Russia’s eco-activists: not out of the woods yet

It’s Russia’s Year of Ecology. But as these activists tell us, campaigning on environmental and urban issues is far from a walk in the park. RU

Editors of OpenDemocracy Russia
4 May 2017
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“Forest” reads this piece of corrugated iron during an ecological protest in Moscow, 2012. Photo courtesy of Ecological Watch on North Caucasus. Some rights reserved.

Across Russia, from Kaliningrad to Makhachkala, people have been taking to the streets to save parks, historic buildings and reservoirs. Residents of high-rise developments take the initiative to clean up their buildings. Mothers plant flowers in children’s playgrounds and fight for the right to bring their children’s pushchairs into cafes. 

The city is increasingly seen as something that belongs to them, and not to the local authorities. But these apparently innocent initiatives — clearing rubbish or looking after green spaces — often trigger a swift reaction from the powers that be. Those seeking to improve their urban environment encounter resistance from the officials and threats from business: their actions frequently at odds with short term political or commercial interests. 

What does the urban environmental movement look like across Russia’s regions? What problems do activists face? And how is their activity connected with the anti-corruption protests that have taken place all over Russia in recent weeks? With the help of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, oDR’s editors discussed these questions with members of environmental NGOs — Anna Fadeeva (Grani, Perm), Dmitry Shevchenko (Environmental Watch on North Caucasus) and Yelena Bobrovskaya (Interra, Krasnoyarsk).

The last few weeks have seen mass anti-corruption protests all over Russia. To what extent do you feel they have reflected the interests of your organisations, of urban enhancement and environmental initiatives? Do you feel part of all this? Is it anything to do with you?

Dmitry Shevchenko: Definitely. Our work closely echoes Alexei Navalny’s recent film “Don’t call him Dima”, the expose of Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev’s allegedly corrupt affairs. In 2008-2010, we were involved in protecting the Utrish nature reserve on the Black Sea coast, where the “Dar” Foundation, whose head is a friend of Medvedev, planned to build another palatial residence for him, under the guise of a sanatorium and health spa.

When we say that we protect nature reserves, we mean that we protect the public’s right to a healthy living space. In 99% of cases, anything to do with infringements of rights or legislation is connected with corruption. So whatever we get involved in, we have to deal with corruption in one way or another. And when we were trying to save Utrish, it was less a question of protecting the reserve as such, than of stopping the biggest act of corruption in the history of Russia. 

Whatever we get involved in, we’re dealing with corruption in one way or another

Anna Fadeeva: Of course, all our work at Grani, a centre for civic analysis and independent research which supports NGOs, is closely connected with corruption. 

Take oil spills, for example. Lukoil creates subsidiaries which acquire various reservoirs for toxic waste, then presents itself as a squeaky clean eco-friendly organisation. Projects like this obviously can’t be conducted legally. And there are plenty more examples in various sectors connected with environmental issues and waste production.

But I can’t see how participating in protests can resolve these issues. I realise that it feels good to know that there are a lot of us, that we have support and that we’re not alone. But I can’t see how just meeting up and looking each other in the eyes can make any real difference.

Elena Bobrovskaya: At Interra, which works in the area of civic education, we’re not directly involved in fighting corruption. But we held a “No Black Sky” demo in Krasnoyarsk that attracted as many people as the one last Sunday. Naturally, when we discuss environmental issues in our educational projects we try to inform the young people who come to them about the corruption factor in environmental problems. 


Illegal logging in the Aibga mountain range. Age-old oak and chestnut trees were felled in this rural area outside Krasnaya Polana during the construction of the Roza Khutor ski range. Photo courtesy of Ecological Watch on the North Caucasus. Some rights reserved.

What has changed in environmental activism in your regions and cities over the last ten years or so? And what communities are most active now? 

Dmitry Shevchenko: Civil society is less developed than average in our region. Over the last 20 years, a political system has been built in Krasnodar that has aimed to establish control over every aspect of local life, and this has, of course, included suppressing any political opposition. 

Krasnodar lacks the right infrastructure for grassroots activism or NGO activity, because there’s no sort of political opposition whatsoever. With the local legislative assembly consisting of United Russia and a few odd Communists, there’s nobody for us to work with — even though the population of the region is 5.5 million. 

For a long time, NGOs were the last hope for civil society in the region since the authorities couldn’t easily control them. In the last few years they’ve been more persistent, especially since the forced closure of the Southern Region Resource Centre in Rostov-on-Don and the prosecution of its Director of Grant Programmes, Professor Mikhail Savva, who has been forced to emigrate to Ukraine. 

Now the region doesn’t have a single resource centre for NGOs and grassroots activists, a single strong regional human rights organisation or a single independent online media platform. As a result, we have very little opportunity to engage with the public. 

The authorities themselves triggered the protests with their idiotic behaviour 

Protests are on the rise now in Krasnodar, especially after the last rally on 26 March. About 100 people were arrested, and about 20 of them have been given prison sentences of between three and 15 days. Several members of our organisation were among those arrested, and lots of people at the rally were involved in things like the protection of urban green spaces, planning, waste and so on. 

It’s worth saying that in our region, however strange it might seen, it was the authorities themselves who triggered the protests with their idiotic behaviour. Sochi, for example, was totally dead in terms of activism. But after the 2014 Winter Olympics, with their massive toll on the local environment and innumerable infringements of its residents’ rights, activism sprang into life. And this didn’t happen thanks to some NGOs or someone else, but the actions of the authorities themselves. Or take Krasnodar, the largest city of the region, with a population of over one million and no activism whatsoever. I remember trying to get a “Stop carving up Krasnodar” campaign off the ground back in 2010-2011. We organised a city-wide rally, and only 20-25 people showed up. There was zero interest.

The big breakthrough came in 2014, when the city authorities decided to fell all the trees along the main drag, Krasnaya Ulitsa, and plant some tiny Italian shrubs at 40,000 roubles (£543) apiece. They even started carrying the project out. And people who had otherwise had taken no interest in protest activity took to the streets. They forced City Hall to cancel the project — the trees along one block were felled and it stopped there. It was a great victory for civil society in our city, and sparked a very noticeable rise in activism.


A public meeting with the head of Krasnodar’s city administration on the subject of tree felling along Krasnaya Ulitsa. May 2014. Photo courtesy of Ecological Watch on the North Caucasus. Some rights reserved.

Elena Bobrovskaya: In Krasnoyarsk at the moment there’s rapidly growing interest in everything connected to family life and an inclusive society. 

Urban planning is also big issue. There were massive disputes, and it’s worth saying that the public were very active in open discussions. The fact that nobody believes that these public consultations on urban planning actually work is another matter. But there are individual groups (cyclists, for example) who were really active and managed to get cycle lanes included in the plan. They were very effective at collecting signatures and working with the planners. The next project is for the development of Krasnoyarsk’s riverside, which includes plans for public areas, and both the architectural community and environmental activists are getting involved in that.

Environmental activism is turning from an activity pursued in your spare time into a professional occupation 

There are also big developments around public transport. This is a really sensitive issue, as the city holds the national record for cars per head of population and traffic jams, while public transport is almost non-existent.

This year, Almaty, Kazakhstan, will host the World University Winter Games. In Russia, we like to hold these so-called “Universiades” [student olympics - ed.] on an almost olympic scale. So there was a huge public protest around tree felling and forests potentially losing their protected status in order to build ski runs. These were serious concerns, and the sports clubs got involved, which for us was a very positive thing. Local ski clubs wanted to protect their usual runs, rather than having enormous new structures whose cost-effectiveness was doubtful. 

On the other hand, the city wants to be seen as open for business, so all kinds of grand projects are welcomed by some and do attract public approval. 

Anna Fadeeva: I feel there aren’t so many now who are involved in environmental activism in their spare time, or on weekends. Those who are still involved are becoming more professional, and are finally beginning to think about their effectiveness. In other words, environmental activism is turning from an activity pursued in your spare time into a professional occupation.

Our agenda still includes the question of landscaping river valleys. Perm stands on a number of small rivers and streams, and their banks tend to attract waste tipping. Activists have been cleaning them up for years now, turning them into parks and public spaces. We recently started opening viewpoints on the slopes of these small valleys, where anyone can come and enjoy their beauty: reclaim the river banks, if you like. There are also ideas and projects to do with how the public can reclaim them further with the help of art installations and festivals. 

We also have an environmental scheme where people don’t just refuse plastic bags or sort their recycling, but take part in our “boomerang bag” project where supermarkets have reusable bags on display for shoppers. Smart, creative stuff like that. 

Dmitry Shevchenko: Our problem is that the authorities try to hijack any positive developments — the cyclists’ movement is one example. They have to have the public in their pockets. Sometimes we have to oppose not the authorities so much as the public that dances to their tune.

The city’s urban development plan is a pretty confrontational business, too — and public officials naturally want to push their version, which lacks any provision for a comfortable life and green spaces for residents. They’ve conjured up public committees whose members happen to be connected with the city administration – civic activists involved in businesses connected with municipal contracts. 

The authorities have a real need to have the public in their pockets 

Take the Kuban Cossack Host, which receives a direct subsidy from public funds without any selection process. There is a special budget set aside for organisations like this, and the Cossack community often plays the role of a simulated general public. When colleagues from abroad visit us and we’ve shown them our projects, the Cossacks turn up and say, “no foreigners here”. There’s also a pseudo-Orthodox crowd who appear when needed to criticise things that supposedly harm the Church. 

So, it’s difficult for us to voice the needs of ordinary people who suddenly discover a tower block being built by the lakeside where they like go walking on weekends. These are the kind of residents the authorities want to shut up with the help of their pocket public. This public appears to order and says that “everything is fine, let’s build a park somewhere else, and let them build their tower block here.” 

Urban activism is also not always positive; we also have “doghunters”, who kill stray dogs while the authorities turn a blind eye. They apparently do it for good reasons, but don’t realise that it’s illegal, unethical, and, moreover, dangerous to local people.


Vladimir Putin inspects a model of planned buildings for the 29th World Winter Universiade [student olympics - ed.], due to be held in Krasnoyarsk in 2019. Photo (c): Alexey Nikolsky / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

2017 is the Year of Ecology in Russia. How do your cities appear to be responding to this issue? And how do they allow you to be involved in marking the year, if you would like to? 

Dmitry Shevchenko: In my region, every initiative connected with the Year of Ecology is very formalised. The regional government could, for example, instead have run a large environmental project engaging with the public, or created a new nature reserve. 

But the year is passing in a series of semi-closed conferences; the most recent one took place two weeks ago, an environmental forum chaired by Duma member Nikolai Valuyev. Sofia Rusova, a member of our organisation, tried to attend it, to distribute leaflets about the need to protect the “Western Caucasus” World Natural Heritage Site, which includes the Caucasian State Nature Biosphere Reserve which we are involved in protecting. She wasn’t allowed in, so she unfurled her banner at the door. A forum security officer came out, tore it up and called the police. That’s the Year of Ecology summed up for you. 

Russia’s Year of Ecology is passing in a series of semi-closed conferences, not in any public campaigns 

Anna Fadeeva: Our local government bodies also have plans to celebrate the Year of Ecology, but there’s nothing exciting or impressive there: just a few events in schools and so on.

Nevertheless, as there’s some formal acknowledgement of the environment being an issue of discussion, various official bodies and organisations are showing their interest. For example, in my work I’m sometimes involved with libraries, and their directors keep asking me whether I have something connected with the environment for them. “We’re currently doing a project about environmentally hazardous areas in the Perm Region; we’re putting together an exhibition”, I tell them. “No problem”, they reply. “We’ll use it”. 

What have your organisations achieved recently?

Dmitry Shevchenko: We’re always amazed at how much we’ve achieved. Last year, for example, we succeeded in persuading the regional government to abandon a senseless project to widen the Rostov Highway. They wanted to cut down all the trees lining the road and make it run literally under people’s windows. But there’s a really nice green corridor there, five kilometres long; the locals planted the trees with their own hands. The whole thing was to be demolished and covered in asphalt. 

The campaign took an enormous effort: we had to keep a vigil and hold back the bulldozers with residents’ help, and run a mass awareness and information programme. The project was abandoned on the orders of the then governor, who told them to find other options for improving traffic flow. 

Every year we look back at what we’ve done and we’re always amazed at how much we’ve achieved 

Last year we also managed, again with help from local residents, to stop an attempt to build high rises around the Karasun lakes in Krasnodar. One tower block has already been constructed. Two weeks ago a court banned the project, the development was declared illegal and the site ordered to be returned to the city — a serious victory for the residents.

Often we’re unable to stop projects that are just getting off the ground, but here we had a completed building and a large sum invested. And that’s not the only one.

In some local areas, the residents show an increasing level of activism, and they often get results. Our aim as an NGO is to be involved in things that members of the public can’t do by themselves. In Krasnodar, for example, we’re trying to sort out a piece of woodland that happens to be inside the city boundary. As part of its urban development plan, the city wants to designate it as a so-called “city wood”, which would allow it to be felled and so on. It’s a big problem, as it comprises 800 hectares of land and it’s essential to be an expert on the issue and to have knowledge of the appropriate legislation and the procedures for transferring land from one category to another. An ordinary city dweller would have difficulty negotiating all this. 

Anna Fadeeva: We have a piece of woodland in the centre of Perm, the Chernyavsky Forest, and there was a plan to move the city zoo there. But the combined efforts of the local people and NGOs, including ours, succeeded in saving it as woodland. It’s still a continual cause for concern; as a result various organisations and others concerned about the environment have come together in a Green coalition. 

Elena Bobrovskaya: Our work is in education, so there’s always a delayed effect. I see how people who have taken part in our projects have started thinking differently and seeing both the environment and the urban space in another way. 

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Employees of various NGOs attend a Europe Lab summit for civil society actors in Vukovar, Croatia, 2016. Photo courtesy of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. Some rights reserved.

What does being part of the Civil Society Forum mean for your environmental, urban planning and educational programmes? What does the Forum give you? 

Dmitry Shevchenko: Being part of the Forum is a big honour and a big asset to our organisation. We have very few opportunities, even within Russia, to meet with colleagues and discuss common themes, not to mention the general situation we find ourselves in, which deteriorates by the year. The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum is one of the few unique spaces where we can meet with colleagues from Europe, and from a wider variety of NGOs from Russia whose experience we can learn from.

It also gives us the chance to take part in discussions outside our own specialist areas. I can bring my environmental expertise to the table, while other organisations focus on exposing corruption and lobbying in their own EU countries. You get a real cumulative effect, like, for example, the report by the group on trans-border corruption that was presented to the EU Commission in Brussels in 2015. This discussed the issue of European money being invested in socially and environmentally irresponsible projects on Russian territory. And this is a problem for not just Russia, but EU countries as well. 

Elena Bobrovskaya: Let me tell you about a project going on at the moment – “Schools - NGOs: bridges to cooperation”. It’s all about interaction between informal civic education, the non-profit sector and official educational structures. It’s an enormous step towards developing a network. For me personally, the most crucial thing about the project is this cooperation between sectors – at the moment you often have an NGO, even in education, doing its own thing, and a school doing its thing, and they end up slagging each other off. It’s important to find points of contact, which we all badly need.

oDR thanks the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum for its help in preparing this edited discussion. Look out for our next round table discussion on corruption in Russia here soon.

Translated from Russian by Liz Barnes

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