Russia’s ecological big-leaguers join forces to withstand state’s mounting pressure on environmental NGOs at Bellona’s St. Petersburg conference

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It is the second major rights conference that Bellona has hosted in the last four months wherein Hauge has expressed optimism about the future of civil society organisations in Russia, even amid the looming threats of new rights given to the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the KGB successor organisation and continuing harassment of rights based organisations by the Kremlin. Hauge first iterated this stance at a seminar on Russian human rights in Oslo in June.

Indeed, the last weeks have seen some surprising moves from the Kremlin, specifically president Dmitry Medvedev, regarding the contentious project to build a high speed toll road to St. Petersburg through the Khimki Forest north of Moscow, which has been met by strong opposition from environmentalists and native and international rock stars, including U2, who joined their cause. The strength of the joined movements caused enough of a stir that Medvedev, in a video blog on Kremlin.ru, halted the highway project subject to “further analysis” of alternative routes. Moscow’s powerful mayor, Yury Luzhkov, who has been dismissive of environmental demonstrations, however, stands in opposition to President Medvedev, saying the project will continue through Khimki.

But environmental voices, long suppressed by violence, intimidation and arrests were nonetheless noted and supported in Russia’s highest echelons of power – at least for the time being.

On the other hand, the forest fires that ravaged Russia during record drought and heat waves this summer threatened not only forests, but new radiation challenges as the wildfires ripped through areas affected by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and heat dried out lakes and rivers –  long dumping grounds for radioactive waste – as irradiated sediment became airborne.

At first, Emergency Service Minister Sergei Shoigu warned of such eventualities, only to retract days later and threaten to “deal with” media and internet outlets mapping irradiated areas threatened by fire. In this case, as the Russian Forestry service removed maps of such areas, it was up to the media and activists to keep citizens in the know, and Bellona and other groups worked together to report heavily on the dangers, and independent activists also posted maps of radiation danger areas in the path of the fires on the Russian search engine Yandex.

Where the common fight stands

The “Russian Ecological Movement: Civic Engagement, Information, Security” conference hosted by Bellona’s St. Petersburg branch, the Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona, which took place in St. Petersburg on September 3, gave environmentalists and activists from all over the country a unique opportunity to come together to discuss their experience in fighting to solve Russia’s ecological problems – as well as experience gained by activists abroad – those “pressure points” that authorities so often use to intimidate ecologists in Russia, and what means and strategies are available to make the Russian environmental movement a stronger presence in Russian society.

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Intimidation by means of brute force…

That the fight was never going to be an easy one was made evident by the stories that the conference participants shared with each other on this rainy September day in St. Petersburg. Big or small, nation-wide or local, all organisations that once set out to fight ecological injustices in Russia are running the risk of at one point or another causing the displeasure of the authorities, and the forms the harassment takes range from exploiting loopholes in the existing legislation to bogus criminal investigations to outright violence.

Alexander Kolotov’s No Dam! (Plotina.Net), an organisation in Krasnoyarsk Region in Central Siberia, fights against the construction of dams on large Siberian rivers to defend the fragile river ecosystems that may fall prey to the ongoing expansion of hydropower projects in the region. In doing so, No Dam! has caused the wrath of the state-owned company RusHydro, which in the summer of 2009 filed a lawsuit against No Dam! over an earlier article the movement had posted on its website.

“We were accused of being enemies of the people and of working for Western intelligence. [RusHydro] turned to Krasnoyarsk regional security council, accused us of extremism. The wheels of oppression were put into motion, including the participation of the [anti-extremism task force]. They publicly say our letters to stop the construction of a dam in Lower Angara Region are ‘calls to obstruct the lawful activities of bodies of state government’ and that our website is a conduit to the cooperation with media obstructing the state policies of the Russian Federation,’” said Kolotov. “We filed a lawsuit and lost – apparently, RusHydro has the right to call us extremists absent of any court verdict… What helps a lot is that our site is registered abroad and our authorities cannot just call and demand that it be taken down.”

The story of Yevgenia Chirikova, whose campaign to protect the Khimki forest near Moscow from felling and subsequent construction of a highway has recently made headlines worldwide – what started as a local grassroots initiative has turned into a national controversy, culminating in a Bono-featuring rock concert and the order by Russia’s Medvedev to halt the logging pending further decisions – has the same underlying element: Opposing powerful commercial interests that enlist the questionable support of law enforcement agencies.

“Any ecological problem is, first and foremost, that of corruption,” said Chirikova. “When they came to fell the forest, we … found out these were illegal immigrants… who simply ran away when we started yelling. Then the company that had initiated the felling changed the tactics. They hired a private security firm and when we came to the clear-cutting area together with journalists, we found these guys there, in gym shorts, with gold teeth, shaved heads, and tattooed all over. Clearly, ex-cons. We are but frail ecologists… After that, the police stopped coming when we called for help.”

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The stand-off soon escalated into an all-out war when on July 25, the ecologists were attacked by several dozen thugs wearing masks. Following that, SWAT teams arrived and started arresting both activists and journalists, including those from media outlets with national coverage. According to Chirikova, the SWAT teams were especially brutal with women, pulling them by their hair to get them into the police buses.

…harassment at the hands of the special services…

As far as using law enforcement to quell dissent, the Russian Directorate “E” – a newly created agency tasked with combating “extremism” – is becoming one of the more common instruments of intimidation the authorities resort to. And of course, one has to be forever conscious of the risk of running afoul of the FSB, the oldest means of state harassment. Cases are very rare that taking a stand against the powerful agency results in a victory.

In the words of Nadezhda Kutepova, who heads the NGO Planet of Hopes (Planeta Nadezhd) in Ozyorsk, a town in Chelyabinsk Region in the South Urals, her organisation is essentially operating “behind enemy lines.” Ozyorsk is a restricted-access location hosting the Russian spent nuclear fuel reprocessing enterprise Mayak and is frequently cited as the most contaminated place on earth. Environmental activities in this area bear special significance and, Kutepova says, the problem of intimidation by the authorities is an indicator of how effective her organisation’s work must be.

bodytextimage_pi4mayak.jpeg A weathered radiation sign warning people against swimming in the Techa River. Credit: Bellona

failed… It was extremely difficult when my professional community hadn’t spoken in my defence… when the FSB went after me. Many of my colleagues, when seeing me, would cross the street. I was accused of receiving a grant from the CIA, almost,” Tsepilova said.

An article that was paid for to libel Tsepilova also appeared in the press, and she eventually lost the libel lawsuit she filed against the newspaper.

…and sheer cunning

Green World’s Oleg Bodrov from Leningrad Region focused the participants’ attention on some new tricks in the authorities’ bag:

“Our story has it all: unprovoked scrutiny by prosecutors and the tax police, assaults – I once spent a month in the hospital. I’d like to talk about manipulations involving public participation, when the authorities use what are basically front organisations.”

When Green World filed a petition for an environmental impact study on the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant, it was told two other NGOs from Moscow had already requested the study and got it – the maximum number of such requests allowed by law. In both instances, the reports stated the four new reactors under construction at the plant had no environmental impact whatsoever. There is little recourse offered by the law when such avenues as used by Green World are exhausted.

Andrei Rudomakha, whose organisation, the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, leads the fight to save the unique nature preserve of the Utrish Forest on the Black Sea from construction of a presidential villa, which would almost definitely kill it, had a similar experience:

“…When the authorities realised they couldn’t win by mere force, they chose a different tactic. They held a public hearing where none of the public activists were let in, but some officials and drug enforcement officers were brought in. And they all gave a green light to everything. Then they basically ‘cut out’ a swath of the preserve’s territory to use for the roads and the villa.”

Sergei Simak, head of the Samara regional branch of the International Socio-Ecological Union, is among the many environmentalists who have lately been finding themselves on the wrong side of… the copyright law. Simak’s troubles began when the police acting “on an anonymous tip” seized his computer and charged him with using counterfeit software. Though Simak has exhaustive proof of his innocence, his attempts to get his work materials back have been to no avail.

Galina Kulebyakina from Baikal Ecological Wave and Askhat Kayumov from the Ecological Centre Dront had much the same sad stories to offer. When tax evasion, copyright infringement, or extremism charges are combined with violent raids or late-night home visits by the FSB, finding adequate means of resistance is a challenging task indeed. In the case of Baikal Ecological Wave, that NGO’s activities have been effectively paralysed for six months and the future is uncertain.

What can environmentalists offer in return? The support of the public…

So what to do? Organising public rallies and seeing that the cause is well-known and supported by the population is a powerful tool for making sure neither businesses nor the authorities proceed with environmentally dangerous projects unchecked.

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… Seven of our activists were detained, for 24 hours, but we won all court cases later on,” Podshivalova said.   

When the works resumed at the site, absent of any construction permits, Podshivalova’s group organised a blockade and stood day in and day out for two months at the park, preventing the lorries from entering the site. This unwavering resistance finally resulted in a talk with city authorities and at least a permission to restore the park with the locals’ own funds.

…the engagement of local political resources…

In Olga Tsepilova’s experience, forging political affiliations lends certain tangible weight to an environmental movement. Tsepilova’s Green Russia is a faction of Yabloko, one of the oldest liberal parties in Russia.

“…We decided to join Yabloko, which has a [trustworthy history], has voted against the imports of spent nuclear fuel, and has always taken the right position in such issues. We have never regretted this,” said Tsepilova. “Why do people come to us? Because they need a political tribune to voice their problems. Because if they have representation, they have the chance to receive information, attract the citizens’ attention… The party can help in a difficult situation… and use its resources to support environmentalists.”

In Simak’s home town, Samara, a long-ongoing political struggle between regional and city authorities provides for certain manoeuvring space, which is “useful for the public, as you could always ally with one or the other.” That creates some risks, but a number of court cases related to unlawful urban development projects have been won by Simak’s organisation. Simak also advised his fellow environmentalists to diversify their activities as much as possible so as to offer stronger resistance to the attempts to block them.

A similar situation exists in Krasnaya Gorka in Leningrad Region, where Alexander Senotrusov is defending a local nature preserve. Local municipal authorities have devised a scheme by which the public lands of the preserve are transferred as free social aid to disadvantaged beneficiaries, such as the disabled or the elderly. Later, the recipients “waive” their rights to the property and the lands end up in the hands of one owner, free from any encumbrance to be used for commercial gain. The regional government is backing Senotrusov’s cause, and he even has the unlikely support in the military, which used to oversee this territory, but it’s the local municipal authorities that have the right to sell the lands for lucrative projects.

…and the media

Andrei Ozharovsky, an anti-nuclear campaigner who is very active in the Moscow-based organisation Ecodefense!, said one of the tasks – and public services – carried out by activists like him is to inform the general public of problems in the nuclear energy industry.

“We know something, but how do we make sure that everyone knows? The media are not in our hands, but we can use them. Radical actions, those that end in arrests and jackets torn by the police, attract attention. Between a seminar and a rally where the police will tear my jacket in front of TV cameras, I will probably choose the latter. If the repressions are controllable – that is, they don’t lead to serious harm to one’s family, that is a good thing,” Ozharovsky said.

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.”

Both Chirikova and No Dam!’s Kolotov agreed that the system really tends to succumb to continuous pressure. And one mustn’t be shy to ask for support from the regular people, Chirikova added. Two important means are available to environmentalists in trouble: Publicity and calls for help.

That also means keeping one’s own organisation beyond reproach. Askhat Kayumov’s NGO, the Nizhny Novgorod-based Dront, is a constant target of audits and checks of all kinds.

“As far as the law is concerned, there’s no ‘getting’ us in that regard – since we demand that others obey the law, we ourselves obey all the laws,” Kayumov said. “Keeping all ducks in a row – this is the only way to withstand attacks… An organisation’s established image is what protects it.”

That – and keeping the safety and security of oneself and one’s loved ones in mind when planning one’s activities, according to Nadezhda Kutepova from Planet of Hopes. She suggested even changing one’s looks or changing the address of the office in order to survive when pressure turns to persecution.

Andrei Rudomakha is working on several fronts at once – rallies across 70 Russian cities, letters to the president, four active groups speaking in defence of the Utrish forest in Russia and Ukraine, drawing support from political parties…Though his organisation is being careful about radical protests, in order to avoid extremism charges, the situation around Utrish is gradually changing for the better.

“We can see that the authorities dread mass-scale protests, everything’s starting to change after that,” he said.

The inspiration to overcome the challenges and international support

Indeed, the struggle may not be entirely hopeless even in the face of increasing pressure – as demonstrated by the hard victories ecologists across the globe win despite all kinds of challenges.

Amnesty International’s Russia expert Frederica Behr told the conference’s participants of the experience her organisation gained working in Nigeria – a nation with a more dismal human rights record than that of modern Russia. The global oil giant Shell is quite active in the oil-rich Nigeria, Behr said, and at some point the company came under fire following charges of complicity in the execution of activists who were protesting oil field development projects. Amnesty International launched a campaign of its own, picketing Shell’s offices in different countries and initiating an investigation into what was happening in Nigeria. A year ago, prosecutors in New York finally green-lighted a court case against Shell, Behr said, which led to a $15 million settlement in favour of the families of the killed activists and a change in the policies pursued by Shell, now substantially more open to a dialogue with the public.

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problems in your country, and you will be opposed and hindered, by the economic and political interests, and by the FSB,” said Hauge. “Of course, we cannot do your work for you, but we are not afraid to help, and we’re proud to be part of the Russian environmental movement. The more problems you experience the stronger you will become… And Bellona will be supporting your fight.”

This article was compiled and translated by Maria Kaminskaya, and Charles Digges contributed reporting. ERC Bellona also contributed reporting.

Maria Kaminskaya