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Members of the Russian branch of the environmental group Greenpeace display a protest banner in downtown Moscow on Thursday, May 20, 2010. © AP Photo/ Pavel Golovkin

A healthy environment has become a major topic for public debate globally, particularly in the context of climate change, and Russia is no exception. The authorities clearly understand that. In November the state-owned public opinion polling center published results of a survey conducted specifically to assess the “protest potential” of environmental issues ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections.

It revealed that as public concerns about the environment grow, so do expectations that the authorities will address them. The catastrophic fuel spill in Norilsk, ravaging forest fires in Siberia, severe “black skies” pollution warnings in several Siberian towns, and a mysterious marine life disaster on the Kamchatka coast in Russia’s Far East are just a few of the destructive environmental emergencies in Russia that made international and local headlines this year alone.

One might think this would lead the government to increase its engagement with environmental activists and experts. Yet we seem to be witnessing the opposite. In November, the authorities raided  one of Russia’s most prominent environmental groups. In December  a member of the Russian parliament ratcheted up his campaign against Greenpeace.

On December 14, the chairperson of the parliamentary committee on natural resources, Nikolay Nikolayev, announced his proposal to list Greenpeace as an “undesirable organization” in Russia, because it “interferes in the legislative processes.” He listed as an example the organization’s successful advocacy to allow landowners to grow forest on lands listed as agricultural. Previously, this was deemed illegal and could result in hefty fines and land confiscation. Even though  President Putin ordered the government last January to develop measures to make this legal, Nikolayev apparently sees this change, and the campaign that promoted it, as hostile and contrary to Russia’s interests.

If Nikolayev succeeds, Greenpeace would be forced to cease all operations on Russian territory, and any Russian resident deemed to be affiliated with it could be targeted for criminal prosecution. This is already happening in other ongoing “undesirable” cases.

This is not the first time that Nikolayev has lashed out at Greenpeace.

During a summer 2020 podcast, he called the group a “pseudo-environmental organization calling on the Russian authorities to inspect them.

In the past few years, Nikolayev has repeatedly asked the authorities to run an inquiry to determine whether Greenpeace could be listed as “foreign agents.” Under Russian law, any Russian group that engages in “political activity” and receives even a dollar of foreign financing must register as a “foreign agent.” The authorities target groups with the highly toxic “foreign agents” label  to stigmatize them—in Russia the term is akin to “spy” or “enemy of the state”— as well as to impose burdensome auditing, reporting and labelling requirements.

By 2017, Russia’s “Year of Ecology”, at least 29 environmental groups had been tagged as “foreign agents” and 14  were either shut down or had suspended their  work as a result. Greenpeace’s partners have also been targeted. In October 2019, authorities added the “Civic Initiative Against Environmental Crimes”  nongovernmental group  to the list of foreign agents specifically because they were receiving grants and assistance from Greenpeace. In December that year, a local court slapped them with a hefty fine in connection with their ‘foreign agent’ status.

The authorities had to explain to the lawmaker  that this label cannot be applied to Greenpeace, as it’s reserved for Russian organizations, whereas Greenpeace is an international group. But if the new, oppressive amendments to the ‘foreign agents’ bill, is adopted, their staff members, volunteers, and potentially even supporters could be listed as such.

During the parliamentary debate over this new bill, a parliament member behind many of the latest oppressive bills, Vassiliy Piskariov, stated that if Greenpeace wants Russian laws changed, those who use [their] money should be marked as foreign agents. Following that debate, Nikolayev accused Greenpeace of involvement in “subversive activities” aimed at “harming [Russia]”

Greenpeace’s representative told me that he cannot comment on these lawmakers’ actions or logic, but firmly stated that theirs is a non-political organization, and this is one of their key principles.

Meanwhile, at least one reporter has suggested that the attack on Greenpeace could be the result of the organization’s objections to various expensive infrastructure investment projects in Siberia that could have devastating environmental impacts.

Russian officials have had a grudge against Greenpeace for years. In 2015 Greenpeace filed a defamation suit against NTV—a government-affiliated broadcaster that has regularly conducted smear campaigns against human rights activists and the political opposition— in relation to a 2013 piece, that  among other things  alleged that Greenpeace was funded by the US government in the interest of American energy companies.  Unsurprisingly, Greenpeace lost in the Russian courts.

A few years later, the special envoy for environmental protection, Sergey Ivanov, called them an “extremist organization.” Greenpeace was also among environmental groups named in a 2018 report by pro-government political analysts. The report features a list of 47 actions by environmental activists that it considers “environmental extremism”; some of them were Greenpeace campaigns.

 The report also referred to environmental groups and activists involved as “pseudo-environmentalists” and insinuated that they are serving Western interests to sabotage Russia’s economic development and destabilize the political situation with a view to overthrowing the government.  The report was widely covered by state-controlled media. In a media interview in 2017 one expert with Greenpeace Russia said that the had  noticed increased attempts to demonize the organization, and environmentalists more widely, in the public eye.

Greenpeace and their supporters continue to resort to hard work, creativity, and perseverance to try to reduce if not prevent further environmental degradation and to ensure the right to a healthy environment for people across Russia. With the Russian public ever more concerned about environmental issues, groups like Greenpeace should not be in the government’s crosshairs because they choose to fight for a clean and healthy environment.

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