Last Friday morning, Yuri Ivanov, a member and former director of Kola Environmental Center (KEC), arrived at his office and learned from the news that the Justice Ministry had listed KEC as a “foreign agent.” “It is not a big surprise for us,” sighed Ivanov when I called him. Indeed, anything is possible when it comes to the “foreign agent” hunt in Russia.
In 2012, the Russian government introduced a “foreign agents” law that uses the label to demonize independent groups who accept foreign funding and conduct very broadly defined “political activity.”
When the law came into force, ministry inspectors warned KEC that it was “on the verge” of violating the law because it accepted funding from nongovernmental groups in Norway. However, in 2014, a Justice Ministry audit found no “foreign agent” activity in the KEC’s work. Nevertheless, after a KEC partner group was labeled a “foreign agent” in March 2015, KEC management decided that as a precaution, it would turn down all foreign funding as of January 2016.
During the recent audit of KEC, the Justice Ministry ignored the fact that KEC has relied solely on private donations from Russian citizens for its funding since January 2016. Officials paid attention only to foreign funds that KEC received in 2014-2015 for what it suited them to treat as “political activity.” What was this political activity? It was, among other things, a project to teach school children about saving energy.
Another group, Environmental Watch in Sakhalin (EWS), also turned down all foreign funding a few weeks after its designation as a “foreign agent” in 2015. For this reason, it declined donations from Leonardo DiCaprio to save the Amur tigers that the actor had announced during his meeting with Putin. 18 months after it stopped accepting financial support from outside Russia, the Justice Ministry finally removed the stigmatizing status from EWS.
KEC is the second environmental group to be listed as a “foreign agent” this year, and Russia has now branded a total of 21 environmental groups as foreign agents since 2012.
Incredibly, Russia has designated 2017 as the “Year of Ecology.” It either has a wicked sense of humor, or a very poor grasp of the facts.