On June 6 thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow to protest against a government crackdown on environmental and civil society groups. The Planet of Hopes, a nonprofit that promotes environmental and ecological education, is one of the 68 nongovernmental organizations that were put on the list of “foreign agents” since June 2014.
Russia’s Channel One TV claims that the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is paying the Planet of Hopes and its founder Nadezhda Kutepova to engage in industrial espionage and expose Russian nuclear secrets. On May 27, Russian officials fined Kutepova for failing to register as a “foreign agent.” She faces additional fines and possible jail time.
The first Russian civil society organizations in the post-Cold War era were formed around local environmental concerns. Since then, eco-friendly groups have enjoyed a favored status in Russia largely because they are not engaged in overt political activities such as holding rallies or political campaigns. In fact, the 2012 Foreign Agents law, which requires organizations that receive funding from abroad to register as foreign agents, excludes environmental advocacy groups from its purview.
Their localized focus and actions to protect the Russian landscape has helped them make a strong case for loyalty to Russia. However, over the past few months local political and business interests have been using the controversial law to dispense with NGOs that get in the way of development. The ease with which the law can be abused could spell disaster both for Russian civil society and environmental regulation.
In the past few years, for example, regional officials have brought the Planet of Hopes to court alleging embezzlement and tax evasion, while local police confiscated Kutepova’s pass to her closed city, effectively placing her under house arrest. Kutepova successfully fought each charge in local and regional courts. The latest charges against Kutepova point to a more ominous drift. In her appeal, Kutepova quotes the Ministry of Justice’s allegations that the Planet of Hopes’ work defending those suffering from health problems related to radioactive contamination from the Mayak plant has “sharpened the sense of environmental hazards,” which generates “negative opinions” and “political tensions” in the region. The Ministry considers her work a political activity that poses a “threat to Russian national security.”
Media reports have gone farther, alleging that Kutepova is paid by the NED to invent public health problems and wage a fake campaign citing civil rights violations to make the city “an open door to western rivals.”
Still, the crackdown on NGOs and human rights activists is not a concerted effort to shut down civil society in Russia. Instead it represents a perfect storm of various political, media and business interests in Russian society that utilize the law to advance their own interests.
At the federal level, the uptick in application of the law shows a rising level of insecurity among Russian authorities to even relatively innocuous, dissident voices. Local political parties have requested inspections of potential foreign agents to harass rivals. Local businessmen use the law to get troublesome environmentalists out of the path of development, whether it is to halt the construction of a waste incinerator, nuclear power plant or a highway through a national park. Regional politicians have deployed the law to dispense with human rights groups concerned with police brutality and discrimination against ethnic and sexual minorities.
The multi-faceted utility of the law makes it an enticing tool, one that is increasingly difficult for NGOs to surmount. In part because of the U.S. history of spying on enemies and allies alike, there appears to be little that can be done from outside Russia without exacerbating charges of foreign meddling. As during the Soviet period, those in the United States can only watch and report.
Meanwhile, Kutepova will fight this charge as she has others — legally, in court. She plans to appeal the Ministry of Justice’s recent fine of $6,000 for failure to register as a foreign agent.
“We make a strange nest of spies,” Kutepova said with a grin responding to questions about the charges of industrial espionage. “Our staff of four is made up of single mothers and a pensioner, who became an invalid after working on the Chernobyl clean up. I can’t think of a less likely fifth column.”