In Russia, some men want to watch the world burn

2017 is set to be Russia’s Year of Ecology. But in the south of the country, environmental activists face corrupt officials and vigilante attacks. Русский

Svetlana Bolotnikova
21 September 2016

Greenpeace activist Mikhail Kreindlin after he was attacked in Krasnodar region. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace Russia.Mikhail Kreindlin, the head of Greenpeace's protected areas programme, returned to Moscow with relief. Two weeks ago, Kreindlin was in the southern region of Krasnodar, home to the Kuban river, to fight wildfires. But the trip left Kreindlin with a broken nose, a badly cut eyebrow and possible concussion. 

Russia’s volunteer firefighters have never had to face this kind of “patriotic vigilance” before. The problem is, vigilante justice seems to be a cover for corrupt officials. 

“At about one o’clock on the night of 8-9 September, several young men in tracksuits appeared outside our camp,” Kreindlin recalls. “I happened to be on watch duty at the time and approached the fence. They said: ‘We warned you things would get rough. But you wouldn’t listen.’ And then seven or eight of them climbed the three- or four metre high fence. They wore masks and were armed with rubber truncheons, knives and traumatic pistols.”

“We warned you things would get rough. But you wouldn’t listen” 

“They rushed us. I was the nearest to the fence and tried to hold them back. I had a pepper spray canister, but they were wearing masks so it had no effect. Then three of them hurled themselves at me and beat me up badly. They were beating everybody. They slashed the tents and the tyres of our van, and kept shouting that if we didn’t leave the area straight away, we would never be seen again. Then they left, taking the phone I’d been trying to call the police with and another phone belonging to one of our volunteers.” 

“How are you now?” 

“They made a mess of stitching my head in the hospital at Primorsko-Akhtarsk and the wound became septic, so they had to clean and re-stitch it in Krasnodar.”

“What caused the wound?”

“I think it was a rubber truncheon”.

“Have the police charged anybody?” 

“I wrote a statement filing a charge for causing me bodily harm. So far we know from the media that the police have charged three people on three counts: bodily harm, death threats and theft of property”.

“Cooperation” from the authorities

On 5 September, volunteers, both local and from other parts of Russia, arrived at the Maly Beysug private hunting base to extinguish wildfires in the Akhtar-Grivenskaya estuary and lagoon system. The volunteers, attached to Greenpeace Russia and Environmental Watch on North Caucasus, were immediately subject to attempts to foil their mission, despite having permission from the regional authorities. 

“They weren’t exactly happy to see us,” Mikhail Kreindlin tells me. “The police and senior local council people turned up as soon as we arrived. They took down our details, spoke to us quite normally and left.”

Soon afterwards the names of everyone on the expedition appeared in a blog openly designed to discredit the regional NGO Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EkhoVakhta). At the same time, people with various online nicknames posted lies on local forums, claiming that the activists had come to collect data on the region’s industry and were lighting fires in the wetlands as a diversionary tactic. This claim was then taken up as fact by the pro-government regional media.  

The most tragic thing about Kuban’s wildfires is that the business owners who flout the law enjoy the support of the security services

Though EkoVakhta had enjoyed some constructive dialogue with the region’s new governor Venyamin Kondratyev some time ago, this interaction obviously didn’t meet with the approval of some corrupt officials, and sparked a campaign to publicly discredit Kreindlin. Local TV asserted that Rudomakha had “secret meetings” with representatives of foreign countries. On the internet, on the other hand, he was being attacked for “selling out” to the authorities. 

Where the firefighting situation was concerned, personal contact with the region’s leaders initially helped to iron out disagreements. Andrey Rudomakha phoned the deputy governor, who in turn spoke to Vladimir Musatov, the head of the Bryukhovetsk district where the environmentalists’ base was located. 


EkhoVakhta's van after the attack on 8-9 September. Source: Greenpeace. All rights reserved.“The district head invited us and the hunting base’s director Aleksandr Bratusin to a meeting,” Kreindlin tells me. “[Bratusin] said we had his full support and we paid for the base and settled into it. On the next day, we went off to check up on some smoke we had seen and left one volunteer to look after the base. Then two men turned up there and gave a warning that if we didn’t ‘clear off’, things ‘would get rough’. And when we returned, Bratusin arrived, returned our money and demanded we leave immediately.” 

The activists moved to the Primorsko-Akhtarsk district, to another private hunting base. But the next morning, people in Cossack uniforms arrived, called the police and detained the volunteers until five in the afternoon.

After the night attack in which Mikhail Kreindlin was injured, the Chernovsk fire did not get extinguished. The area destroyed by it has increased from 70 to 500 hectares

After that, the fire-fighting expedition was able to extinguish one small fire near the village of Mogukorovka and inspect a fire identified the day before in the Chernovsk wetlands, which had rekindled itself again. After the night attack in which Mikhail Kreindlin was injured, the Chernovsk fire did not get extinguished.

The area destroyed by it has increased from 70 to 500 hectares (five square kilometres) and no one is bothering to put it out. The eco-activists were also obstructed in their attempt to tell the press about the incident. The police detained some of the volunteers on their way to a press conference in Krasnodar.

Why are wetlands of global importance burning?

The Kuban delta is annually subject to forest fires in reed-filled creeks which are home to enormous numbers of wildfowl. These wetlands are of international importance and are protected under the Ramsar Convention, signed by the Soviet Union in 1976. When wildfires spread over huge areas, nothing is left alive. Birds die, their nests are destroyed, animals flee and nature suffers. 

According to Kreindlin, the Russian government has no notion of the value of these areas, and so doesn’t equip the Emergencies Ministry with the technology to extinguish this type of fire. The ministry is also undergoing budget cuts, which means staff redundancies. The remaining firefighters are too stretched to tackle wetland fires — their first priority has to be human settlements.


Volunteer fire rights in the Kuban. Source: EkhoVakhta / VK. Some rights reserved.“In practice, the only valuable natural areas that are not under threat are those where voluntary groups, independently or in conjunction with other services, get involved in putting out fires,” Kreindlin tells me. “And we have tried to set up and train a group like this, on the basis of Environmental Watch on North Caucasus. We have been partially successful, and they now have experience in extinguishing fires. We have left them some equipment and hope they can continue this work.” 

In the Primorsko-Akhtarsk lagoon system, the fires have obviously been started deliberately 

Fires can happen by accident, as a result of carelessness by visitors, for example. But in the Primorsko-Akhtarsk lagoon system, the fires have obviously been started deliberately. It is the site of a fish farm industry that annually drains the lagoons for disinfection purposes and burns the reeds, although this is forbidden by law. 

Local hunters and fishermen have been battling Igor Dzheyus, who has worked as the fish farm’s director for 15 years. Two years ago, EkhoVakhta came to support them. It’s no coincidence that the first two thugs who threatened the eco-activists at their base in Primorsko-Akhtarsk were recognised by locals as “Dzheyus’s people”.

Russia’s eco-activists — a fifth column of foreign agents? 

The most tragic thing about Kuban’s wildfires is that the business owners who flout the law, not to mention the officials who seize tracts of public land for themselves, enjoy the support of the security services. Meanwhile, the activists who uphold the law are harassed and persecuted under it, sometimes even ending up in jail.

In 2012, Yevgeny Vitishko, a member of EkoVakhta, was sentenced by a Krasnodar court to a three year prison term on a trumped-up charge. Suren Gazaryan, a former member of the organisation, was forced to seek political asylum abroad. Both activists were prosecuted for participating in an inspection of the so-called “Tkachev dacha” – Alexander Tkachev being the former Krasnodar regional governor (and now Russia’s minister of agriculture). Working through people close to him, Tkachev allegedly seized public tracts of forest and shoreline for his personal use. 

Campaigns against the construction of “Putin’s palace” and the “Patriarch’s dacha” in Krasnodar have been equally high profile.

The fight for nature conservation and people’s rights to a well-managed environment inevitably affects commercial interests and the corrupt bureaucrats protecting them

According to EkoVakhta coordinator Andrey Rudomakha, “these campaigns have intensified our struggle with the government and resulted in serious pressure on the organisation and its activists. But conflicts like these are an essential part of our activities.”

Police violence has become a regular feature of the interactions civil activists have with the government, although sometimes “unknown attackers” are used instead. In 2014, for example, before the Sochi Winter Olympics, thugs “acting in conjunction with the police” attempted to break into EkoVakhta’s Sochi office, but couldn’t get access to the private property where it was located. Furious, they trashed EkoVakhta council member Igor Kharchenko’s car that was parked nearby.


February 2014: activist David Khakim protests a recent prison sentence for Evgeny Vitishko in Sochi. (c) David Goldman / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.“This is the first time we have encountered nighttime attacks with beatings and death threats,” Rudomakha tells me. “It’s a purely criminal enterprise, organised not by business but by the security services, who have hired the appropriate criminal element to carry it out. The gang may have Cossack links. I imagine that the whole thing was organised by the regional FSB. But there is also evidence to suggest the involvement of the internal policy department of the regional administration, whose main function has long consisted of one ‘policy’ —the suppression, at any cost, of any manifestation of free thinking and civil activism in the area.”

The fight for nature conservation and people’s rights to a well-managed environment inevitably affects commercial interests and the corrupt bureaucrats protecting them, which is why Russia’s rulers dislike the environmental activists. And in the present standoff between Russia and the west, there is growing “spy-mania” regarding environmental organisations, fuelled by government sponsored articles in the press and features on national TV channels.

“Of course they’re trying to demonise us,” says Kreindlin. “But at the same time, we and our colleagues in the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) are still the most recognisable environmental organisations. We have various areas of activity, but our fire fighting work has almost always won only approval.”

So why was it possible to stage such an attack on these activists? According to Andrey Rudomakha, it’s because under the previous governor, the region became synonymous with a mafia free-for-all: “The story of the Tsapok gang, which ruled the north of the region hand in glove with its political rulers, police and even the FSB and the Anti-Extremism Centre, is an excellent example of this,” Rudomakha explains. 

“So is the story of the gang run by United Russia deputy Sergei Zirinov, who ruled the town of Anapa. Even the town’s CID chief was a member. The attack on the firefighting camp in Primorsko-Akhtarsk is evidence that a similar gang might now have appeared in Kuban as well. With a few exceptions, the new governor has the same people around him as in the days of Tkachev’s free-for-all.” 


At the same time as the attack on the volunteer firefighters’ camp, Russia dealt yet another blow to environmental campaigners. Environmental Watch on North Caucasus was included in the list of “foreign agents” — NGOs that receive foreign funding and who are engaged in “political activity”.   The landscape of Krasnodar Region. CC: Sergei Podtsepko / Flickr. Some rights reserved.“This decision is illegal and ordered from the top, and we shall of course challenge it,” says Rudomakha. “The organisation receives no foreign cash and we have no involvement in politics. The ‘politics’ accusation was levelled by our neighbouring republic Adygea’s ministry of justice because individual members attended rallies initiated by local residents. And one member’s receipt of money from abroad into his personal account was labelled ‘foreign funding’ by the officials. What’s more, the information about this personal account was gathered illicitly, with help from the FSB.”

“Will this registration as a “foreign agent” lead to the closure of EkoVakhta?” I ask him.

“No,” he says, “EkoVakhta is not a formally constituted NGO, critically dependent on judicial status, financing and so on. It’s a living community of enthusiasts and devotees, and on the contrary, the more they squeeze us, the stronger we become. It’s a natural law: communities based on struggle and idealistic convictions only become stronger when subject to outside pressure.” 

Want to know more about Russia's ecological challenges? Read Daniel Voskoboynik's op-ed on how we need to change coverage of climate change

Translated from Russian by Liz Barnes.

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