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In Russia, World Environment Day Marred By Pressure On Green Groups

Authorities have been reluctant to shut down a pulp-and-paper mill that has been polluting Lake Baikal for decades.
Authorities have been reluctant to shut down a pulp-and-paper mill that has been polluting Lake Baikal for decades.
On June 5, "green-minded" people around the planet are marking World Environment Day, created in 1972 to raise awareness about the need to protect nature.

But in Russia, the mood among ecologists is sour.

Russia established its own Ecologist Day, also held on June 5, six years ago. And President Vladimir Putin has declared 2013 as the Year of Environment Protection.

Ecologists, however, say this has failed to translate into genuine efforts to curb rampant pollution in Russia.

"Russian Ecologist Day is a very cynical title because practically no attention is paid to ecology in Russia," says Ivan Blokov, the head of Greenpeace's Russian branch. "Generally, there is a depressing feeling that nothing has changed over the past three years in terms of environmental protection. The situation has not improved at all and in some instances it has even worsened. This is true for almost all aspects of environmental protection and for the current state of the environment."

Moreover, Russian environmental groups say a sweeping wave of inspections of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) is also putting their work in jeopardy.

Prosecutors have conducted spot audits at NGOs across Russia in recent months. Dozens of groups have also reported unannounced inspections by fire safety and sanitary officials.

Authorities say they are simply monitoring compliance with a new law forcing groups that receive foreign funding and are deemed to engage in political activities to register as "foreign agents," a term that evokes images of Cold War espionage.

And while Putin has described the raids as "routine," they have prompted a barrage of criticism from rights groups and Western governments who say their real aim is to silence criticism of Putin.

Penalties for failing to comply to the law include six months' suspension without a court order and, for individuals, up to three years in jail. Some groups fear they will have to shut down altogether.

Concentrate On Violations

As the searches gathered pace this spring, Greenpeace called on prosecutors to spare environmental groups and instead concentrate their efforts on punishing environmental violations.

But their calls fell on deaf ears.

As Blokov points out, environmentalists, too, can be a major irritant to authorities, especially in Russia’s far-flung provinces.

"If you look at the situation in regions, it's ecologists who pose the most problems. They don't stage mass rallies, but they create problems in areas that are vital for many local authorities," Blokov says. "For instance, illegal and cynical land grabs, the granting of building permits to companies that pollute the environment and destroy forests, or simply the cover-up of facts about forest fires."

The Norway-based organization Bellona, one of the top environmental NGOs active in Russia, was recently notified that it will be fined for alleged health and fire-safety violations.

Authorities are yet to determine the size of the fine, but Bellona has said it could reach $20,000.

Another environmental organization, Baikal Ecological Wave, has already been ordered to register as a "foreign agent." The group, based in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, has appealed the decision.

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Spokesman Maksim Vorontsov believes his group was targeted for its role in organizing nationwide street protests.

The rallies had focused on local authorities' reluctance to shut down a pulp-and-paper mill that has been polluting Lake Baikal, the world's deepest and oldest lake, for decades.

"Baikal Environmental Wave has always maintained an independent stance and asked very uncomfortable questions," Vorontsov says. "It has also encouraged people to protest concrete antiecological projects."

Blogger Beaten

The assault on Russian ecologists has also gotten physical, with a number of them falling victim to vicious beatings in recent years.

Activist Stepan Chernogubov was beaten after publishing a report about toxic waste.
Activist Stepan Chernogubov was beaten after publishing a report about toxic waste.
Blogger Stepan Chernogubov was beaten up by a group of assailants last month after publishing a report accusing a local chrome factory of dumping toxic waste into a river in the Sverdlovsk region in Russia's Ural Mountains.

A court is currently hearing the case of Konstantin Fetisov, who was assaulted after participating in a rally against the expansion of a dumping site in the town of Khimki, close to Moscow.

A Khimki official is accused of ordering the attack, which left Fetisov in a coma for three months.

The attack came two years after crusading ecologist and journalist Mikhail Beketov was brutally beaten in Khimki.

Beketov, who had battled plans to build a controversial Moscow-St. Petersburg highway through the Khimki Forest, sustained irreversible brain damage.

He died earlier this year at the age of 55.

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