Mere days after an apparent softening of the foreign agent law, Russia’s Justice Ministry has targeted a group that organizes youth trash collection and recycling drives, children’s ecology games and kids’ and climate change lectures.
The Arkhangelsk-based organization, called Aetas, found it had become the 31st environmental organization on the Justice Ministry’s foreign agent list on Monday, Russia’s national “Day of Knowledge” for reasons that are still unclear to the group.
Eleven days ago, on August 25, the Justice Ministry appeared to feint in the opposite direction, striking the Kola Ecological Center from its roster of foreign agents. That move was seen as an attempt to purge the foreign agent blacklist ahead of a lawsuit brought by 61 Russian non-profits in the European Court of Human Rights.
If the suit, which will be heard this fall, is successful, it could force Moscow to overturn the controversial 2012 law, which has served to put more than a third of Russia’s non-profit environmental and human rights groups out of business.
But Monday’s marking of Aetas as a foreign agent made clear that the Justice Ministry was far from backtracking on its policies.
Russia’s foreign agent law came into effect in 2012, following unprecedented street protests against President Vladimir Putin and Duma elections his party helped rig. It singles out non-profits receiving any funding from abroad, and punishes them with fines, ensnares them in court battles, and often leads to their closure for vaguely defined “political activity.”
Much of the time, targeted NGOs can at least guess at what part of their activities are objectionable to the Kremlin, and thus interpreted by the Justice Ministry as “political activity.” Ecological groups, for instance, often call out polluting industries that turn out to have financial ties to Putin’s cronies.
But staff writing on Aetas’s social media pages on Monday were baffled as to why a group dealing largely with volunteer battery collection drives, youth-powered recycling efforts and other youth oriented environmental education projects would have been tarred as foreign agents.
The group’s chairwoman, Anastasia Kochnevaya, told Bellona that Aetas receives a small but steady foreign cash infusion from Nature I Ungdom, a Norwegian environmental group.
That funding, she said, goes to rent, utilities, office supplies and the Internet bill. It also finances things like Aetas’s free ecology summer camp and the volunteer trash collection drives it runs around the city. It also helps bear costs associated with an annual recycling contest the group holds for school children.
As of Monday, Kochnevaya said, no one in her organization had yet seen the official reasons behind the foreign agent designation.
“No one here has seen a check document from the Ministry of Justice, and no one signed for it,” she said. “Therefore, we don’t know how we are incriminated in political activity.”
For its part, the Foreign Ministry’s website says the group was added to the blacklist as a result of a sweep it conducted in the Arkhangelsk region, but the entry likewise fails to specify any particular reason for Aetas’s inclusion.
Kochnevaya said her organization would try to protest the Justice Ministry decision in court, despite the fact that courts rarely rule in favor of foreign agents. At the same time, she said her group had little choice but to continue accepting what foreign assistance it could get.
She said a negligibly small part of Aetas’s budget comes from Russian sources.
“Even receiving 30 to 50 thousand roubles ($500-800) is a problem,” she said, adding that application procedures to Russian organizations have become steadily more complicated.
In an appeal to its supporters, the group recounted a year that has not gone according to plan. The organization was evicted from its offices for no apparent reason. The former location still has no occupant.
Now they are facing a potentially lengthy and expensive court battle as well as other official hearings to determine whether they owe any fines.