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Protecting the environment is becoming a deadly occupation in Russia

Environmental activists in Russia’s North Caucasus are fighting not just for the environment, but their own lives. RU

December 2017: public inspection of illegal construction in a Krasnodar forest, after which Andrey Rudomakha (pictured right) was attacked. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.Over the last two decades, successive Russian governments have done their utmost to destroy any emerging elements of civil society. This has included passing increasingly restrictive legislation on NGOs, including the infamous “foreign agent” law, and it is now attacking a new target — the internet — with a media law that is trying to make “foreign agents” out of bloggers.

Until now, the only thing they haven’t resorted to — or at least, not openly welcomed — has been physical attacks on civil society campaigners. But there are already “pilot regions” where activists, including environmental protesters, have been facing violence for some time. And the worst area in this respect is the North Caucasus.

Land of spontaneous protests

Environmental activism is less developed in the North Caucasus, and southern Russia in general, than in any other Russian region (apart from sparsely populated parts of Siberia and the far north).

This is a legacy of the cultural-historical and socio-political specifics of the region: the North Caucasus has traditionally had a fairly loose connection with Russia’s judicial system. And it’s not just Chechnya, as people assume: the entire region between the Black Sea and the Caspian is in the hands of local clans who enjoy individual relationships, some more successful than others, with the Moscow government.

Environmental protesters in the North Caucasus have been facing violence for some time

In return for their loyalty and the right election results, local officials have carte blanche from Moscow to do what they like on their own patch. The result is a systemic infringement of the public’s rights and freedoms on a horrendous scale. And when people’s basic rights are breached, environmental issues have to take second place to the right to life, personal inviolability and so on. Eco-activism is, however, alive and well in the region.

One case, for example, has been the longstanding fight by residents of southern Dagestan for the Samur river, which marks the border with Azerbaijan. Unsustainable use of its water in both countries led to the near disappearance of the unique tropical liana forest in its delta, while lowered levels in the river and the surrounding groundwater put at risk the Magaramkent district’s fruit orchards, on which its economy depends.

December 2013: 15 people are arrested after protesting the construction of a water station on the Samur river. Source: Caucasian Knot

In 2013 plans to create another fifty water catchment areas in the delta, to supply water to the cities of Derbent and Izberbash, triggered social unrest in the region: people held spontaneous rallies and were ready to build a protest camp. In December of that year the army was brought out to put down the protest, although fortunately no one was killed.

Now Dagestanis are actively engaged in direct action against illegal private mini oil refineries. A couple of years ago a crowd of young people almost trashed one of these in a suburb of the capital Makhachkala: its waste dumping was really annoying the locals and the city authorities were doing nothing about it. So the residents got organised and took the law into their own hands.

Spontaneous “radical” (although fairly brief) environmental protests — complete with blocked roads and building sites — are a common feature of Russia’s North Caucasus republics. They horrify the local authorities, who immediately imagine political cabals and conspiracies behind them. Instead of dealing with the reasons for people taking to the streets, local elites invent mythical “extremists” and talk about “forces motivated by the destabilisation of the situation”. It is only fear of being arrested as an “extremist” and ending up in an FSB or “Centre E” (Department for Countering Extremism) cell, which in the Caucasus happens often enough, that restrains the citizens of the north Caucasus republics from actively campaigning for their environmental rights.

Instead of dealing with the reasons for people taking to the streets, local elites invent mythical “extremists”

A few years ago, I visited a small village in the Elbrus district of Kabardino-Balkaria. A gas pipeline ran through the village to a ski resort, in a straight line through a pine grove that was one of the few remnants of the forest that once covered the valley of the Baksan River. The local residents were not happy with this outrage, but no one dared protest. I was told that some young men suspected of “extremism and Wahhabi sympathies” were being abducted, just picked up off the street and driven off to unknown destinations, and lucky if they came back alive.

It’s worth mentioning that never having been involved in protest before, the locals have only pretty basic methods and tools at their disposal: their activities boil down to street protests and collecting signatures on petitions. There are hardly any NGOs in the north Caucasus that could provide an infrastructure for public environmental activity, if you discount a couple of sham government-sponsored organisations.

“In Russia, you can never tell what will happen to you and when. The all-pervading sense of threat and uncertainty creates a lot of psychological stress. It’s true that there are also countries in the EU where environmental campaigners work in almost equally difficult conditions (Bulgaria, for example). There may be no physical attacks there yet, but the machines are in motion, inciting the public, threatening and making wide use of black propaganda. Even in western Europe there are publications specially designed to marginalise or defame activists or entire groups, but in civil societies there you have the chance of publicising your own point of view through outlets with a similar status and popularity — a definite plus for countries with free media. But Russia and Bulgaria don’t have this.”

Ksenia Vakhrusheva, Bellona and member of EU-Russia Civil Society Forum environmental working group

Nonetheless, in places where the public can engage in systemic environmental protest campaigns and are not limited to “street” activity, but also, for example, can use judicial strategies, then the authorities are often left flummoxed and prepared to compromise. Last year in Kabardino-Balkaria, for example, the residents of the town of Prokhladny succeeded in halting work on a project to build a hydrometallurgical leaching plant, thanks to a well-researched campaign involving the press and TV, social media and NGOs (and not all of them local).

Pig manure and extremism

However, in a region as complex as the North Caucasus, not even loyalty to the authorities can always save you from prosecution: you have only to remember the high profile case of environmental specialist Valery Brinikh from the tiny Republic of Adygea, an enclave within southern Russia’s Krasnodar region. Brinikh headed his republic’s department of the All-Russian Society for the Protection of the Environment, whose Russian acronym is VOOP. VOOP is a perfectly “systemic” (i.e. government-sponsored) organisation: it never ceases to proclaim its loyalty to the government, has never been seen to have any links with the political opposition and none of its officials has ever been charged with any offence connected to their public service.

There are very few NGOs in the north Caucasus that could provide an infrastructure for public environmental activity

At the centre of the Brinikh case were peculiarly regional factors: the environmentalist fell foul of Vyacheslav Derev, a businessman and former senator in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. In his own republic, Derev is well known as the proprietor of a business empire encompassing vodka, taxis, agriculture and car assembly. At a certain point, however, he decided to further extend his commercial interests and acquire a pig farm — not in Karachaevo-Cherkessia but in neighbouring Adygea, where he had already financed the construction of a large livestock enterprise in Teuchezhsky district. For the hard-pressed regional authority, it was like a Cinderella story: an opportunity to provide jobs for the local population and earn a few roubles in taxes.

Valery Brinikh during an inspection. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.The “good deed”, however, brought its own problems: people started complaining about the disgusting smell of the pig dung, which investor Derev had no plan to reprocess, as they do in civilised countries, into biogas and fertiliser (some Russian enterprises have already adopted this practice from Denmark): the waste substances were simply spread on the surrounding fields, poisoning the soil and water courses.

In 2014, Valery Brinikh, who had become actively involved in a campaign for the rights of the local population, published an article, entitled “The Silence of the Lambs”, in which he, among other things, pointed out that pig breeding was not the best business activity in a region with a Muslim population.

Adygea’s Investigative Committee, the main federal investigative agency in Russia, latched onto Brinikh’s remark and in December 2014 charged him with an “extremist” offence (“incitement to hatred or hostility”).

According to the investigators, Brinikh “aided and abetted unknown individuals in disseminating information designed to insult human dignity in terms of ethnicity and background, by creating extremist material”. He also faced a number of lawsuits to do with the preservation of honour and dignity — from both the pig farm and the Teuchezhsky district local administration.

The environmental specialist had to spend nearly three years of his life proving that he had no involvement in “religious extremism”. In the final stage of his case in July 2017 (Brinikh was faced with a potential suspended sentence or large fine), experts from the FSB’s Institute of Criminology could not find any signs of incitement to interethnic hatred in his article, and in August the case against him was closed. By that time the pig farm at the centre of the scandal was under new ownership and its new management had no interest in prosecuting Brinikh.

The Adygea phenomenon

Tiny Adygea is, in terms of its judicial and law enforcement system, an interesting anomaly. Unlike in other Caucasus regions, local civil society activists can actually succeed in standing up for their rights in the courts: the Brinikh case is one example of this, as is the environmental organisation "Ecological Watch for Northern Caucasus", also known as EcoWatch, the best known environmental protection NGO in southern Russia.

The thing is that although EcoWatch is an inter-regional organisation, it is registered in Adygea. When its enemies (and they are many, especially in neighbouring Krasnodar) want to take it down a peg, everything has to go through the Adygean law enforcement and judicial bodies, which are not impressed by the indignation of its neighbour’s officials and security services.

In September 2016, for example, when EcoWatch was declared a “foreign agent” and the NGO and its head Andrey Rudomakha had administrative cases raised against them, the organisation decided to go down the judicial self-defence road, which was not typical of environmental groups on the “foreign agent” register. But it brought results: with the help of the Lawyers’ Club, one of Russia’s most authoritative professional bodies protecting the rights and interests of the sector, EcoWatch succeeded in overturning already imposed fines to the tune of 700,000 roubles (£8,800) — an absolute record for environmental organisations caught by the “foreign agent” law.

Ecologist Andrey Rudomakha is the head of the "Ecological watch for the North Caucasus". Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.In mid-January this year, EcoWatch was removed from the “foreign agent” register, after the Adygean Ministry of Justice ruled that it had received no foreign finance.

Attacks on the organisation are, however, continuing. In Krasnodar, where it is most active and where it has had a great deal of success in the last few years, civil activists have become victims of “hybrid” violence. This, by analogy with “hybrid war”, is a type of pressure where the authorities and the local security services apparently stand aside and “outsource” the violence to various, often destructive, groups among the public: Cossack associations (whose members include many radical nationalists and criminal elements), ultranationalist groups, football fans and so on.

In practice, this “hybrid violence” has many faces. It can be used by all kinds of groups, from aggressive female pensioners storming Alexey Navalny’s campaign headquarters (there have been about a dozen incidents of this kind in Krasnodar) to Cossacks lashing Tajik migrant workers and Pussy Riot members with whips in 2014. Every time something like this takes place, the Krasnodar authorities either demonstratively distance themselves from the violence and its perpetrators or keep their mouths shut and pretend that nothing has happened. Meanwhile, the local media, most of which are controlled in some way by the regional administration, cover any and every news story except the one that matters.

EcoWatch has been the victim of violence outsourcing more than once. In February 2014, for example, a couple of days before the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, unknown thugs in masks smashed up a car belonging to Igor Kharchenko, a member of EcoWatch’s Board of Trustees, while police officers stood by and watched.

“Green activism has always been a dangerous activity in Russia, since it differs little from other forms of civil activism where people campaign against the criminality that is often closely linked to power. All we can do, I think, is to learn how to follow certain safety rules: become more knowledgeable about the law; plan your activity thoroughly (especially if it is some kind of fieldwork — expeditions, public inspections and so on, as well as any street-based activity); learn how to avoid conflict situations whenever possible. If you are in a dangerous situation, it’s important to involve the public, attract as much media attention as possible and demand a proper response from the authorities.”

Alexander Fedorov, co-chairman of the Russian Social-Ecological Union and member of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum environmental working group

The only thing that we hadn’t encountered until recently was serious physical violence, which could have been fatal, against individual activists: “hybrid” aggression had its boundaries. But in 2016, the boundaries fell when Greenpeace volunteers returned from fighting a wildfire to their camp to an attack by unknown assailants. This attack left two activists seriously wounded and the group’s equipment trashed. This happened after strangers had been discovered spying on the camp and threatening violence against the volunteers. The local media, of course, interpreted the incident as “a scuffle between the environmentalists and members of the local population”.

And now, a year later, December 2017 saw another serious incident which left EcoWatch head Andrey Rudomakha badly injured. He and a group of activists had returned to Krasnodar after carrying out a public environmental inspection of the area around the village of Krinitsa on the Black Sea coast, where a building project resembling a winery estate for VIPs was appearing within a state forestry reserve and without any planning permission.

Back in Krasnodar, three assailants attacked the group outside the house of one of the activists. They were dressed just like those who had attacked Igor Kharchenko three years earlier: leggings, hoodies, balaclavas and masks. They began by “neutralising” Rudomakha: sprayed gas in his face to blind him before one of them knocked him to the ground and kicked him in the face, leaving him with concussion, a broken nose and broken teeth. He lost consciousness and lay bleeding on the ground while the thugs “dealt with” the rest of the activists.

lead 28 December: unknown assailants attack Andrey Rudomakha. Source: YouTube. And although a criminal case of “group robbery” was opened almost immediately after the attack, the Krasnodar police were in no hurry to catch the criminals. And even if they had apprehended them, there’s no certainty that they would have revealed the name of the person who had ordered the crime, or that the police would have shown any interest in the motivation behind it.

Physical violence carrying a risk to life is something new for southern Russia’s environmental (and not just environmental) activists, and they’re totally unprepared for it. You can read up on the mechanisms for keeping information and communications secure, find 1,001 ways of continuing your activities while on the “foreign agent” list and gain massive experience in defending yourself and your organisation in court. But it won’t do a thing to protect you if someone comes up behind you in the street and fells you with a club or a knuckle duster.

Unfortunately, many environmental activists who have been quietly carrying out work for the state which the state won’t do itself are still not morally prepared to take on the work of the police — and defend themselves as they need to.

We can only hope that the massive public response to the attack on Andrey Rudomakha will provide the impetus not only for investigating this hideous incident, but drawing attention to the unfortunate and completely unprotected position of civic activists in southern Russia.

 


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