The pitching of the environmental protest camp falls on the eve of a hearing during which the Krasnoyarsk Regional Court will her appeals from environmental groups on whether to honour the approximately 40,000 signatures collected by Krasnoyarsk Region residents last winter to force a referendum whether they wanted to accept the import of some 20 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) to this region. In the Krasnoyarsk region, 35,000 signatures are required for a referendum.
Last February, the Krasnoyarsk electoral commission disqualified 31,700 the signatures on a number of technicalities and threw the referendum out — similar to the referendum that was scuttled a year ago when environmentalists collected 2.5 million, 500,000 more than needed for a national referendum, for million signatures to force the radioactive waste import laws into to a vote, only to have 800,000 of them shot down for such things as incorrect street addresses written down by the signatories.
The camp is scheduled to stand for a week, during which organizers say its size should grow to as many as 150 tent-dwelling protestors.
This Saturday, shortly after the protestors began putting up the first of the tents and hanging a banner that said "A new Chernobyl? No Thanks," the camp — which is in a glade some 400 meters from the road to the closed nuclear city of Zheleznogorsk — was visited by Colonel Alexander Bychkunov of the Krasnoyarsk Regional Police. Flanked by three lieutenants, Bychkunov asked to meet with protest leaders and spoke for some minutes with Ecodefence! co-chairman Vladimir Slivyak.
"There are enough police out there that you would think they are expecting Osama Bin Laden to show up, but we understand it’s a peaceful demonstration," said Slivyak in a talk to the group to assuage fears.
"But we have understand that, by standing up against imports of nuclear waste to Russia, we are to some degree talking a stand against the state and its laws, that’s why they are scared of us."
Protestors attending the camp have come from Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Kaliningrad, St Petersburg, and even the United States. As the week progresses, Slivyak said other Russian cities as well as other eastern European countries are likely to be represented.
Olga Podasenova, a veteran protestor of Yekaterinburg’s Ecological Union was not surprised by the police presence that seemed to put many of the younger protestors on edge.
"I think many see greens as being hand-fed by the West. The secret services and the police are not against us because we oppose nuclear power plants, but because they think we are in the pocket of the West — many of my own friends call me a spy," she said.
"On the surface it’s a joke — but deeper, they’re dead serious."
Moscow’s Nina Nikulina, who brought her 12-year-old son to the protest agreed, saying that if attitudes toward the environmental movement in Russia are to change, "the hope is to bring your children into it and make it change."
Among the younger protestors holed up in tents near Beryozovko were the Dubinina sisters, Darya, 18, and Olga, 16, who had grown up in the closed city of Seversk, home to two of Russia’s last remaining three plutonium reactors — the other one at Zheleznogorsk. The daughters of now-unemployed nuclear workers, they became involved with the environmental movement when the bottom fell out of their hometown.
"We saw the depression of the people and of the environment settle in our city and we wanted to find out more," said Darya.
"Our parents used to work in the nuclear industry in Seversk and when they lost their jobs, not only was there no money, but we found out the cheaper pleasures like swimming were off limits because the water was too polluted from the nuclear reactors."
"It’s as if," her sister Olga rejoined, "everything became known at once — there’s no money to pay your parents — who used to be respected in this society — and the land and the water are polluted, so you can’t even enjoy that."
To the people of Beryozovko, down the road from Zheleznogorsk — which is experiencing changes similar to Seversk — the ravages caused to the environment, an particularly the central Siberian Yenisey River, by the closed nuclear city are an open secret, and have been for years.
"Swimming in the Yenisey?" said one villager who identified himself only as Vladimir, "Forget it — unless you know of the two or three places you can go around here."
But worse, said Vladimir is the fishing.
"I drove in a 2000 kilometre circle trying to find a place on the Yenisey or one of its tributaries to fish, places my father an I once caught pike, salmon," he said.
"I got nothing on this trip — guppies mostly — and worn tires."