Environmental activists are under severe pressure, new report concludes

NGO Grafitti The office of a Russian NGO defaces with the words "foreign agent." Credit: Memorial

Russia’s law on ‘foreign agents’ has put an undue burden on the country’s environmentalists, hampering the addressing myriad ecological problems, a new independent report has found. The law has also encouraged a culture of secrecy and severely limited public participation in decisions that could pose environmental threats, the Social Ecological Union said in its new study.

Within the first five months of this year, the group recorded 63 episodes of harassment or pressure among 170 environmental activists, groups and non-profits who answered the study across 20 regions of Russia. The union has been conducting its monitoring project ever since Moscow adopted its controversial law on foreign agents in 2012.

Under that legislation, non-profit groups receiving even small amounts of foreign assistance, and engaged in fuzzily defined “political activity,” are required to register themselves with Russia’s justice ministry as “foreign agents,” a freighted term that most Russians associate with espionage.

Activists have said the law is used as a cudgel to silence civil society. Non-profits that run afoul of the legislation find themselves targeted by crippling fines or closure – or worse. Between January and May, said the group, at least 10 ecological activists were attacked, had property destroyed or received threats. Four faced criminal charges, and 98 faced other legal headaches in the form of administrative charges.

The most incidents of pressure against environmentalists were reported in Moscow, where the Union registered 17. Bashkortostan, in Russia’s southern Urals, and Russia’s northwestern Arkhangelsk region followed with eight incidents each. Seven incidents were recorded in Tatarstan.

On the whole, activists were most likely to face harassment when they rallied in opposition to various landfills that Moscow is building in the Russian hinterlands to house its overflowing household waste, the study said. The garbage protests have drawn thousands from a broad cross section of Russian society and have become a thorn in the Kremlin’s side.

“At first, we were monitoring pressure on environmental groups,” said Vitaly Servetnik, co-chair of the Social Ecological Union. “But as institutionalized civil society has been destroyed, our monitoring has shifted to the activists themselves.”

Pavel Moiseyev, head of the legal project at Bellona’s St Petersburg-based environmental law center, says environmental groups in Russia are suffering for a variety of reasons.

“The complexities of the situation are connected in the first place with changes in environmental legislation, the emergence of the ‘foreign agent’ law, and the ‘fake news’ legislation,” says Moiseyev. “The second problem is financial – it is extremely difficult for Russian non-profits to find financing for their projects, and financing from abroad immediately triggers the foreign agent law.”

Authorities likewise block legal methods for activists to express their grievances, says Moiseyev. Such was the case during Russia’s hosting of the World Cup soccer championship in 2018, when the government issued a ban on all protests and rallies. Indeed, he says, holding peaceful rallies on any issue is nearly impossible.

Even getting hold of information on environmental problems is excessively difficult, Moiseyev says. Laws governing access to information are routinely ignored. Specifically, he says, obtaining any routine government environmental review is next to impossible without going to court.

Moiseyev pointed to a number of laws on Russia’s books that should put control over environmental reviews and other information in the public’s hands. But he says they’re overlooked.

“In real life, these laws do not contribute to public control and do not give additional powers or guarantees for NGOs or activists,” Moiseyev says. “I think that changing legislation in this area would help NGOs and activists both in obtaining information and in protecting the environmental rights of citizens.”

Servetnik agrees with Moiseyev’s list of difficulties faced by Russia’s non-profit world, but he adds another that isn’t so easily solved by cleaning up Russia’s legislation: the stigma and lost trust associated with being labeled a “foreign agent.”

“In principle, people’s trust in non-profits was greatly undermined by the discriminatory legislation,” Servetnik says.

He adds that the number of Russia’s environmental problems is only growing, as is the need for people who will get busy solving them. But the absence of avenues to public participation, the authorities’ dismissal of public opinion, and the suppression of information – and even hiding of environmental problems ­­– hardly contributes to solving them.

Yet, despite an image of treasonous, untrustworthy ‘foreign agents’ encouraged by the 2012 legislation, active citizens, faced with mounting environmental difficulties and government inaction, are increasingly turning to non-profits with their problems.

Bellona’s Moiseyev says that his office annually handles more than 100 environmental complaints filed by ordinary citizens. In recent months, Bellona has addressed problems of abandoned irradiated waste found in a St Petersburg suburb, consulted on a draft law that would improve public green spaces in the city, and fought to declassify information about hazardous waste disposal practices, which city officials have refused to make public.

But in parts of the country where there aren’t organizations, Servetnik says citizens are showing an interest in organizing themselves – as the garbage protests showed.

“Inept solutions from officials to environmental problems provokes an uptick in conflicts and cases of pressure [on activists]” says Servetnik. “But the number of environmentalists and their environmental rights are not lessening.”