Putin against foreign money for Russian NGOs and public environmental evaluations

Publish date: July 21, 2005

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia would not tolerate foreign money being used to finance the political activities of nongovernmental organizations and that public environmental evaluations should not stop development of the country and its economy.

“We are against overseas funding for the political activities [of NGOs] in Russia. I categorically object,” Putin said at a meeting with human rights activists in the Kremlin yesterday.

“Not a single state that respects itself does that, and we won’t allow it either,” he said.

Putin complained that foreign competitors of Russia sponsor the Russian environmental organisations in order to stop the development of Russia’s efforts in gaining direct access to foreign markets. He cited the controversial construction of the Russian sea terminal near Finland claiming environmental NGOs were specially sponsored allegedly by Finns ”to torpedo the development of this project”.

Putin urged the activists to remain independent of foreign influences.

“Let’s solve our internal political issues ourselves,” Putin told the gathering, which included the co-chairman Russia’s biggest green NGO, the Socio-Ecological Union, Svyatoslav Zabelin.

Concerning public environmental evaluations, Putin gave a negative example, citing a Russian oil company in Siberia that established an environmental NGO in Moscow in an attempt to influence the results of the public environmental evaluation about oil pipe line route.

Putin also called for greater cooperation between human rights groups and the government in ensuring citizens’ rights and promised that the government would make more state grants available to NGOs.

The overall message of the Putin’s speech was that environmental NGOs are sponsored by the western competitors and only hinder the economy of Russia.

The chairman of Environmental Rights Centre Bellona in St Petersburg, Alexander Nikitin, who spent several months in prison for his environmental activity, commented on the president’s speech.

“We have heard a frank opinion of President Putin concerning what the public environmental evaluation procedure should look like and his judgement on the environmental organisations’ activities,” he said. “I believe President Putin is absolutely wrong when he speaks about ‘ordered’ activities of environmental organisations that receive money from abroad. He is also wrong about usage of environmental NGOs for competitive struggle.”

Nikitin continued: “The President and the government keep complaining about the financing Russian NGOs from abroad and constantly draw attention to this fact, but at the same time they do practically nothing to create good conditions, including financing, for NGOs development truly independent of the authorities on all levels. However, we can see that the state keeps establishing and financing pro-Kremlin youth organisations like Nashi and Idushie Vmeste.”

Nikitin concluded that “we hope, anyway, that Putin’s words about the necessity to settle precise mechanism of interaction between environmental organisations and the state will not remain just words.”

Social outcry

The president’s statement led to a groundswell of reaction from ecological organizations.

In its response, Greenpeace Russia pointed out the ambiguity of Putin’s words, which could lead to polararized interpretations of his speech.

On the contrary, the environmental group Ekozashita! said “the president’s statement clearly demonstrates that, in the near future, the institution of environmental evaluatons could be abolished or replaced by a simplified procedure without the participation of the community.”

Meanwhile, “state environmental evaluations are the last democratic mechanism to control dangerous projects that could be harmful to the environment. The abolition of the procedure will allow big business to defile our natural resources and deprive public organizations of the opportunity to take part in decision-making. The country, where the natural environment is being killed off on purpose, will never become successful—neither economically, nor socially. The president of Russia does not understand that there is a connection between the state of the environment and successful economical development,” ecologists say.

Co-chairman of the International Social-Ecological Union Zabelin, who personally attended the meeting with the president, believes that one can draw only one conclusion from Putin’s speech: “If they are afraid of ecologists, it means they have begun to respect them.”

“If the not-always-correct details of the oil transport issue are at the forefront of the president’s mind, it must mean that the point has been driven home,” said Zabelin. “It has finally become clear for the first citizen that such trespasses are punished severely. And the victims become not only the ship-owners, but the whole nation and its public image.”