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Sierra Magazine
Lay of the Land

Russia's Green Menace | For the Record | Wilderness blackmail | Naming Clearcutters | Crashing WTO's party | Roads to Nowhere | Bold Strokes | UPDATES

The Green Menace

Vladimir Putin finds a new class enemy in environmentalism

Imagine that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Forest Service were abolished, their functions folded into the Commerce Department, and that environmental activists were harassed, imprisoned, and prosecuted for high treason. House majority whip Tom DeLay's secret dream? Possibly, but it's also the reality in today's Russia.

Russian environmentalists might have seen the crackdown coming. Last year, as chief of the FSB (the federal secret police, successors to the KGB), Vladimir Putin accused environmental organizations of harboring foreign spies. Now Putin is president, and environmental organizations are being persecuted, the prosecutor general's office has hounded former naval officer and environmental whistle-blower Aleksandr Nikitin, and Putin has dissolved the Federal Forest Service and the State Committee on Environmental Protection.

"We were not always happy about our environmental agency's activities, but we worked with them," says Vera Mischenko, head of the legal-aid organization Ecojuris and, like Nikitin, a winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. There is no longer any state organization to stand in the way of the exploiters of Russian forests, oil, or minerals: "It's a huge loss for us," she says. The committee's functions have been transferred to the Ministry of Natural Resources, which is responsible for licensing the extraction of same. The goat, as they say in Russia, is now in charge of the cabbage patch.

Putin framed his move as a cost-cutting measure, but most sources agree that it was the result of pressure from large multinational and Russian corporations and the powerful ministries--Defense, Nuclear Energy, Natural Resources--that cater to them. "The interests of the environmental committee were in conflict with the interests of those ministries," says Nikitin, "so they chose the simplest way: just remove the committee."

Calling the situation a "fundamental and irreconcilable conflict of interest," 67 Russian and international environmental organizations (including the Sierra Club) urged the World Bank to halt further loans to Russia. They noted, for instance, that the Bank approved a $60 million sustainable forestry loan to the Russian Forest Service five days after that agency had been abolished. As a result, the Bank declared that it would make the loans conditional on Russia's re-establishing a system of environmental monitoring and regulation. It ultimately declared itself satisfied with the Natural Resources Ministry's ability to do so.

Russian authorities are also cracking down on nongovernmental environmental groups. Greenpeace's Moscow office was ransacked on the pretext that an office cubicle had been built without the necessary permits. Mischenko reports that Ecojuris and other environmental organizations are harassed repeatedly, often
accused of not paying taxes. "When we discovered several cases of briberies of very high government officials," she says, "we sent huge files to the prosecutor general's office, trying to force them to investigate some officials and multinationals. But instead we got investigations of ourselves."

Undaunted, in August Ecojuris sued President Putin in an attempt to get him to reinstate the Committee on Environmental Protection, and Russian environmentalists are trying to collect 2 million signatures to force a national referendum on whether there should be an independent Committee and Forest Service, and also whether Russia should permanently ban the import of nuclear waste. Despite the official vilification, Mischenko says, "Our work is very popular. People write and e-mail us from all over the country. People know that we do real things; I don't think they believe we are spies."

The Russian government does, however, as seen by its implacable pursuit of Nikitin. His troubles stem from a report he helped write for the Norwegian environmental group Bellona on the threat of radioactivity from Russia's aging fleet of nuclear submarines (a threat underscored by the August sinking of the Kursk in the Barents Sea). Even though Nikitin's work was based on published sources, the FSB charged him with divulging state secrets, a capital crime. After spending ten months in jail and undergoing numerous trials, Nikitin's acquittal by a lower court was confirmed by a three-judge panel of the Supreme Court this April. It was a historic victory, said Nikitin, the first time the KGB/FSB had lost a high-treason trial. "In my case, the judges based their conclusions on law, not politics."

In August, however, it was revealed that the prosecutor general's office had made an unprecedented appeal to the full Supreme Court--on the astonishing grounds that Nikitin's rights had been violated in the first trial. The move was condemned by the U.S. State Department, which noted that the appeal "adds to the appearance of political manipulation of the legal system and further suggests that law enforcement agencies may be harassing government critics."

Finally, in September the Supreme Court rejected the prosecutor general's appeal, leaving Nikitin a free man once again. As his supporters around the world celebrated his final vindication, Nikitin was working to establish a new environmental organization, the Coalition for the Environment and Human Rights, which is dedicated to defending Russian environmentalists who lack his international stature. "During these last five years, the Sierra Club, Bellona, and the Union of Concerned Scientists have been working together to solve my case," he says. "But there are still many other people sitting in prison."

by Paul Rauber

For more information on Russian environmental issues, contact the Pacific Environment and Resources Center, 1440 Broadway, Suite 306, Oakland, CA 94612; www.pacificenvironment.org.


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