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July 24, 2015

Russia’s Ecodefense ignores Russian foreign agent law, refuses to pay fines

For more than a year, we have been following the saga of Russia’s crackdown on civil society and in particular the state’s efforts to disempower or shut down the country’s most active and effective anti-nuclear organization, Ecodefense. As we reported last June, Russia labeled Ecodefense a “foreign agent”–essentially accusing it of spying and being controlled by outside nations.

For more than a year, we have been following the saga of Russia’s crackdown on civil society and in particular the state’s efforts to disempower or shut down the country’s most active and effective anti-nuclear organization, Ecodefense. As we reported last June, Russia labeled Ecodefense a “foreign agent”–essentially accusing it of spying and being controlled by outside nations. It, and a handful of human rights organizations, were the first in the nation to be targeted under Russia’s “foreign agent” law adopted in 2012 but only begun to be enforced last year. The law is ostensibly aimed at reducing Western influence in Russia; in reality it’s attempting to weaken all organizations that seek to challenge any aspect of Vladimir Putin’s regime.  Ecodefense is being targeted for its success in organizing and mobilizing the public and stopping construction of new nuclear reactors in the nation, not for posing a threat to the government.

Ecodefense and its leader Vladimir Slivyak have consistently refused to accept the “foreign agent” label and have refused to pay fines associated with its unwillingness to accept that label. In this GreenWorld post from last July, Slivyak explained why it is so important that Ecodefense resist the government on this issue.

The post below, written by Charles Digges and published by the international environmental organization Bellona last week, will bring you up-to-date on the issue, and Ecodefense’s consistent and principled “civil disobedience” in refusing to accept Russia’s mandated designation–even though it could mean the end of the organization.

Full disclosure: Vladimir Slivyak is a longtime personal friend and ex officio board member of NIRS. Reprinted from Bellona with permission. – Michael Mariotte

Bold Russian anti-nuke group waves off foreign agent law, refuses to pay mounting fines

Russia’s Ecodefense anti-nuclear group has again been fined for refusing to register as a “foreign agent” with the country’s Justice Ministry in a court hearing to which the group’s co-chair, Vladimir Slivyak, said the organization had not even been invited to attend.

Russia’s Ecodefense anti-nuclear group has again been fined for refusing to register as a “foreign agent” with the country’s Justice Ministry in a court hearing to which the group’s co-chair, Vladimir Slivyak, said the organization had not even been invited to attend.

Slivyak told Bellona in an interview that Ecodefense was informed only Monday, July 20 that a judge in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad had on July 3 levied another 100,000 ruble ($1,700) fine against his organization for failing to register as a foreign agent.

He said his group never received any summons for the July 3 hearing, and as such, would refuse to pay the fine.

The foreign agent self-appellation is required under Russia’s controversial 2012 NGO law stipulating that non-profits receiving foreign funding and engaging in vaguely defined political activity must register as foreign agents and submit to onerous reporting and auditing procedure.

The law also requires NGOs that are so designated to indicate on all material they publish that they are foreign agents. The vast majority of NGOs in Russia ignored the law when it took effect in November 2012, which said that the foreign agent term characterized them as spies or traitors.

The group denounced the law in a Russian-language statement yesterday, saying, “We consider the actions of the Justice Ministry (which led to our inclusion on the so called roster of ‘foreign agents’) deeply politically motivated and directed at the destruction of the reputation of the civil society movement, which is defending Russia’s rights.”

In July, apparently frustrated by the lack of foreign agents signing up, President Vladimir Putin gave broad powers to the Justice Ministry to list NGOs as agents on its own. Several days later,Ecodefense was ensnared in that dragnet.

The group, which was the first ecological group to be named a foreign agent, was told that it ran afoul of the law for protesting the construction of the Baltic Nuclear Power plant. According to a letter Ecodefense received from the Justice Ministry, speaking out against government plans to build nuclear station is tantamount to speaking out against the government – which the Justice Ministry characterized as “political activity.”

By Slivyak’s own admission, and as stated openly in audits, the group has received funding from the European Union and several German environmental groups.

Ecodefense was previously fined 300,000 rubles ($5,200 at the current exchange rate) in September for refusing to voluntarily register itself on the foreign agent list.

Slivyak said yesterday that his group won’t pay that fine either. He also said that the group’s choice to ignore the fines has not resulted in any official interference with the group’s environmental activities.

“There is international cooperation and solidarity [with Russian NGOs], he said. People are helping us to continue our work.”

Indeed, Slivyak is on a several week tour of South Africa in an effort to thwart Russian state nuclear corporation Rosatom’s efforts to forge several nuclear power plant deals the company is trying to make with Johannesburg. He experienced no interference from authorities.

“Civil disobedience is the instrument of change, when you feel change is absolutely needed,” he said. “We ignore their law – we will not give [Russian authorities] any reports, we will not mention that we are foreign agents in publications, we won’t do audits as they request. We just tell them that we are not agents – we won’t do this because only agents do this, and we are not agents.”

He added that the authorities notified the group that it would be required to undergo another audit in August.

“They want [us to present] everything, like descriptions of projects, financial details, publications – everything,” he said. But he said the group intends to disappoint inspectors when they come.

“Most probably we will just not give them anything,” he said.

Such a strident approach, however, is not without its risks, and Slivyak noted that his organization’s days might be numbered.

“We expect that after the August inspection, they will start the process of closing us down,” he said.

A Justice Ministry spokesman also told Bellona that, under the law, legal actions could escalate to imprisoning Ecodefense’s leaders.

But Slivyak remained optimistic that Ecodefense’s choice to simply ignore the NGO law would have a positive effect in the long run.

“You never know what the government is planning,” he said. “We will get our country back sooner or later – it’s just a matter of time.”

Until then, Slivyak said, his group will continue to wave off government fines and intimidation and go about its anti-nuclear advocacy.

“The ideal situation is to not follow rules when you think they’re unfair,” he said.

According to a Human Rights Watch tally, the Justice Ministry has listed 74 organizations on its foreign agent list as of July 8. Alongside Ecodefense, they include many more environmental organizations like Bellona Murmansk, Planeta Nadezhd, Dront of Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov’s Eco-logika, Samara’s, Educational Center for Environment and Security and many others.

The breakdown of foreign agents also targets groups affiliated with press rights, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy.

Charles Digges, charles@bellona.no

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