ST. PETERSBURG – Ecodefense, the first Russian environmental group designated a “foreign agent” by the Justice Ministry, continued its court battle to appeal the application of the Soviet designation and fines levied against the it that threaten to cripple its work.
Ecodefense co-chair Vladimir Slivyak told Bellona that at a December 22 hearing, the anti-nuclear group’s lawyers had succeeded in reducing fines levied against it for failing to voluntarily register as a foreign agent, as required by a Vladimir Putin supported law on NGOs that went into force in November 2012.
The law was generally boycotted by NGOs across the board on the argument that it was susceptible to overly broad application.
The law was modified in June by a decree from Putin – whose government was disappointed the 2012 law hadn’t netted more foreign agents – which allows the Justice Ministry to hand out the label at its own discretion.
Ecodefense almost immediately found itself tarred with the designation as soon as Putin’s amendment took effect. The group has received some funding from the European Union, and some German organizations, Slivyak has said.
The Justice Ministry told Ecodefense that its protests against the construction of the unpopular Baltic Nuclear Power Plant in Kaliningrad were tantamount to protests directly against the government of Russia.
Though Ecodefense succeeded at the December 22 hearing in slashing the fine 300,000 ruble ($5,000) levied against it for failing to voluntarily register as a foreign agent to 100,000 rubles, Slivyak said the verdict does little to help the organization’s situation.
Only full dismissal of charges acceptable
“Legally it’s a success,” he told Bellona, “but in reality it doesn’t really change anything for us because we consider only the lifting of all charges and sanctions to be a success.”
The hearing also revealed a number of mistakes in the Justice Ministry’s protocol against the organization stipulating a 500,000 ruble fine for the groups alleged failure to deliver its financial documentation, as required of foreign agents under the NGO law.
Slivyak said he expects the Justice Ministry will correct its errors and submit the protocol to the courts anew this month.
Despite this, Slivyak says the group refuses to subject itself the foreign agent label because its activities don’t meet the legal criteria for being so designated.
“We are not foreign agents,” Slivyak said in his interview. “We have for the lifetime [of our organization] worked exclusively in the interests of defending the ecological rights of Russia’s citizens.”
The group has mounted its legal battle with assistance from Public Verdict, another Russian NGO recently branded a foreign agent by the Justice Ministry.
Aside from Ecodefense’s protests against the Baltic nuclear plant, which, for the time being have halted its further construction and turned pubic opinion against it, the Justice Ministry has cited the group’s campaigns for Russia to ratify the Aarhaus Convention guaranteeing information about ecologically significant projects be made public.
What is ‘political?’
Such campaigning – coupled with Ecodefense’s foreign funding sources – could be construed as “political activity” under the new NGO’s foggy definition of what, precisely, political activity is.
And it’s specifically this ambiguity in the 2012 law that has yet to be resolved, and which has caused so many non-governmental organizations in Russia to find they’ve been de facto designated as enemies of the state.
The year 2013 saw unprecedented sweeps of Russian NGOs by such disparate organizations as the Prosecutor General, the tax inspectorate, fire and health department officials, government consumer protection agencies, and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the KGB’s successor force.
Thousands of prominent NGOs – including Ecodefense, the Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona and Bellona Murmansk – found themselves struggling to show they were in compliance with building codes and office air quality statutes, employee health regulations, financial documentation practices and other arbitrary tripwires meant to cajole them into accepting the foreign agent label.
Ecodefense, ERC Bellona and Ecodefense cleared these hurdles and prosecutors backed off their demands.
Alexander Nikitin, chairman of ERC Bellona has repeatedly said the NGO law’s conception of “political activity” is so broad that any organization can find itself stuck to the heel of the Justice Ministry’s jackboot.
Indeed, groups as various free medical clinics and animal shelters have been targeted – and often shut down – by the law.
Environmental groups in Kremlin crosshairs
Yet, recent government actions are disproportionately targeting ecological groups in ways that bypass the mire of the NGO law and take persecution down even more abstruse paths.
Such is the case with a recent order to disband the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (EWNC) transcends even the intentional muddiness of the NGO law.
In November, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Agydeya, which neighbors the Krasnodar Region, ordered EWNC’s shut down for an array of exotic reasons including extremism.
EWNC was, and remains, instrumental in vocally documenting rampant corruption and ecological devastation stemming from Putin’s trophy Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games. EWNC has sent an appeal to the Presidium of the Russian Supreme Court.
The Saratov Region’s Partnership for Development ecological organization was in August declared a foreign agent by the Justice Ministry, Radio Svoboda reported (in Russian) and the government continues to seek staggering fines from its director Olga Pitsunova. The organization is appealing the decision.
And on December 12, an Agydeya Republic court charged environmental activist Valery Brinikh with extremism for his activities exposing ecological destruction caused by the Kievo-Zhuraki pig breeding complex, according to a release from EWNC (in Russian). Senator Vyacheslav Derev, who sits on the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, owns the breeding complex, EWNC reporting.