300,0000 rubles fine usually stipulated by law. Zolotkov, who could have been personally liable for 200,000 rubles, received no fine at all.

Weighing the the offense against the proportions of the proscribed fine, Civil Court Judge Alexander Gvozdetsky ruled in favor of imposing the much lower administrative fine.

Russia’s amended laws on NGOs, which took effect in November 2012, established that non-profits receiving funding from abroad and who are engaged in vaguely defined “political activities” must voluntarily register themselves as foreign agents with Russia’s Ministry of Justice.

The law was generally boycotted by Russia’s NGOs, who bridled against voluntarily assigning themselves the foreign agent label over its associations with Communist-era spy-mania.

Bellona Murmansk's staff, Andrey Zolotkov, Anna Kireeva and Olga Molokova. (Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Nilsen/The Barents Observer)

Bellona Murmansk’s staff, Andrey Zolotkov, Anna Kireeva and Olga Molokova. (Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Nilsen/The Barents Observer)

Alexander Nikitin who chairs St. Petersburg’s Environmental Rights Center Bellona also noted that the term’s implications of espionage poses a Catch-22 for foreign donors, who provide funding with strict guidelines forbidding that it be put toward political purposes.

In June 2014, President Vladimir Putin, apparently responding to the lack of volunteers taking the label, gave sweeping powers to the Justice Ministry to pick out foreign agents on its own, a move that has so far ensnared about 50 new foreign agents.

Bellona Murmansk first found it was on the Justice Ministry’s foreign agent list in late March. The Murmansk division of the ministry’s petition said it was suspected of committing two political activities.

One involved the publishing a report on industrial pollution in the Barents Sea region, where Murmansk is located. The other, according to the petition, was that Bellona Murmansk conducted a public roundtable discussion on best practices for limiting that industrial pollution.

Group members have theorized that it found itself afoul of the foreign agent law based on specious testimony of a disgruntled former employee who left the organization more than five years ago.

Group passed initial prosecutors’ checks

Bellona Murmansk, like hundreds of other NGOs through Russia, was in 2013 the subject of investigations into its activities led by the local prosecutors’ office and was cleared of any wrongdoing. In 2014 it passed the same test.

This, suggest some members of Bellona’s Russia group, could be a mitigating factor in the fine the organization was handed.

Nikitin added other reasons for the low-end penalty could be the ongoing debate over the NGO law’s “political activity” clause.

“The vagueness of what political activity is may have prompted a restrained decision,” he said.

Indeed, even Anna Koltsa, a specialist with the Murmansk division of the Justice Ministry, admitted to the court she had no expertise in determining whether Bellona Murmansk’s activities could be characterized as political. Further, she said budgetary constraints prevented the hiring of legal experts to determine the question.

Koltsa went on to say that, “No one argues the need for Bellona Murmansk’s activities. It performs a necessary function for society – we are not speaking of whether the organization conducts negative activities, but added that ” “Although the organization doesn’t deny receiving foreign funding, it deals with shaping public opinion, both positively and negatively, which is political activity.”

In court on Monday evening, Zolotkov said: “I have known Bellona since it first appeared in Murmansk,” adding, “I can confirm that it has never even occurred to the organization to deal with political issues in Russia. In 1998 I was offer the opportunity to run Bellona Murmansk and from then until now we have dealt only with environmental activities.”

Bellona Murmansk’s lawyer added that Koltsa’s presentation was the “subjective opinion of a few people at the Justice Ministry who have no education in politics, social psychology or free speech  – in this formulation any organization can be found guilty of ‘political activity.’

Group still considered ‘foreign agent’

Though Bøhmer said the penalty against Bellona Murmansk weighed in below the minimum, the hearing still hadn’t cleared Bellona Murmansk of being considered a foreign agent.

According to Zolotkov, the organization still had to announce its official termination in state media.

The process of terminating the organization has already been announced, he said. “We published the announcement in the local newspaper on April 15. The process will take minimum two months, but could take longer.”

But both Zolotkov and Bøhmer plan to restructure Bellona Murmansk so it can continue its environmental activities.

“[…]will now find other opportunities to work as a volunteer organization in Murmansk,” said Bøhmer .”Another option is to register [Bellona Murmansk] as a branch of Bellona Norway located in Murmansk,” the variant Zolotkov said he plans to shoot for. It is also a completely legal route for the group to take.

The Bellona Murmansk office was established in 1994, making it Bellona’s oldest associated organization in Russia. It was first notified that it had made the Justice Ministry’s list of foreign agents in late March.

It’s still a small operation of three people who Bøhmer said are “doing an important job to uncover and identify environmental challenges including cleanup of nuclear waste in the region.”

The group is also an important voice promoting alternative energy in the region.

Last week, Bellona Murmansk and Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom hosted a joint seminar that attracted Duma deputies and hundreds more who are concerned with nuclear clean up activities in Russia’s Northwest.

This encouraged Bøhmer, as it shows the organization has set itself a clear mandate of assisting, not subverting, social and government priorities.

Of those organizations in Russia that have been declared foreign agents, 10 are environmental ones. But Andrei Zolotkov told the Barents Observer news portal yesterday that he didn’t believe the foreign agent law was specifically targeting ecologists.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no