Satellite imagery that showing active wildfires (outlined in red) and smoke near the shoreline of Lake Baikal in southern Russia, July 27, 2017. The Russian environmental group Baikal Environmental Wave was deemed a "foreign agent" organization because it received foreign funding and (among other activities) published an article criticizing government inaction during the wildfires in mid-2015. The organization closed in early 2016.

© 2015 Jeff Schmaltz/NASA, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

(Moscow) – Russia’s “foreign agents” law, which entered into force on this date five years ago, has been used to end or curtail a broad range of important work to protect Russia’s natural environment, Human Rights Watch said today.

Interviews with directors of current or defunct environmental organizations across Russia reveal that at least 14 environmental nongovernmental organizations have stopped work rather than continue to operate while labelled a “foreign agent.” Authorities have used the law to eliminate or restrain groups advocating against state-sanctioned development projects, expressing concerns about proposed government policies, and petitioning authorities for the release of imprisoned environmental activists.

“Although 2017 is the ‘Year of Ecology’ in Russia, there’s been no letup in government efforts to suppress environmental movements,” said Richard Pearshouse, associate environment director at Human Rights Watch. “The Justice Ministry has used the ‘foreign agents’ registry to silence some of the country’s most effective, rigorous, and committed environmental groups.”

Russia’s “foreign agents” law requires organizations that accept any foreign funding, governmental or private, and engage in “political activity” to register as “foreign agents.” The law has been used to target a broad range of independent organizations that work on human rights, health, environmental issues, migrants, and refugees, as well as research organizations, groups that conduct public opinion polling, and groups that provide legal aid to victims of rights abuses or support people with HIV/AIDS or victims of Soviet repression.

In Russia, the term “foreign agent” connotes “spy” or “traitor.” Russia’s Justice Ministry has designated 158 groups as “foreign agents” under this law, including 29 environmental nongovernmental organizations.

These environmental organizations undertook a diverse range of work to protect the right to a healthy environment, including conducting environment impact assessments of new development projects, raising public awareness on environmental issues, campaigning against corruption in activities related to the environment, and providing legal advice to people affected by industrial and nuclear accidents.

Human Rights Watch interviewed directors or former directors of 18 environmental groups, of which 14 have either shut down or suspended all work rather than operate with a “foreign agent” stigma. Three have continued to work as “foreign agent” organizations. One gave up foreign funding, and eventually the designation was removed.

Some of those that have closed or ceased work have re-established themselves in a different form. But the total number closed may be greater, as 11 environmental groups either could not be reached or declined to be interviewed.

Those interviewed said that other impacts of the “foreign agent” designation have included fines, smear campaigns and threats against staff, termination or restriction of specific projects, and local authorities’ refusal to continue collaboration.

Though the law exempts “activities in the field of… protection of flora and fauna” from the definition of “political activity,” the interviews revealed a broad pattern of suppression of environmental organizations, with some particularly notable cases. One group was designated a “foreign agent” following its successful legal fight against corruption among local authorities that underpinned a series of licenses to log protected forests.

Another was deemed to have engaged in “political activity” by not providing a submission to the local council on an amendment to the state’s administrative code. In another case, after the organization’s “foreign agent” designation, a state-owned broadcaster aired a program showing the director’s residence, describing it as a site of “industrial espionage.” The director and her family fled Russia following a death threat.

In May 2014, Russia’s parliament amended the “foreign agents” law to authorize the Justice Ministry to register groups as “foreign agents” without their consent. In May 2016, parliament adopted another set of amendments, building up the originally vague definition of “political activity” to include any attempt by an independent group to influence public policy or public opinion in any area.

On November 15, 2017, Russia’ s lower house of parliament adopted amendments that authorize the government to demand foreign media organizations to register as “foreign agents,” and comply with the requirements set out in the “foreign agents” law for NGOs. The draft has been sent for approval to the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament. Although it is not clear how the amendments will be implemented, they seem intended to allow for selective, political enforcement, Human Rights Watch said.

Courts have imposed hefty administrative fines on organizations and/or their directors for alleged failure to comply with the “foreign agents” law. In addition, under the criminal law, “malicious evasion” of legal requirements in this law can result in fines and up to two years in prison.

In its opinion on Russia’s “foreign agents” law, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission – the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters – specifically urged the Russian Federation to ensure that the term “political activity” is not used to target human rights defenders nor applied to nongovernmental organizations based on their political opinions.

“The ‘foreign agents’ law has had catastrophic repercussions for environmental activism in Russia,” Pearshouse said. “The government should repeal the law immediately.”

Methodology

Since November 2012, 29 environmental organizations in Russia have been designated “foreign agents.” In July and September 2017, Human Rights Watch attempted to contact all 29 organizations. Interviews were conducted in the period between July and September 2017. They were undertaken by phone and email with environmental organizations across the country.

Five could not be contacted because no information nor contact information was available online or from other groups. Six either did not respond to requests for interviews or declined to be interviewed.

Human Rights Watch interviewed directors or former directors of 18 environmental groups designated as “foreign agents,” 14 of which have either shut down or suspended all work rather than continue to operate while labelled a “foreign agent.”

The ‘Foreign Agents’ Law

Under the law, the Justice Ministry maintains the “foreign agents” registry. The law’s 2012 version did not allow the ministry to put groups on the list – organizations had to register themselves. When groups refused, the ministry sought a court ruling requiring them to register. In 2014, the parliament amended the law to enable the ministry to register groups as “foreign agents” without either their consent or a court order.

The ministry usually precedes “foreign agent” designations with targeted audits, some triggered by complaints by private citizens or public officials. The ministry’s audit reports usually detail any foreign funding and list any activities deemed “political.” Audits commonly involve reviewing project documents, including financial documentation, publications or other products, and online searches of the activities of the organization and its staff.

Once the Justice Ministry registers an organization as a “foreign agent,” it also typically takes that organization to court for its failure to self-register. The ministry also frequently takes organizations to court for alleged failure to comply with the law, including but not limited to submitting quarterly and annual financial and substantive reports to the authorities and identifying itself as a “foreign agent” organization on anything the organization publishes or distributes, including online.

Сourts typically impose administrative fines from 100,000 to 300,000 rubles (US$1,730 to US$5,190) for individuals, and from 300,000 to 500 000 rubles (US$5,190 to US$8,650) for organizations. Fines must be paid within 60 days or the law grants the court the authority to double them. In addition, leaders of the groups can be prosecuted for “malicious evasion” of the law’s requirements, with criminal sanctions ranging from fines to up to two years in prison.

An organization may appeal audit results, the Justice Ministry’s decision to designate the organization a “foreign agent, “and a local court’s determination of a violation and any corresponding sanctions. But appeals are rarely successful. Russia’s Constitutional Court upheld the “foreign agents” law in 2014, finding that it was “not intended to persecute or discredit” organizations.

Since early 2017, the Justice Ministry’s registry no longer lists organizations that had been originally designated “foreign agents,” but whose designation was withdrawn if the organization closed down or refused foreign funding. Human Rights Watch has recorded 158 organizations listed in the registry since it was created, with 88 currently listed.

Human Rights Watch interviews with the directors of current or closed environmental organizations and review of Justice Ministry audits show the wide gamut of environmental activities considered “political.” These include:

  • Undertaking environmental impact assessments of national hunting quotas;
  • Organizing or participating in meetings or roundtables, including international conferences;
  • Undertaking joint projects or activities with other environmental organizations already designated “foreign agents;”
  • Public campaigning against constructing new nuclear energy plants or nuclear waste facilities, or for decommissioning existing nuclear energy plants;
  • Organizing overseas study visits of nuclear waste facilities for government representatives, public servants, and activists;
  • Public campaigning against mines, refineries, or industrial facilities;
  • Signing petitions or otherwise publicly campaigning for the release of imprisoned environmental activists;
  • Writing letters to state authorities expressing concerns about proposed government policies; and
  • In at least one case, not providing a submission on a proposed legal amendment to a state administrative code.

The Impact

The following are overviews of the experiences of six Russian environmental organizations that were designated “foreign agents.” These cases are broadly representative of the 18 organizations whose officials Human Rights Watch interviewed.

Baikal Environmental Wave (Irkutsk)

Baikal Environmental Wave was founded in 1990 and worked to protect Lake Baikal from industrial pollution. Among its projects was one on preserving potable water and a school program on sustainable resources and energy consumption. In early 2013, following an anonymous complaint, the Irkutsk prosecutor’s office audited the organization and ordered it to register as a foreign agent. The organization unsuccessfully appealed this order in court. It did not register but amended its regulations to, among other things, remove legal advocacy and law reform from its mandate.

In September 2015, the Irkutsk Justice Ministry Department audited the group again following two anonymous complaints. The audit found Baikal Environment Wave engaged in “political activities,” including:

  • Petitioning the government to close a paper mill on Lake Baikal;
  • Organizing an international conference on rivers whose recommendations included closing a paper mill on Lake Baikal;
  • Members participating in public hearings on the environmental impact of proposed projects such as solid waste landfills and radioactive waste processing facilities; and
  • Members expressing opinions in media interviews against government laws or criticizing government inaction on environmental issues such as wildfires.

The organization was listed on the “foreign agents” registry in November 2015. In January 2016, Baikal Environment Wave and three of its co-chairs were charged with functioning as a “foreign agent” group without being registered. Baikal Environment Wave was fined 150,000 rubles (US$2,500), and its three co-chairs were fined 50,000 rubles (US$850) each.

The organization closed shortly thereafter, and in July 2016, the Justice Ministry removed its name from the “foreign agent” registry. Some members continue environmental work in another organization.

Although the organization closed, it had sufficient experience with the reporting requirements to understand just how burdensome they are. Maxim Vorontsov, a former co-chair, told Human Rights Watch:

During the six months of winding up the organization, we kept on submitting the mandatory reports for a “foreign agent” organization. Paperwork is the hardest burden. To work as a “foreign agent” organization would require an additional employee who would not participate in any projects but would only work on providing documents to the Justice Ministry.

Planet of Hopes (Ozersk)

Planet of Hopes and its director, Nadezhda Kutepova, worked to protect the rights of victims of radiation accidents in a small closed [limited-access] nuclear town, Ozersk, in the Southern Urals, where Russia’s Mayak nuclear complex is located. In the late 1940s and 1950s, hundreds of thousands of people living near Mayak were exposed to radiation from openly dumped nuclear waste and an incident in 1957, when a storage tank with highly radioactive liquid waste exploded.

Planet of Hopes also established mobile legal reception centers to collect complaints from residents of other “closed cities” in Russia. Closed cities were established in the Soviet Union to host nuclear facilities, weapons factories, military bases, etc. Restrictions on access are common, and city authorities tightly control the flow of information in and out of these cities.

Planet of Hopes was audited in March 2015. The audit concluded that the group conducted “political activity” by publishing critical articles, including:

  • An article on the legal campaign to provide compensation to radiation victims;
  • An article on article 42 of the Russian Constitution, which provides for “the right to a favorable environment, reliable information about its condition and to compensation for the damage caused to his or her health or property by ecological violations;” and
  • An article on a meeting between human rights defenders and the Chelyabinsk region governor, and the group’s report on issues in closed cities in Russia, which was presented at the meeting.

The group was included in the “foreign agent” registry in April 2015. The following month, the local court found the organization in violation of the law and fined it 300,000 rubles (US$5,000).

The following day, the local branch of the federal Rossia-1 TV channel broadcast a story on the court hearing, saying Planet of Hopes was responsible for “industrial espionage using US money.” In the beginning of July 2015, the same channel broadcast a story in which a journalist identified the apartment building where Kutepova lived and commented: “That is where industrial espionage is being done.”

The following day Kutepova received an emailed death threat. Shortly afterward, she and her children left Russia to live abroad. Kutepova said:

Regional authorities use [the law on foreign agents] to fight with local “troublemakers.” “Foreign agent” stigma is effectively manipulated to blacken activists and make the public doubt the usefulness of nongovernmental organizations.

Some other staff of the organization also left the country, while others remain in Russia but do not work. The group’s founding members decided to begin closing the organization, although it is still included on the registry. Kutepova said:

We believe that state security, including environmental security, depends on the degree of comfort and safety that people living in closed cities and working on hazardous plants can enjoy in their everyday lives – whether nuclear or chemical or weaponry… To collect people’s complaints, we opened and successfully operated a public reception office for the citizens of all Russian closed cities. After our designation as a “foreign agent” organization, the voices of those people can hardly be heard.

Bellona Murmansk (Murmansk)

Bellona Murmansk successfully passed Justice Ministry audits in 2013 and 2014. At the beginning of 2015, the ministry’s Murmansk department conducted an unscheduled audit following a complaint from a former staff member. The audit report stated that in 2014, Bellona Murmansk engaged in “political activity” by, among other things, conducting environmental monitoring, organizing or participating in a round table on industrial contamination and nuclear issues in Russia’s north, and contributing to a report on industrial pollution in the Barents Sea. Involvement in an “Eco Day” for students in summer camps, as well as developing a study guide for teachers, were also found to be “political activity.”

On March 19, 2015, Bellona Murmansk was included in the “foreign agent” registry and in April 2015 was fined 50,000 rubles (US$850). It did not appeal. Andrey Zolotkov, former head of Bellona Murmansk, said:

We refused to appeal because we knew it would cost us more – more money, more time, and more human resources. Also, court practice showed that the court would rule in favor of the Justice Ministry.

Joint work with public officials was restricted as a consequence, he said:

[Prior to designation] we actively collaborated with state institutions, including schools and public libraries. As soon as we received the “foreign agent” label, many government contacts told us that further cooperation was impossible.

As required by law, Bellona Murmansk began to mark all publications with a “foreign agent” label. Bellona Murmansk ran a website jointly with a separate group. It labelled those posts it was responsible for, although in June 2015 the Justice Ministry warned Bellona Murmansk about two online articles that were not labelled because they were the responsibility of another organization. Although Bellona Murmansk maintained that they were not responsible for the two articles, in September 2015 the Justice Ministry fined it 300,000 rubles (US$5,000) for not labelling them. Unable to pay the fine, Bellona Murmansk shut its doors on October 6, 2015.

Northern Nature Conservation Coalition (SPOK), interregional organization (Karelia)

Since 1996, Northern Nature Conservation Coalition (SPOK) in Karelia had worked to protect old-growth forests – those that have not undergone significant changes, such as logging – in northwest Russia. For 20 years, the group identified old-growth forests in Karelia and neighboring regions and signed agreements with logging companies not to cut them down.

In April 2015, following an individual’s complaint, the Karelia prosecutor’s office conducted an unscheduled audit of SPOK and concluded that the organization undertook “targeted actions to form public opinion for public outcry in order to influence state bodies’ decisions.” It also determined that SPOK’s public advocacy “created doubt about the work of the Karelia judicial, law enforcement, and executive bodies in the eyes of the public.”

Its “political activity” included publications on the website “Forest Portal,” which SPOK created but later turned into a news platform independent of the organization.

In July 2015, SPOK was placed on the registry of “foreign agent” organizations. Olga Ilina, former chairperson, said:

We totally disagreed with the decision to include us in the registry. Our General Assembly, however, decided that we should not waste our time and resources trying to defend ourselves in court. That is why in August 2015, we applied for liquidation of the interregional organization SPOK.

The organization closed and in November 2015 was removed from the registry. A new organization – under the same name, but with a more limited scope and fewer staff – replaced it, Ilina said:

We realized that it would be impossible to undertake the same volume of work with funding only from donations by Russian citizens. So, we dismissed our staff – nowadays we only have volunteers. Before, we implemented logging monitoring projects not only in Karelia, but also in Arkhangelsk, Leningrad, and other regions. Today, however, our work is focused on our region only.

Dront Environmental Center (Nizhny Novgorod)

Dront underwent an unscheduled audit by the Justice Ministry in April 2015, following a complaint by an individual. The audit report, dated May 12, 2015, found that the organization undertook a number of “political activities.” These included publishing critical articles in its newspaper and participating in a demonstration in support of the then-imprisoned environmental activist Evgeny Vitishko. The organization’s chairperson’s signature on a petition in his personal capacity in support of a referendum to return to elections rather than direct appointment of the mayor in Nizhny Novgorod by the Russian president was also deemed a “political activity.”

The audit’s findings also flagged the organization’s failure to make comments to the local council on a proposed amendment to the Nizhny Novgorod administrative law. The organization considered that the amendment had no environmental element and concluded there was no point in making a submission. The former chair of the organization, Askhat Kayumov, said:

The most absurd argument about our “political activity” was that we conducted political activity when we did not provide any suggestions regarding a bill on amendment to the administrative code of Nizhny Novgorod. The Justice Ministry outdid themselves: they deemed “political” not only any action, but also any inaction!

In June 2015, the local court imposed a 300,000-ruble fine (US$5,000) on Dront, which was reduced to 150,000 (US$2,500) on appeal to the district court. Following designation, there was a public swell of support for the organization. In October 2015, Dront’s supporters organized a free concert to protest the designation. Although Dront did not organize the concert, the local court fined Dront because the organizers did not refer to the organization as a “foreign agent” at the concert.

Dront decided to stop accepting foreign funding identified in the audit of Spring 2015. However, a subsequent audit in July 2015 found other sources of funding that it deemed foreign, including a loan from another organization that was repaid by the time of the audit and a subscription to a Dront newsletter by another “foreign agent” organization. Dront continued its projects to the end of 2015 and then closed.

Gebler Ecological Society (Altai)

Gebler Ecological Society was one of the oldest environmental groups in Russia. In 2010, it won a significant case invalidating the leases that permitted logging in the protected Zalesovsky State Nature Preserve in the Altai mountains in central Russia.

Gebler Ecological Society was audited in mid-2015. It was deemed to have engaged in “political activity” for:

  • “Contacting” another environmental organization that had been included on the “foreign agent” registry a few months earlier;
  • Working “to influence state governmental decisions” by conducting an environmental impact assessment on proposed quotas for elk, deer, bears, badgers, sable, and lynx during the 2014-2015 hunting season; and
  • Publishing an article critical of a nearby timber processing plant.

On June 23, 2015, the Justice Ministry included Gebler Ecological Society in the registry of “foreign agent” organizations. The group appealed the decision in court but lost. In November 2015, Gebler Ecological Society’s board decided to close the organization. Some members continue environmental work in another organization.

Alexey Gribkov, the former chairman, said:

We established a court precedent against illegal logging within protected areas and as a result of our work, a corrupt official was fired. The real reason they designated us a “foreign agent” organization was our successful fight against corrupt local authorities.

Russia’s Human Rights Obligations

The use of the “foreign agents” law to effectively curtail, silence, or constructively shut down environmental nongovernmental organizations is a clear violation by the Russian government and authorities of their human rights obligations. Russia is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which impose clear and binding obligations to respect freedoms of expression and association.

The ECHR and the ICCPR only allow restrictions on those freedoms that are properly provided for by law and “necessary in a democratic society” for a clearly defined set of reasons (including public order and national security).

Human Rights Watch contends that the “foreign agents” law violates Russia’s legal obligations in this regard. The law, which on the face of it interferes with freedoms of expression and association, fails to meet the tests of foreseeability and the requirements of the rule of law, because of its vague and overly broad nature, which means it can and is applied arbitrarily. The law also fails to meet the test of being necessary in a democratic society to achieve a legitimate aim.

In addition, the application of the “foreign agents” law in each instance to the environmental groups in question, on the basis of the speech and activities identified by the authorities, constitute violations of the rights of expression and association protected under international law.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has, on several occasions, emphasized the importance of the work of nongovernmental organizations and of free speech for them to carry out their role. It has held that:

[I]n a democratic society even small and informal campaign groups have to be able to carry on their activities effectively. There exists a strong public interest in enabling such groups and individuals ... to contribute to the public debate by disseminating information and ideas on matters of general public interest such as … the environment.

In a case against Latvia, in which an environmental nongovernmental organization, Vides Aizsardzības Klubs, had been required to publish an official apology and pay damages to the mayor of a town for alleged defamation, the ECtHR, in finding a violation of freedom of expression likewise noted that the role of the organization was one of a watchdog under the Environment Protection Act and “that kind of participation by an association was essential in a democratic society.” Consequently, in order to perform its task effectively, the group had to be able to impart facts of interest to the public, give them its assessment and thus contribute to the public authorities’ activities.