Another Russian non-profit tarred as a foreign agent for little more than existing

The Kremlin.

Publish date: April 21, 2017

Written by: Anna Kireeva, Charles Digges

In a continuing crusade against environmental groups, Russia’s Justice Ministry on Thursday named the Murmansk area Kola Ecological Center as its 158th “foreign agent,” posing the threat of fines and closure to the organization.

In a continuing crusade against environmental groups, Russia’s Justice Ministry on Thursday named the Murmansk area Kola Ecological Center as its 158th “foreign agent,” posing the threat of fines and closure to the organization.

The European Court of Human Rights last month called into question Russia’s 2012 NGO law, which applies the “foreign agent” label to any non-profit receiving foreign funding and engaged in vaguely defined “political activity.”

Since its inception, the law has forced the closure of more than a third of the civil society groups that wind up on the Justice Ministry’s list of foreign agents. President Vladimir Putin originally wielded the legislation in the wake of huge street demonstrations against the Kremlin in 2011. As he begins his unchallenged bid for a fourth term in office in 2018, the law seems to have sharpened its fangs.

The ministry’s published reasons for putting the Kola Ecological Center on its blacklist were, as is becoming increasingly common, impossibly broad, and cast as shadowy “political activity” even its most basic functions.

The group didn’t receive any foreign grants in 2016, so after a planned audit, the ministry decided instead to target the organization’s activities for the previous year, during which it received some cash from abroad, its former director, Yury Ivanov, told Bellona.

And there, said the ministry, is where it discerned the fatal political activity: Officials cast pretty much anything the group did during that year as suspicious.

And pretty much all of it was done in cooperation with various branches of the government. During 2015, the Kola Ecological Center launched programs with the Murmansk Regional Parliament’s Committee for Natural Resource Use, the environmental prosecutor and the regional administration to develop recommendations on nuclear waste handling. The organization further offered informational programs and tours for journalists, and produced a number of environmental reports.

Then the group offered up a critique of plans by officials at the Kola Nuclear Power Plant, which is also in the Murmansk Region, to extend the run time of its elderly number 4 reactor to 2044, for a total of 60 years.

That’s when the Justice Ministry decided the group had gone too far. It said the group was conducting political activity, and slapped it on the foreign agent list. Specifically, it accused the group of “expanding participation in the decision-making process relative to taking an atomic station out of service.”

Other of the Kola Ecological Center’s offenses were ironically outlined as its work on a report authored with other NGOs on how to weather getting a foreign agent label of one’s own. The Ministry’s apparent gripe with that were the group’s aspirations to analyze how to accommodate the foreign agent legislation.

Twice in 2016, when it wasn’t receiving any foreign funding, the group participated in public hearings at the Kola Nuclear Power Plant, which were part of an official government environmental impact assessment on the reactor extensions.

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

This, said the ministry, was also an offense: The group’s charter, it said, “doesn’t imply conducting environmental impact assessments.”

Actually, the group’s charter, which is available online, states clearly that it conducts environmental impact assessments. And, of course, the group didn’t “conduct” the environmental impact assessment at the Kola Nuclear Power Plant. It merely participated, and even that not so successfully. Ivanov told Bellona his organization didn’t even get a chance to state its views on the reactor extensions.

It seems reasonable to ask whether simply showing up to public hearings constitutes political activity in the eyes of the Justice Ministry. If so, what are the hearings even for?

The public hearing process in Russia is actually required by law whenever the government is conducting an impact assessment on a project that might foul the environment. Attendance is encouraged. But, apparently, if anyone shows up to them, they are, in the eyes of the Justice Ministry, guilty of political activity.

And yet, the Ministry dug further and found the shadow of political activity cast even over the group’s participation in a panel on traditional fishing practices in the remote Kola Peninsula village of Teriberka. Why? Because local politicians and bureaucrats were also there.

In the Ministry’s indicting words: “The NGO took part in arranging and conducting various events organized by the executive organs of the governmental authority of the Murmansk Region and organs of local self-government.”

This, continued the Ministry in its damning conclusion, indicates the group’s intention to participate in public discussions and attract the attention of civil society to decisions made by the government.

The conclusions this suggests are troubling. The very point of an environmental organization is, in large part, to draw attention to problems and suggest possible solutions. But the Ministry’s tarring of the Kola Ecological Center seems intended to show that even that is “political activity” as defined by the NGO law.

But it doesn’t make any sense to discuss nuclear issues with anyone but the government. What good are environmental reports if you are not allowed to show them to the very people who need to see them? What’s the purpose of acknowledging environmental problems if you’re forbidden to discuss them with member of the very government that has the power to solve them?

“The indications of political activity that the minstry of Justice said it found in our organization’s work are simply absurd,” Ivanov said. “I’m getting the impression that the authorities think any activity is political.”