Bold Russian anti-nuke group waves off foreign agent law, refuses to pay mounting fines

NGO Grafitti In November 2012, the day the 'foreign agents' law came into force, unknown individuals sprayed graffiti reading, 'Foreign Agent!' and 'Love USA' on the buildings hosting the offices of three prominent NGOs in Moscow, including Memorial. (Photo: Yulia Klimova/Memorial)

Russia’s Ecodefense anti-nuclear group has again been fined for refusing to register as a “foreign agent” with the country’s Justice Ministry in a court hearing to which the group’s co-chair, Vladimir Slivyak, said the organization had not even been invited to attend.

Slivyak told Bellona in an interview that Ecodefense was informed only Monday, July 20 that a judge in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad had on July 3 levied another 100,000 ruble ($1,700) fine against his organization for failing to register as a foreign agent.

He said his group never received any summons for the July 3 hearing, and as such, would refuse to pay the fine.

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

The foreign agent self-appellation is required under Russia’s controversial 2012 NGO law stipulating that non-profits receiving foreign funding and engaging in vaguely defined political activity must register as foreign agents and submit to onerous reporting and auditing procedure.

The law also requires NGOs that are so designated to indicate on all material they publish that they are foreign agents. The vast majority of NGOs in Russia ignored the law when it took effect in November 2012, which said that the foreign agent term characterized them as spies or traitors.

The group denounced the law in a Russian-language statement yesterday, saying, “We consider the actions of the Justice Ministry (which led to our inclusion on the so called roster of ‘foreign agents’) deeply politically motivated and directed at the destruction of the reputation of the civil society movement, which is defending Russia’s rights.”

In July, apparently frustrated by the lack of foreign agents signing up, the President Vladimir Putin gave broad powers to the Justice Ministry to list NGOs as agents on its own. Several days later, Ecodefense was ensnarled in that dragnet.

The group, which was the first ecological group to be named a foreign agent, was told that it ran afoul of the law for protesting the construction of the Baltic Nuclear Power plant. According to a letter Ecodefense received from the Justice Ministry, speaking out against government plans to build nuclear station is tantamount to speaking out against the government – which the Justice Ministry characterized as “political activity.”

By Slivyak’s own admission, and as stated in its audits, the group has received funding from the European Union and several German environmental groups.

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

Ecodefense was previously fined 300,000 rubles ($5,200 at the current exchange rate) in September for refusing to voluntarily register itself on the foreign agent list.

Slivyak said yesterday that his group wont’ pay that fine either. He also said that the group’s choice to ignore the fines has not resulted in any official interference with the group’s environmental activities.

“There is international cooperation and solidarity [with Russian NGOs], he said. People are helping us to continue our work.”

Indeed, Slivyak just completed a several week tour of South Africa to in an effort to thwart Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom’s efforts to forge several nuclear power plant deals the company is trying to make with Johannesburg. He experienced no interference from authorities.

“Civil disobedience is the instrument of change, when you feel change is absolutely needed,” he said. “We ignore their law – we will not give [Russian authorities] any reports, we will not mention that we are foreign agents in publications, we won’t do audits as they request. We just tell them that we are not agents – we won’t do this because only agents do this, and we are not agents.”

He added that the authorities notified the group that it would be required to undergo another audit in August.

“They want [us to present] everything, like descriptions of projects, financial details, publications – everything,” he said. But he said the group intends to disappoint inspectors when they come.

“Most probably we will just not give them anything,” he said.

Such a strident approach, however, is not without its risks, and Slivyak noted that his organization’s days might be numbered.

“We expect that after the August inspection, they will start the process of closing us down,” he said.

A Justice Ministry spokesman also told Bellona that, under the law, legal actions could escalate to imprisoning Ecodefense’s leaders.

But Slivyak remained optimistic that Ecodefense’s choice to simply ignore the NGO law would have a positive effect in the long run.

“You never know what the government is planning,” he said. “We will get our country back sooner or later – it’s just a matter of time.”

Until then, Slivyak said, his group will continue to wave off government fines and intimidation and go about its anti-nuclear advocacy.

“The ideal situation is to not follow rules when you think they’re unfair,” he said.

According to a Human Rights Watch tally, the Justice Ministry has listed 74 organizations on its foreign agent list as of July 8. Alongside Ecodefense, they include many more environmental organizations like Bellona Murmansk, Planeta Nadezhd, Dront of Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov’s Eco-logika, Samara’s, Educational Center for Environment and Security and many others.

The breakdown also targets groups affiliated with press rights and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy groups.

Charles Digges