A civil court in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad has found the anti-nuclear group Ecodefense guilty of not signing itself up as a “foreign agent” under the Kremlin backed NGO law of 2012 and received a 10,000 ruble ($130) fine the group told Bellona it will not pay.
The same court had earlier ceased proceedings against Alexandra Koroleva, Ecodefense’s representative in Kaliningrad, who had been threatened with a personal fine of 2,000 rubles ($26) for failure to comply with the foreign agent registration procedures, according to lawyers from Public Verdict, a legal assistance group that has also been declared a foreign agent.
Ecodefense’s co-chair, Vladimir Slivyak, told Bellona earlier this week in a social media interview that the group will appeal the decision of the Kaliningrad court.
That appeal should be heard within about two months, said Slivyak. But if it is unsuccessful, he said, “we will not be paying the fine.”
The group soon after its July 2014 branding as a foreign agent by the Justice Ministry – the first environmental group to be so designated – said it would refuse to comply with court decisions ordering it to register as a foreign agent, and would reject paying any fines.
Slivyak again asserted that position this week, saying, “We won’t pay this fine or any other fine the courts have handed down.”
“This is a matter of principle,” he said. “We think it’s political repression and that it’s not legal.”
The 2012 law on NGOs says that non-profits receiving foreign funding and engaging in “political activity” must declare themselves as foreign agents.
What “political activity” means, however, still remains open to broad interpretation by regional branches of the Justice Ministry.
A series of proposed amendments published by the Justice Ministry last week in a supposed effort to clarify the definition are widely regarded by legal experts and NGO heads to be fatal.
Posed as seven criteria by which an NGO can be judged guilty of political activity, the amendments make even public discussion of government policies actionable by fines and closure.
The amendments led Alexander Niktin, chairman of the Environmental Rights Center Bellona to say, “it’s pointless to even try operating an NGO in Russia.”
Another NGO leader, Igor Kalyapin, who heads up the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, said “[the Justice Ministry] could have just written that ‘political activity’ is all which is not in agreement with the government.”
The new amendments even propose that a group doesn’t have to receive foreign funding to be deemed a foreign agent: A Russian-funded NGO employing staff that earlier worked at another NGO that did receive foreign funding is also engaged in political activity, the amendments say.
In Ecodefense’s case, it seems the spirit of the new amendments were already in force when it was branded a foreign agent.
The group was initially informed by the Justice Ministry that it had achieved its agent status for protesting the construction of the Baltic Nuclear Power Plant in Kaliningrad –demonstrations that succeeded in freezing the project.
A Justice Ministry communiqué to Ecodefense, which was shown to Bellona, told Slivyak and his colleagues that protesting a state-planned nuclear power plant was tantamount to protesting the state itself.
The group was earlier found to be in compliance with all NGO laws during an unprecedented sweep by regional prosecutors of non-profits throughout Russia between March of 2013 and June 2014. As such, Slivyak said the foreign agent status came out of the blue.
But he also said in earlier interviews that Ecodefence’s refusal to comply with court orders, pay fines, or register as a foreign agent wasn’t causing it any special difficulties from government agencies.