Another nature conservancy group falls afoul of Russia’s ‘foreign agent’ law

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)

The Russian group Sakhalin Environmental Watch earlier this week became Russia’s 14th ecological non-profit to get slapped with the Justice Ministry’s “foreign agent” label.

The Justice Ministry was in June 2014 given broad powers by President Vladimir Putin to name foreign agents on its own, instead of waiting for alleged foreign agents to voluntarily comply.

Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona said the new tactic was enacted to bleed NGOs dry with court fees and fines as they fight the label.

Putin granted the new powers to the Justice Ministry as an apparent response to a general boycott by NGOs to self-apply the term “foreign agent,” which is heavily associated in Russian with treason and spying.

russian ministry of justice The Russian Ministry of Justice. (Source: minjust.ru)

In its new targeting of an environmental group, the Justice Ministry alleged that an unplanned inspection of the NGO, located on the Sakhalin Islands, nine time zones east of Moscow, revealed it was engaged in vaguely defined “political activity,” and was receiving foreign funding.

According to group members, they were singled out by the Justice Ministry for reposting a petition to President Vladimir Putin that initially appeared on the site of the World Wildlife Fund Russia’s internet page. The petition urged Putin to protect the Arctic from oil spills. The Sakhalin Environmental Watch also published an appeal to local authorities to plant more trees.

The Justice Ministry said both postings constituted “political activity.”

Group ‘outed’ by anonymous tip

The latest unannounced inspection of the group – its fourth in two years – was according to group members and media reports, carried out on the strength of an anonymous tip from an unnamed government agency. The group said the Justice Ministry refused to reveal who had accused them of wrongdoing.

Officials said the work of Sakhalin Environmental Watch was “directed toward forming pubic opinion with the aim of influencing decisions of government agencies,” and “focusing public resonance on and attracting the attention of state agencies in the Sakhalin Region.”

According to the internationally condemned 2012 Russian law on NGOs, these activities are considered “political,” though leading human rights activists have repeatedly said the law lacks any language defining political activity – and that any number of the 91 currently listed foreign agents have ended up there for far more obscure reasons that seem to have little to do with politics.

That the Sakhalin nature conservancy group would be tarred as a foreign agent would seem to contradict an April 2014 ruling by Russia’s Constitutional Court, which said protecting plant and animal life was not considered “political activity.”

“Political” reposts on social media

According to Dmitry Lisitsyn, the group’s director, the accusations outlined by the Justice Ministry implicate the group in interfering with domestic as well as international politics.

The Justice Ministry, said Lisitsyn, considered the group’s reposting of the WWF Russia’s petition to protect the Arctic against oil spills to be “resistance” against the development of Russia’s energy sector. The group included the link on its page on vKontake, a Russian-language social media site similar to Facebook.

“It’s surprising the power that a modest repost on social media can have,” the group told Bellona.

The Justice Ministry also considered Lisitsyn’s signature on a letter of support (in Russian) from Russian ecologists to the their Ukrainian counterparts while the two countries are mired in political and military tensions to be “a critical evaluation of the government’s actions in domestic and international politics,” said Lisitsyn, quoting from Ministry documents.

He added that the escalating crisis with Ukraine is public knowledge and noted that the letter mentioned nothing about the foreign or domestic politics of Russia or Ukraine.

Planting trees creates ‘political tension?’

The Justice Ministry also considered “political” an article written by Lisitsyn for the Sakhalin Info news portal in which he suggests existing parks in the southern Sakhalin area should be preserved, and that new squares and parks should be created, with the additional recommendation that local authorities plant more trees.

The Justice Ministry said that, “the information laid out in the article aggravates a feeling of ecological danger.” It went on to say that, “tying objectively existing problems to the activities of specific officials in the administration of the city of South Sakhalin accelerates political tension and forms a negative opinion among citizens.”

Facing possible liquidation for refusing ‘agent’ label

Lisitsyn announced in a September 9 press release (in Russian) that his organization will “never work under the ‘foreign agent’ label because we have never been one and cannot agree to be that which we are not.”

Appealing to authorities and publishing articles on environmental themes are, he said, a constitutional right for ecologists and yet another way of defending nature.

The group intends to appeal the foreign agent label levied against it in court. But Lisitsyn added that if a court battle is unsuccessful “then the board of the organization will consider liquidation.”

None of the 13 other environmental organizations on the Justice of Ministry’s foreign agent list have been successful in appealing the decisions, including Bellona Murmansk and Ecodefense.

Ecodefense, in fact, made a decision to entirely ignore its foreign agent status. Its co-chair Vladimir Slivyak told Bellona in July that refusing to pay fines levied against the organization by courts and turning its back on calling itself a foreign agent has had no negative results so far.

“The ideal situation is to not follow rules when you think they’re unfair,” Slivyak said at the time.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no