Ecodefense, slammed tarred as a foreign agent for nuke plant protest, finds unwitting support of government

ecodefense-protests Ecodefence's Vladimir Slivyak (far left) unfurls a banner protesting the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant's construction. (Photo: Ecodefense)

Ecodefense, the only Russian environmental group that has been listed by Russian Ministry of Justice as a “foreign agent” for its protests against the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant, found it has an odd bedfellow in its criticism of the now halted construction project – Russia’s Ministry of Energy.

The environmental group ran afoul of new amendments to the Russia’s draconian NGO laws for the 7-year- campaign it waged against the economic illogic of building the nuclear power plant in Russia Kaliningrad enclave, wedged between Lithuania and Poland. As it turns out, the Russian Ministry of Energy wholeheartedly agrees that the plant construction is an “unreasonable” idea.

Construction on the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant stopped in September 2013, largely as a result of Ecodefense’s public education campaign.

balticprotest

A protest mock-up of the Baltic NPP in Kaliningrad from 2010. (Source: Bellona)

In July, Ecodefense found it had turned up in the Justice Ministry’s list of foreign agents, shortly following a June 4 amendment to Russia’s NGO law, signed by President Vladimir Putin, that granted the ministry powers railroad civil society organizations onto the list without their voluntary consent, as was originally envisioned, or court decisions indicating they must so designate themselves.

Ecodefense joined election monitoring organization Golos, as well as the regional Golos organization, the Kostroma Center for Support of Civil Initiatives, the Saratov-based Center for Social Policies and Gender Studies and the regional rights group, the Union of Don Women, and Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest rights groups, on the foreign agent list.

The original 2012 NGO law stipulated that organizations operating in Russia receiving foreign funding and engaged in vaguely defined “political activity” register themselves under the loaded label of “foreign agents.”

The new amendment aims to ratchet up the stakes for NGOs, the overwhelming majority of which have refused to voluntarily register as foreign agents under the NGO law that took effect in November 2012.

Alexander Nikitin, chairman of the Environment and Rights Center (ERC) Bellona, said Putin signed June 4 law because the previous voluntary self-designation as foreign agents was failing to fulfill the Russian administration’s desired quota.

“It was just becoming an embarrassment,” Nikitin said. “Now that the Justice Ministry can decide, and prosecutors are not involved, they can put anyone on the list and destroy them by dragging them through court.”

‘Protesting nuclear power is protesting the state’

The Justice Ministry substantiated including Ecodefense on its foreign agent list based on its long protest of the Balitic Nuclear Energy Plant, which would have been built in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The Justice Ministry constituted the protests as “political activity.”

Ecodefence, also receives some funding from abroad, most substantially from the European Union.

The organization had, along with thousands of other NGOs in Russia, endured months of prosecutors’ checks and been cleared of any perceived wrongdoing under the NGO law.

But, according to Vladimir Slivyak, the group’s co-chair, the Justice Ministry in its letter to the organization said that protesting nuclear power plants was tantamount to protesting the government.

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Ecodefense co-chair Vladimir Slivyak. (Photo: Ecodefence.ru)

“Nuclear plants are a government plan,” Slivyak told Bellona, paraphrasing the Justice Ministry’s letter. “And if you resist them, you are speaking against the government, and if so this is clearly political activity.”

Are you still a foreign agent if the government agrees?

But Russia’s Ministry of Energy in mid June reached the same conclusions that Ecodefense had promulgated its criticism of the Baltic Nuclear Plant: that building the plant for energy production in the region made no economic sense, the Rugrad.eu news portal reported (in Russian).

The Energy Ministry was joined in its opinion by Russia’s Unified Energy Systems, Russia’s largest energy utility, and the Rosset electrical utility. The ministry and the utitlities demanded the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant be scrubbed from the Russian federal government’s federal plan for the development of nuclear energy and put on ice.

The ministry and the utilities said the Baltic plant “has no relevance for electric energy consumers in the territory of the Russian Federation,” as quoted by Rusgrad. The materials thus far assembled to build the plant will now be distributed to Belarus, where Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom is financing a nuclear power station for the Stalinist state..

It is unclear whether the Ministry of Energy’s decision to conclusively abandon the plan will have any effect on the case Ecodefense it waging against the Justice Ministry in court to have it’s name scrubbed from the foreign agent list.

A spokesman for the Justice Ministry in Moscow reached Tuesday by Bellona refused to comment

Foreign agents in the government

In September, a Kailingrad court handed Ecodefence a 300,000 rubles ($8,000) fine for not registering as a foreign agent. It has appealed the verdict.

The irony of Russia’s Energy Ministry’s decision to scrub building the plant was not lost on Slivyak.

“So you protest and come out for seven years saying that the nuclear power plant is unneeded in the region and you end up on the foreign agents list because, in the Justice Ministry’s exact formulation, you ‘opposed the construction of a nuclear power plant,’ and get a 300,000 ruble fine,” said Slivyak via social media.

“And then the Ministry of Energy says the same thing, like it’s unreasonable and not planned to be built,” Slivyak continued. “It’s intriguing to know when the Ministry of Energy will be added to the foreign agent roster – they repeat our statement and also get foreign money – so, when?”

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no