Dmitri, thank you very much that you agreed to give an interview for the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. You have been working with the “Environmental Watch on North Caucasus”. This organisation became well-known before the Olympic Games in Sochi. Your important activities were restricted and even discontinued for a time-being. Has the situation improved as of today?
I would have loved to say that the situation has changed, but it is not true. Of course, we had great expectations that after the Olympic Games all that madness, which had happened in last several years in the course of the preparation process for the event, would pass, including the situation of crackdown on civil society in the Krasnodar Region. We believed that that wave would decline. But, unfortunately, a new madness came into play on the side of regional elites, which have been involved in the all-Russian campaign on fighting against the Ukrainian Maidan and integration of Crimea – and a new stage of pressure on the civil society started. Our organisation has suffered from that in full. Now we are monitoring construction works of the bridge over the Kerch Strait and experiencing a lot of various environmental disruptions. We faced with the fact that our authorities, including law enforcement ones, directly connect our activities on monitoring this project with the Crimea’s blockade and accuse us of playing into the hands of the Ukrainian government. There is a surveillance on us, when we go to the Temriuk Region, where the construction works are on-going. In other words, a new reason for the pressure on the Russian civil society emerged, which had not existed before. Now they are trying to put us in connection with political motives and activities and so on.
How hard is it to be inside of this confrontation? So, your colleague Suren Gazarian had to flee abroad. Another colleague of yours – Evgeni Vitishko – is still in prison, and it is not clear whether he would have been freed before the New Year. What is your forecast regarding Evgeni Vitishko?
Regarding Evgeni Vitishko, my forecast is more or less positive. But, unfortunately, the unfavourable moment is that all this 1.5-year campaign in support of Evgeni Vitishko, while he was imprisoned, had no effect. The progress happened only after the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights directly reported to the President on that situation. Vladimir Vladimirovich asked the Prosecutor General to handle this specific situation with this specific citizen. Only afterwards, the procedure was initiated via the power vertical to the court, where Vitishko’s lawyers appealed for a parole application and recommendation to mercy many times. Finally, the full mechanism turned over – and the decision on Evgeni’s freedom was made. And that is a really sad situation: Even on the international level, power of the civil society is nil, and only Vladimir Vladimirovich’s word improved the situation. And all that advocates’ work, international solidarity campaign in support of Evgeni Vitishko in various countries showed that all these practices didn’t work in Russia, unfortunately.
If you say that all these practices of the civil society don’t work in Russia, what is your personal motivation to go on with your civil activities?
My colleagues and me love these activities. More than that, we believe that it is our duty to protect environment and natural areas from those destructive projects, which are results of the common economic policy that we have in Russia connected to exporting different kinds of natural resources and reinvestment of money into various infrastructure projects – such as Olympic Games. That is a vicious policy. Our duty is to protect specific territories and objects as well as rights of specific local communities and people, to help local activists. We believe that one day the situation in Russia will improve, and at least legal frameworks for revising our ecological law, which has been undermined in last 15 years, would be created, our economics will be put on the new development level of green growth. Only for the sake of this, I am ready to continue my activities. I agree with the point that we have to fight a battle today – and sometimes we achieved a lot. But, of course, we have to conclude that we are stepping back and back and back under the pressure of big business and the authorities that lobby interests of that business. I am motivated by the thought that our activities will deliver their benefits some day, be it even a distant future.
What are the current projects of your organisation – apart from the monitoring of the construction works over the Kerch Strait you mentioned already? Indeed, you have been working in the Krasnodar Region, in the Republic of Adygea, in the Republic of Karachay-Cherkessia, and in many other regions in the North Caucasus…
Basically, our organisation is also a human rights organisation. Mostly, our activities are connected to the protection of the citizens’ rights. The most important thing is that we are trying to form an active attitude among the population towards protection of their own ecological rights. Last year, we were actively involved in the educational process for initiative groups, which have emerged in great numbers in the regions you mentioned – the Rostov Region, the Republic of Karachay-Cherkessia, the Republic of Adygea… We also share our human rights practices and foster to provide them with information and legal support and to connect them to each other. In Krasnodar, our headquarters, the “Union of Active Citizens” was formed earlier this year involving all the initiative groups, for which we provided assistance in the course of various local campaigns – against construction works on the ground of one or another green or public place. At least, these groups are connected now, we introduced them to each other. New bottom-up activities have been emerging now. These people are not engaged in NGOs, they have nothing to do with the traditional nonprofit sector. They are ordinary people, who gathered together to protect their rights. Working with them as one of our great successes last year. At least, we created a new form of civil activity in the particular city and connected those activists.
You are giving this interview to us at the 6th General Assembly of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. What is the Forum’s main value for your organisation?
This value is hard to underestimate. Our organisation was present at the Forum’s Founding Meeting already. At that time, our representative was Suren Gazarian, who still could live and work in Russia. Basically, there is no doubt in the Forum’s importance connected to the fact that Russia is a part of the European civilisation. Concerning the attitude towards the environment, we should follow the practices and experiences of the EU countries. They made good progress in questions of environmental protection and government policies in this direction already. It is important for Russian green movement not only to adopt those practices but to implement them through the legislation procedures, participation in various social councils on establishment of contacts with the authorities as well as own environment-geared projects and programmes. That is why I take part in Forum’s General Assemblies with a great pleasure. Here we can not only participate in general meetings but also establish contacts to our European colleagues, discuss common projects and activities. That is very important for our organisation.
Soon the New Year is coming. What would you like to wish to the Forum members and civil societies in Russia and in the EU? What are your wishes towards civil society for the next year?
We will be happy, if the New Year is more peaceful for civil society, first of all, in Russia. I would like to wish my colleagues to be resistant and patient. I really appreciated Svetlana Makovetskaya’s words said at the yesterday’s discussion: ‘We are here to pass the winter, but it doesn’t mean that we are going to freeze.’ I fully share her position that we are not going to freeze. I would like to wish to all of us to take courage and hang in there. Regarding the Forum itself, I would like to wish to us to grow, first of all, by attracting organisations from the EU. There is a lot of them indeed. From year to year, the Forum becomes more and more famous in the EU countries. I would like to wish to the Forum new interesting members and new common projects.
This interview was shot by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum at the 6th General Assembly in Budapest (Hungary) on 9 December 2015.