St Petersburg Economic Forum panelists trash Russian environmental movement

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

Discussions at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum included a wide-ranging bash of environmentalism in Russia, with Sergei Ivanov, president Putin’s special envoy on ecological matters, accusing activists of being more damaging to business interests than Western sanctions.

That Ivanov’s remarks would cap the economic forum, the Kremlin’s yearly showcasing of its economic prowess, sent a significant message to the Western banks, oil majors and corporate executives who routinely gather at Russia’s alternative to the Davos Forum – the message being that environmentalists in Russia are viewed with suspicion and will be policed accordingly.

Ivanov, who oversees environmental protection for the Kremlin, was joined in his lurid appraisal of Russia’s environmental movement by Denis Manturov, the minister of industry and trade, and Irina Yarovaya, deputy chairperson of the Duma, Russia’s parliament, all of whom took the stage at the forum last Thursday.

Among them, they painted a picture that cast environmental activists in a conspiratorial light, darkly suggesting that many groups use stealthy tactics to dupe a politically illiterate public and accusing activists of engaging in “self-promotion” for purposes of disrupting Russia’s commercial activities, largely for the benefit of foreign puppet masters.

They were joined in their musings by Sergei Mikheyev, a ubiquitous Kremlin-friendly TV pundit, who told the forum that environmental nonprofits had cost Russia the creation of 60,000 jobs and billions of dollars in lost investment – though offered no data to back that up.

The litany was familiar in its paranoia. For the past several years, Russia’s Justice Ministry, at the Kremlin’s behest, has led a campaign against nonprofit rights and ecological groups, blacklisting those who receive even small amounts of foreign funding and labelling them as “foreign agents” – a politically-laden term intentionally reminiscent of Soviet repressions.

A disproportionate amount of anti-foreign agent wrath has fallen on environmental groups, and the vast majority of those organizations have, like Bellona’s Russian offices, been closed or closed themselves in order to avoid ruinous fines and crippling court costs to clear their names. Yet others have tried to fight the foreign agent designation by appealing to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, but the Justice Ministry has worked to hamstring those cases.

As a result, environmental activism in Russia has, by Putin’s 18th year at Russia’s helm, been all but eliminated. Large international groups like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund continue to be cautiously active, but the local grassroots organizations that tentatively sprouted after the fall of the Soviet Union have been starved of financial resources and political support.

This, said Alexander Niktin, who headed St. Petersburg’s Environmental Rights Center Bellona before it was listed as a “foreign agent” in 2016 and closed down, is very much the point.

He said that after a temporary lull in anti-nonprofit rhetoric from the government, statements by Ivanov’s panel at the Economic Forum mark the beginning of a new campaign by Russia’s officials against the country’s troubled environmental movement.

“Unfortunately, many environmental groups – even those that can position themselves as environmental unions – have decided it is useless to fight this,” Nikitin said over the weekend. He said that in such corrosive conditions, the work of environmental groups is being reduced to spearheading garbage collection drives and other organized acts of do-gooderism that can be passed off as “patriotic.”

It was just such groups that Ivanov and the others warmly endorsed during his remarks to the economic forum. In lengthy congratulations reported by Rosbalt, he extolled the work of the All Russia People’s Front, an all-purpose political cult founded by and for Putin in 2011, for uncovering illegal rubbish dumps, organizing tree-planting campaigns, and encouraging litterbugs to reform their ways.

Meanwhile, what Ivanov termed the “screaming and moaning” of groups that opposed the construction of a highway through Khimki, an old-growth forest that stood for thousands of years to Moscow’s north, served to protest something that has only done good.

“What damage did [the highway] inflict on the forest, except that builders planted five times as many trees as had been cut down?” Ivanov fulminated to the conference. He neglected to mention that the Khimki Forest highway was met with enormous national outrage and culminated in the near-deadly beating of a local newspaper editor by thugs suspected of being on the official payroll.

He went on to warn that foreign environmental groups “with annual budgets that exceed that of many African countries” were conducting training and gaining mastery of specialized equipment to thwart Russia’s offshore Arctic drilling ambitions, and enlisting legions of “professionals” who engage in activism for the paycheck.

The specter of monied foreign interests conspiring to upend Russia’s wholesome desire for progress is nothing new, and on an almost yearly basis, Putin himself charges that billions of dollars are flowing into the coffers of nonprofit groups bent on subverting him and making his public look like fools. And almost yearly, the fewer and fewer nonprofit environmental groups that remain scratch their heads, wondering where those billions of foreign dollars have gone, because they’re certainly not making it into their threadbare budgets.

Meanwhile, inasmuch as the St Petersburg Economic Forum is meant to reassure jittery Western oil companies, financiers and other financial big-wigs, a portrait of Russia as open for business without the pesky interference of internationally funded environmental conspirators must be very reassuring indeed.