Essay by the Working Group "Environment"
Intensifying in last year, the persecutions against environmental activists by the Russian authorities continued in 2014: The court decided to terminate the work of “Environmental Watch on North Caucasus”; Evgeni Vitishko has been imprisoned; environmental protests have been suppressed; environmental activists have been charged with administrative and criminal offences; civil organisations have been put under constant monitoring by the state.
The year 2013, which was heralded as the year of environmental protection in Russia, became notorious for growing repression of environmental activists. Three activists were killed that year: Igor Sapatov (Tatarstan) was killed when he tried to stop forest destruction in the conservation seashore territory; Murmansk environmental activists – Nikolai Podolsky and Sergei Malashenko, who fought against poaching – were killed during an attack on their environmental camp. Editor of the “Khimki Pravda” Paper Mikhail Beketov died due to severe beating. An international team from “Greenpeace” was arrested and put in custody after campaigning against oil and gas production in the Arctic. Heads and activists of regional environmental organisations were searched, interrogated, and arrested. Following the growing repressions against environmental activists in Russia, a new project “Ecoprisoner” was created to collect information about the persecution of activists by the state and business representatives who believe that activists violate their interests by fighting for the environment.
When the calendar year of environment in Russia ended, repressive activities against environmental activists only escalated. On the eve of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the Russian authorities ratcheted up repressions against ecoactivists that investigated environmental crimes at Olympic locations. Evgeni Vitishko, a member of the “Environmental Watch on North Caucasus”, was arrested and sent to prison on criminal charges. In 2012, he was given a suspended sentence for “causing damage to the fence” around illegally built the country house of the head of the Krasnodar region (where Sochi is located). In 2014, the suspended sentence was replaced by 3 years in a colony.
Vitishko’s colleagues, who continued to disclose environmental crimes during construction works for the Sochi Olympics, were also persecuted and arrested. A group of unknown people, acting during police’ connivance, damaged a car belonging to Igor Kharchenko. Later Igor was arrested and held for 5 days allegedly for “disobedience to legitimate demands of the police”. Moreover, Igor’s right for judicial defense and his right to present his final defense were denied. Ecoactivists, including Olga Soldatova, Denis Pestretsov, Viktor Chirikov, and Vyacheslav Martynov, were arrested, persecuted and subjected to threats for their investigations of environmental problems and peaceful demonstrations in support of arrested colleagues.
Apart from this, multiple Krasnodar mass media organisations, which investigated environmental problems and corruption in the region, were targeted by the police authorities. Alexander Valov, Chief editor of the popular Internet platform “BlogSochi”, was not an exception.
The same methods of persecution are used in other Russian regions. In the Voronezh region, there is a long-running confrontation between the state authorities and the activists, who oppose the nickel field development on the territory of the Hoper Natural Park. Konstantin Rubakhin, one of the leaders of the NGO “Association for Defense of Hoper”, had to leave Russia due to fear of criminal persecution. In August 2014, during the visit of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, activists Andrei Tarakanov and Stanislav Egorov were arrested after their one-person demonstrations against development of non-ferrous metals in black earth areas of the Voronezh region. In October, ecoactivist Sergei Biryukov was charged with organising a public event without receiving the authorities’ approval, though his act – a flash mob – does not require any state approval.
Ecoactivists from the Leningrad region are dragged into multiple legal wrangles. In February, an investor of a construction company tried to prosecute members of the Activist Group “Save Koltushi” who initiated an ecocamp and disrupted construction schedule to defend a nature reserve included in the UNESCO heritage list from housing development. In October, Ilya Pinigin, activist from the “Open Coast”, was on trial for his repulse to the construction workers during his campaign to protect Siverskoe Forest, the sale of which was proved to be illegal by the court. In April, in the Republic of Adygea, police tried to prevent Maikop citizens’ demonstration against construction of a 7-level parking lot on the territory of a park.
The so-called “foreign agents”’ law is widely used to persecute environmental activists, too. In September, the Kaliningrad environmental organisation “Ecodefense” was charged with a penalty fee of 300 000 rubles (over EUR 5,000) for its denial to register as a “foreign agent NGO”. The Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation referred to “organisation of public events to stop the construction of Baltic nuclear power plant in Kaliningrad region and formation of corresponding public opinion” for the basis of the NGO’s political activity, which is necessary for “foreign agent” accusations.
In October, the Supreme Court of Russia abolished the Interregional environmental and human rights charity NGO “Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus” that actively investigated environmental crimes during the construction works for the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Krasnodar and other regions of the North Caucasus. The formal grounds for abolishment were the NGO’s protest campaigns.
When the environmental protection put ecoactivists under the constant threat of state persecutions and attacks from business sector, there is a risk that environmental activism will decline. After a very fast development during the last past years, ecoactivism in Russia today is jeopardised. Ecoactivists, who try to stop environmental crimes throughout Russia, need more international support and publicity.
Many new environmental problems are connected with the international construction projects. Thus, collaboration between Russian and EU environmental activists is vital for the effective protection of nature.