2017, officially designated as Russia’s “Year of Ecology,” is off to a disastrous start. On January 16, the authorities labeled one of the country’s most prominent environmental groups, Bellona-St. Petersburg, a “foreign agent organization.”
At the end of 2016, the Ministry of Justice conducted an unscheduled audit of Bellona, and although the group has not yet received the official result of that audit, Bellona-St. Petersburg has been added to Russia’s growing list of “foreign agents.”
Since 2012, the Russian government has used its “foreign agents” law to demonize independent groups that accept foreign funding and carry out public advocacy, especially those that challenge government policies and actions. In 2013, the Ministry of Justice and the General Prosecutor’s Office conducted a joint audit of Bellona, but found no grounds to designate the group a “foreign agent.”
Bellona-St. Petersburg has been providing invaluable legal expertise, educational services, and legal assistance on the right to a healthy environment since 1998. It has undertaken ground-breaking research on nuclear waste in Russia’s north, investigated the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, and regularly reports on violations of environmental laws in Russia. In 2000, Alexander Nikitin, currently chairperson of the board for Bellona-St. Petersburg, was prosecuted for high treason and divulging state secrets for his part in the organization’s research report, “Dismantling Russia’s Northern Fleet Nuclear Submarines: environmental and proliferation risks.”
A Bellona-St. Petersburg representative told Human Rights Watch they are thinking of making a legal appeal against the Ministry’s decision and also contemplating the option of closing the organization rather than have it operate with the shameful stigma. In March 2015, the authorities branded as a “foreign agent” Bellona-St. Petersburg’s sister organization in Murmansk, Bellona-Murmansk, following the publication of its report on industrial pollution in northwest Russia. In October 2015, after months of bureaucratic quagmire, Bellona-Murmansk chose to shut its doors.
Since 2012, seven environmental groups have closed after being designated as “foreign agents”.
Last December, at his end-of-year news conference, President Putin argued that foreign governments use environmental groups to “slow down certain growing segments of Russia’s infrastructure.” Bellona-St. Petersburg is yet another victim of the government’s targeted crackdown on the country’s leading environmentalists.