Foreign Agents or True Patriots The fish needs water, the bird needs air, the animal needs forests, steppes, mountains, and the man needs his homeland, and to protect nature means to protect your homeland. Text on the poster by Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, Photo: EWNC

Foreign Agents or True Patriots

It is a duty of every patriot to love and protect the nature of their homeland. Instead of recognition, however, Russian environmentalists get labelled as “foreign agents” by the state, experience pressure, and even get punched in the face. But concentrated local and international support can change authorities’ mind.

That was the case with Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EWNC), whose leader has survived a brutal attack. At the time, the organisation was struggling with judicial procedures along with bureaucratic and media pressure in an attempt to remove its name from the so-called list of “foreign agents” in Russia.

At the end of 2017, the Year of Ecology in Russia, a violent incident occurred. On the evening of 28 December, 2017, three men wearing masks attacked three EWNC environmentalists who had just came back from a public inspection of construction activities on the Black Sea coast. The attackers struck EWNC’s chairperson, Andrey Rudomakha, down to the ground and punched him in the face, rendering him unconscious. His colleague Viktor Chirikov was hit in the stomach, and the journalist with them from Free Media, Vera Kholodnaya, was attacked with pepper spray. The aggressors stole equipment, cameras, computers and documents from the activists’ car and then fled.

A photo with a threat sent anonymously to Dmitry Shevchenko. The text reads: “Henchmen of Rudomakha go out of the country. You better leave Dmitry…”

Rudomakha was taken to the hospital with a head injury, a concussion and a broken nose. The longtime environmentalist and his colleagues are confident that the attack had been carefully planned. The criminals knew their route and the place where they were staying. And on 9 January, 2018, Andrey Rudomakha and Dmitry Shevchenko received an anonymous threat from an e-mail address named “Death to Rudomakha” advising them to leave the country.

EWNC’s Deputy Chair Dmitry Shevchenko analysed different versions of the attack on Andrey Rudomakha and concluded that the most likely motive was revenge for investigating an illegal private winery. When Rudomakha and his colleagues surveyed the site of the construction in question, they got into an altercation with security who forcefully insisted the activists erase their photos. They refused to do so.

Private Gain on Public Land

The winery construction looks like an Orthodox chapel—although it was built illegally on a state forest site—and is surrounded by a massive fence. Next to this site, the activists also came across illegal logging and yet another building site. The forest where these constructions are located is next to two large vineyards.

EWNC’s investigation reveals that these two forest sites are in fact being rented by different companies. The first site was rented by “Perspectiva OOO” for hunting purposes. But according to the law, hunting permits do not allow for the construction of permanent buildings. The owner of “Perspectiva OOO” is Pavel Ezubov, a longtime business partner of Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.  Ezubov is also the son of the State Duma Deputy from the Krasnodar region.

Church illegally constructed in the forest in the Krasnodar region, Russia. Photo: Viktor Chirikov, Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus. 2017

The second site is a 20-hectare plot and is where the above-mentioned church was built. The tenant is “Axis Investments AO,” the same organisation that owns the neighbouring vineyards. The state registry lists the founder and CEO of “Axis Investments AO” as lawyer Alexey Tot.  According to the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Tot is known as a business partner of Putin’s classmate, lawyer Nikolay Yegorov from St. Petersburg. Altogether, these sites blatantly look like a future private winery for high-ranking people.

Rudomakha’s lawyer, Alexey Avanesyan, adheres to the story that the purpose of the attack was to prevent the publication of findings from the activists’ inspection. Despite the fact that the cameras were stolen during the attack, all photos of the sites and the church were saved.

At the moment, the attack is being investigated, but according to Rudomakha it is not being conducted properly: “It can be clearly seen by the fact that three weeks after the attack the criminals are not yet found, although the attackers were not very cautious and left a lot of clues”, explains the victim.

Shevchenko received an anonymous threat from an e-mail address named “Death to Rudomakha.”

Immediately after the attack, a petition on Change.org was created demanding a fair investigation of what was a violent crime. By the end of January 2018, more than 120,000 people had signed the petition. Environmental and human rights organisations across Europe sent official letters with the same request to the Russian Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor’s Office and the Federal Security Service as well.

In response to an enquiry sent by the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, the Investigation Office of the Krasnodar region answered that the investigation was being “taken under special control”. “Although this is not a guarantee of an active and fair investigation, and previous attacks have not been revealed, broad public support is absolutely needed to support activists in their important work”, said Shevchenko.

Whitelisted

However, the New Year has brought some good news for EWNC: The Russian Ministry of Justice removed the organisation from the register of NGOs performing the functions of foreign agents in Russia. The Ministry took this decision on the basis of a second detailed inspection of EWNC’s activities after many years during which the leading environmental NGO in southern Russia had been under constant pressure from authorities and businesses for its investigations of environmental legislation violations.

In September 2017, EWNC sent an official enquiry to the Ministry of Justice asking to be removed from the “foreign agents” list on the grounds that the organisation did not receive foreign funding, an “unforgivable sin” that leads to automatic inclusion on the blacklist of NGOs that are foreign agents. The label “foreign agent” itself makes life for an organisation difficult, since it makes it a target of constant pressure from authorities, state-owned media and pro-government civil society.

The deadline for replying to the enquiry expired on 9 January, 2018, with no answer, and the Ministry of Justice tried to keep the removal of EWNC from the list as confidential as possible. EWNC at first received neither a letter, nor a public notice, nor a comment from officials. Information about the group simply disappeared from the online register. Formal confirmation arrived only on 18 January, 2018. It proved that the results of the first inspection in 2016, after which EWNC was declared a “foreign agent”, were wrong: EWNC did not receive foreign funding and by law should thus not have been included on the “foreign agents” list.

The fight for exclusion from the register had lasted more than a year. EWNC had appealed against the decision of the Ministry of Justice to blacklist them in the court but had lost the case and started abrogation. Meanwhile, EWNC’s lawyers appealed to the court to cancel the fines imposed on the organisation and its executives for not having entered the register voluntarily. According to the deputy chair of EWNC Dmitry Shevchenko, all fines have been cancelled, except one: a personal fine on the head of the organisation, Andrey Rudomakha, for the amount of 100,000 rubles (about 1,300 euros).

On guard of the mountains: Andrey Rudomakha, chairperson of the Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus. Photo: vk.com/rudomakha

Exclusion from the “foreign agents” list means removal of an unreasonable burden from the organisation. All NGOs registered as “foreign agents” are required to submit reports to the Ministry of Justice every three months instead of just one annual report. There is also always the threat of new fines, the obligation to conduct an expensive annual audit, and the requirement to label all printed and online publications with the inscription “made by a foreign agent”. The “foreign agent” label stigmatises organisations as well, because society still perceives a “foreign agent” as a spy. For many civil society organisations, this is unacceptable and insulting.

Recovering after the violent attack, EWNC chair Rudomakha described the decision by the Ministry of Justice as a victory for the group: “This is certainly not the last campaign against us, I’m sure there will be other attempts to shut our mouth, but in this particular war we have won.”

The “foreign agent” label stigmatises organisations, because society still perceives a “foreign agent” as a spy.

“The war” against EWNC actually began when the group revealed serious violations during construction for the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Back then local authorities tried to close EWNC in court, a move that received a strong response from both the Russian and international environmental communities. European green parties and environmental and human rights organisations from various countries made public statements urging Russian authorities to stop the pressure on independent environmentalists. BlueLink Foundation also joined the campaign.

Still cause for concern

Shevchenko is more cautious and described the recent decision to exclude EWNC from the agents’ list as “just a formality”. He thinks that the Ministry of Justice would be happy to keep the organisation on the register if it had any grounds for it. “We are excluded from the registry because we filed a complaint in autumn and we had compelling reasons”, he explained. By the time EWNC was included on the list, it had not received any foreign funding for more than a year.

Still, although the Ministry of Justice did not find any foreign funding, they found some activities in the organization’s work, which they identified as “political activity”. Bureaucrats were refering to Shevchenko’s speech during an anti-corruption rally on 12 June, 2017. The rally was part of some protests organised by supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny in different Russian cities. “I said three times during my speech that I do not speak as a representative of EWNC, and I have a video recording of it, but the Ministry had still decided that it was a political activity of EWNC”, Shevchenko stated. EWNC disagrees with this conclusion and will file a complaint because it is written in a way that makes it easy to blacklist the group again at any moment, explained Shevchenko.

In recent years, EWNC and its members have constantly faced groundless persecution. Evgeny Vitishko, an EWNC Board Member, spent two years in prison after an unfair charge. Suren Gazarayan, one of the most prominent members of EWNC, was forced to leave Russia and seek political asylum in Estonia. In April 2017, during an extraordinary inspection at the organisation’s office, some important documents disappeared. In September 2016, masked men brutally attacked volunteer firefighters from EWNC and Greenpeace-Russia in Krasnodar, leaving two volunteers seriously injured. And these are just some of the attacks on EWNC activists in recent years. To date, the police have not carried out a thorough investigation of any of the above-mentioned crimes; and none of the attackers were ever found, arrested or convicted.

The article was originally published in Bulgarian on Evromegdan.bg on March 5, 2018. 

More BlueLink stories about civil  organisations and activists under pressure

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This article was published as a part of the project “Remembering Europe: Civil Society Under Pressure Again”, implemented by the BlueLink Foundation with co-funding from the EU’s Europe for Citizens Programme. No responsibility for the content of this articice could in any way be attributed to the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency and the European Comission. All responsibility for the content lies with the BlueLink Foundation.