One lonely court near Sochi holds off on prosecuting Olympic ‘foreign agents’

NGO Grafitti The office of a Russian NGO defaces with the words "foreign agent." Credit: Memorial

In a sign of mounting confusion over how to name and prosecute “foreign agent” non-profits in Russia, a court near Sochi this week said it has to postpone blacklisting a group of environmentalists until it hears from president Vladimir Putin.

The group, the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, was in court to challenge its designation in September of last year as a foreign agent, which isn’t the first threat to its existence that it’s faced.

In the years leading up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the organization exposed a trail of corruption that led through the construction of Olympic venues and up the steps of sheik summer mansions on the Black Sea that Putin built for himself and his cronies, and published it all in a bombshell report.

The revelations stung: before the Kremlin started characterized the group as extremists bent on fouling state economic interests, it had tapped it to play an advisory role on complying with Olympic and national environmental regulations.

sochi sign Sochi signs. (Photo: Charles Digges/Bellona)

One of the report’s authors, Yevgeny Vitishko, was sent to a prison colony before the Olympics opened in February 2014 for supposedly vandalizing a fence. Another, Suren Gazaryan, fled trumped up attempted murder charges for Estonia and then Germany. Others have remained under constant surveillance ever since. Being called foreign agents has hardly been the worst of it, but it was, at least, predictable.

By its own admission, the group received several small donations from foreign sources in the decade leading up to the Sochi Olympics.

But the one that led to the foreign agent charge was more in keeping with the deep rummaging to which the group has grown accustomed. A review of the group members’ individual bank accounts showed that one of them had received a money transfer from abroad.

Since 2012, Russia’s Justice Ministry has been labeling “foreign agents” based on whether a non-profit receives even the small amounts of funding from abroad and engages in broadly defined “political activity.”

The law has had a crushing impact. Over a third of non-profits operating in Russia have shut down, among them the Environmental Rights Center Bellona and Bellona Murmansk. Those that remain plod on under a villainous cloud: a recent poll showed a majority of Russians are spooked by the term “foreign agent,” and associate it with espionage, treason and worse.

Putin himself has fueled the paranoia, making absurd claims that non-profits receive billions in shadowy alien funding.

In the case of the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, it wasn’t its past of airing dirty Olympic laundry that landed it on the Justice Ministry’s blacklist, though. Its supposed political activity was lobbying local governments in the Black Sea region for more parks, or so-called “green” zones.

The vulnerabilities environmental groups and how their advocacy of conservation efforts land them on the wrong side of the law have touched one official, Mikhail Fedotov, who heads the Presidential Council on Human Rights.

In November, Fedotov prodded Putin about exempting them from prosecution. Putin, in turn, tasked his deputy head of administration, Sergei Kiriyenko, with coming up with some response by the end of March.

And that’s what the court in Sochi is waiting to hear as it considers the group’s appeal to refute its status as a foreign agent.

Whether Fedotov’s attempt to soften the law for environmental organizations will come to anything remains to be seen, but the government and regional courts are clearly not getting any more shy about prosecuting foreign agents.

Putin’s now-public desire to run for a fourth presidential term in 2018 makes any softening of law ever less likely. The original law was birthed in retaliation to the raw disgust for Putin that drove hundreds of thousand of people onto the streets in 2012 to protest his reelection.

If anything, the law will probably get more restrictive and will remain muddy until it does. For now, at least one court near Sochi isn’t willing to let the law’s ambiguity pillory an organization that wants to protect parks, at least before giving more reasonable voices a chance to speak.