Russia’s most enthusiastic environmental group shuts down over ‘foreign agent’ accusation

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

Russia’s foreign agent law has ground another environmental group out of existence as Akrhangelsk’s youth group Aetas – which led a recycling drive that inspired thousands of ordinary Russians to reuse their paper and plastic – announced it would shut its doors on Wednesday.

The group, which also mounts regular excursions into forests along Russia’s Arctic coast to pick up litter, landed on the Justice Ministry’s blacklist of “foreign agents” in September when it was targeted for receiving funding from Nature and Youth, its sister group in Norway.

On Wednesday, Aetas announced on its Russian social media page that the stigma of the foreign agent label was making its work impossible and that it would disband as a result.

Anastasia Kochneva, once the group’s chairman, and now head of its “liquidation commission,” said Aetas landing on the Justice Ministry blacklist had frightened off potential volunteers and made it a pariah among civic officials with whom it used to cooperate.

aetas-trees--ngo Tree planting trees in Arkhangelsk, Russia. Credit: Aetas

Since its inception, the foreign agent law has felled hundreds of organizations, but the closure of Aetas has struck even jaded observers as particularly cruel.

On its social media page, Aetas is breezy, hip and unpretentious, speaking to its supporters in their own language, and urges others to join “the coolest environmental youth movement in town.”

For 19 years, the group has been run by mostly high school and college age Russians on a shoe string budget who arranged youth nature camps, planted trees, organized neighborhood garbage collection drives and helped install solar panels and wind mills in rural Northwest Russia.

It began its collaboration with Norway’s youth environmental movement in 2003, and the two groups organized cross culture summer camps across the Scandinavian and Russian Arctic, and the funding Aetas received from Nature and Youth helped finance those exchanges, and went to routine office expenses like the group’s internet connection.

Russia’s law governing NGOs came into effect in 2012, and forced nonprofit organizations who receive even small amounts of funding from abroad to declare themselves as “foreign agents” on a national registry. The law grew longer fangs in 2014 when the Justice Ministry was given broad authority to name foreign agents on its own, as well as prosecute perceived “political activity” among the groups it targeted.

The lash of the law has fallen disproportionately on environmental groups and rights advocates, and by 2015 it had eroded the number of nonprofits operating in Russia by more than a third.

And while an organization can continue its work after being named a foreign agent, the scrutiny and expense of cumbersome audits, and the cost of fines and court appearances for the slightest misstep, force all but the most well-heeled organizations to close themselves.

Even for those organizations that hang on after their branding, the condemnation and paranoia associated with the “foreign agent” label is a scarlet letter in Russian society.  A poll conducted last year by the independent Levada Center – itself a foreign agent – found Russian’s overwhelmingly associate the term with espionage and treason.

This was the pressure Aetas buckled under on Wednesday, and in its closing post on Vkonakte, a Russian analog to Facebook, it issued a last appeal to its supporters to help it pay a $2100 fine it received for not voluntarily registering as a foreign agent.

The closure has left many aghast. Oskar Njaa, of Bellona, who previously worked with Nature and Youth in its efforts with Aetas, blasted the law that brought about the group’s disintegration.

“This a telling example of how unjust and nonconstructive this law is,” he said. “Young Russians who are worried about their future and the future of the environment they live in run this organization. The organization gives them an opportunity to solve local environmental problems and spread the word about how it’s possible to live in a more environmentally friendly manner in our daily lives – they are perfuming a function that the Russian government does not.”

That might be precisely what the authorities fear. The foreign agent law was conceived by the Kremlin to thwart the enormous street demonstrations that gripped Russian cities leading up to Vladimir Putin’s third reelection in 2012. Ever since, enforcement of the law has ebbed and flowed with other elections critical to buoying Putin’s support in Parliament.

This year, Putin is running only nominally contested for his 19th year in power, and he has little to offer voters beyond the notion that only he knows how to make his bureaucracy respond to Russia’s needs. Clearly, he doesn’t want to rival a bunch of kids who are trying to respond to those needs themselves.