In a troubling development for international ecological groups that deal with questions of Russia’s Cold War nuclear legacy, Moscow’s Justice Ministry on Monday named the Environmental Rights Center Bellona as a “foreign agent.”
ERC Bellona, founded by Alexander Nikitin in 1998, became the 158th organization tarred with the foreign agent label since the restrictive 2012 Law on NGOs came into effect.
Nikitin said the group had been undergoing a so-called unplanned check since before the New Year, and had been told it would receive written notification about its status from the Justice Ministry by December 25th.
But that date came and went with no notice. Nikitin first learned of the new designation Monday, when Russia’s State newswire TASS began reporting on the organization’s designation as a foreign agent.
Nikitin was undeterred by the news.
“We expected this decision,” said Nikitin. But he also said it would not impede the organization’s mission.
“This means that we will continue working,” Nikitin said.
“We won’t throw aside our very important work over such small change,” he said. “All of our projects remain, all of our people will remain, and we will find ways to continue our work.”
The group has long had a turbulent relationship with officialdom: When it was founded, Nikitin was on trial for supposedly revealing state secrets in a Bellona report on the decrepit state of Russia’s northern nuclear fleet.
In 2000, Nikitin was fully acquitted by the Russian Supreme Court and became the only individual to ever be cleared of treason charges leveled by Russian or Soviet security services.
The report he and Bellona wrote then became a guidepost document for western governments that wanted to invest in helping Russia secure its Cold War legacy of decommissioned nuclear submarines and military nuclear waste, programs that continue successfully to this day.
ERC Bellona has helped target more than $3 billion worth of international funding to dismantle 200 derelict submarines and other floating nuclear hazards in the Arctic region, like the Lepse nuclear service ship.
The group has also been instrumental in decades-long joint efforts between Norway and Russia to clean up the notorious submarine maintenance base at Andreyeva Bay.
Bellona’s efforts were jeopardized in 2012 when the Russian government passed its NGO law stipulating that non-profits operating in whole or in part on foreign funding must register themselves as “foreign agents” with the Justice Ministry if they engage in broadly defined “political activity.”
The Ministry in 2014 was given broad powers to name foreign agents on its own.
The law has shuttered more than a third of NGOs in the country, one of which was Bellona’s oldest Russian office, Bellona Murmansk.
That group decided to disband itself rather than undertake considerable legal costs to have its name removed from the foreign agent registry.
The decision by the Justice Ministry to list ERC Bellona as a foreign agent dashes considerable recent hopes that the government might cease targeting environmental groups with the foreign agent label.
The Justice Ministry’s said ERC Bellona was engaged “political activity for “publishing, including via contemporary informational technologies, opinions on decisions taken by the government and policies that it has adopted,” apparently a reference to Bellona’s Russian website, Bellona.ru.
The Justice Ministry also accused ERC Bellona of attempting to “form socio-political opinions and convictions.”
Nikitin has long said ERC Bellona has anything to do with any kind of political activity. But amendments to the NGO law last year impossibly broadened the notion of political activity.
Those amendments, which were singed onto the law by President Vladimir Putin in June “maximally restricted” what NGOs could do, said Nikitin.
Among the more exotic interpretations of what political activity is are on the popular practice of sending open letters to Russian politicians at any level of government; participating in gatherings or demonstrations; criticizing laws passed by any level of government; using website to air opinions about any decision made by the government, and any attempts to influence the drafting of legislation.
The police department in St. Petersburg had recently launched a campaign of demanding financial information from the city’s 158 nonprofits that accepts some amount of funding from foreign sources.