Grassroots

The English term “grassroots” is often used around the world to denote local civic activism.

The documentary film Grassroots explores three landmark environmental struggle—the fight to save the Suna Forest in Karelia, the ongoing work of EcoWatch in Krasnodar Territory, and the fight to save the Khopyor River in Voronezh Region—using them as a springboard for trying to answer the main questions facing environmental activists in our country today.

In the film, we hear the voices of many environmental activists and listen to the opinions of the most experienced of them, including Yevgeny Vitishko, Andrei Rudomakha, Konstantin Rubakhin, Suren Gazaryan, Yevgeniya Chirikova, Tatyana Chestina, and Grigory Kuksin.

Some of these extraordinary activists have been forced into exile, while others have done serious prison time.

What does it cost to defend our forests, parks, and cities? Who is up to the task?

Director: Konstantin Davydkin
Producer: Maria Muskevich
2018, 58 min., Russia; in Russian with no subtitles
Production: Regista Studio / Make a Movie Production Center

Annotation translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for encouraging me to watch the movie.

Andrei Rudomakha, Russia’s Most Famous Environmentalist

rudomakhaAndrei Rudomakha. Photo courtesy of his Facebook page and the Moscow Times

On the Watch: The Story of Andrei Rudomakha, Russia’s Most Famous Environmentalist
Vladimir Prikhodko and Angelina Davydova
Proekt
October 2, 2019

Protests against waste landfills, the clearcutting of parks, and illegally enclosed forests—the environment has been a frequent topic of regional protests in Russia. Persecution by the authorities, criminal cases, beatings, and even murders are everyday risks for environmental activists. Proekt tells the story of the persecution of the head of Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EcoWatch), which has been going on for almost forty years.

They go to bed late in the private house on Kerchenskaya Street in Krasnodar. The place resembles a commune. This is the home and office of Andrei Rudomakha and Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus aka EcoWatch, perhaps the most famous grassroots environmental organization in Russia. Rudomakha has led EcoWatch for fifteen years.

At 5:55 a.m. on July 30, everyone was asleep. At that moment, Investigative Committee investigator Sergei Kalashnikov and an unidentified FSB officer in a mask rang the doorbell. Not waiting for the homeowner to open the door, they ordered Emergencies Ministry officers to break down the gate. Within a couple of minutes, officers in masks had flooded the house, and two masked men with automatic rifles had thrown Rudomakha to the floor. When Rudomakha attempted to get up, the officer holding the activist pepper-sprayed him in the face.

Enemies of the State
This was the fifth search at EcoWatch in less than three years, and the second in the last four months.

“That morning, I was supposed to go to court in Maykop to face charges that we allegedly broke the law on ‘undesirable organizations’ by linking to Open Russia’s website on our sites and social media pages. My trip was canceled because of the search, and no one from our group was at the court hearing. Naturally, we lost the case,” says Rudomakha, meeting with our correspondent at the selfsame commune-like house.

EcoWatch was the first nonprofit organization in Russia to be found guilty of collaborating with Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia.

In recent years, the number of environmental protests in various regions of Russia has certainly grown—from campaigns against waste landfills in parts of European Russia to protests against coal dust in the port of Nakhodka, in the country’s Far East, says Svyatoslav Zabelin, coordinator for the International Socio-Ecological Union. The most turbulent environmental protests of the past summer were in the village of Shiyes in Arkhangelsk Region, where the authorities wanted to transport garbage from Moscow. It was in the village of Loginovskaya in Arkhangelsk Region where Rudomakha was born fifty-five years ago.

rud-2
A 2018 protest rally in Severodvinsk against the Shiyes landfill. Source: activatica.org

“My father was a descendant of Kuban Cossacks. My mother is from Perm. That is where my parents met when they were at university. After their studies, they were assigned to work in the taiga in Arkhangelsk Region, on one of the local farms. Shortly after, we all moved to my father’s native land, the Taman Peninsula. I was still a very young child when my parents divorced. My mother raised me on her own. She worked for more than forty years in the village of Oktyabrsky in the Seversky District, where we relocated. The test fields of the Tobacco, Shag, and Tobacco Products Research Institute were located there.”

At the age of sixteen, Andrei set out for Cuba. He went to Moscow, supposedly to matriculate at the university, and along the way, he hopped a freight train in order to leave the Soviet Union—but he was found by frontier guards at the Romanian border.

“During the interrogation, the KGB guys thought long and hard about what to do with me,” Rudomakha says with a laugh. “After all, I had said to them, ‘Send me to Cuba, to a school for revolutionaries.’ The KGB officers reacted to this with their peculiar sense of humor and sent me to the Kishinev Mental Hospital. I was retrieved from there by my mother. From that point on I’ve never been out of the sight [of the authorities].”

rud-3
Andrei Rudomakha and his mother

This was how the secret services, rebellion, and forests came into Rudomakha’s life.

“A military coup occurred in Chile in 1973. All of the news contrasted sharply with the reality in which I lived. Oktyabrsky was a very boring place. Books were my salvation. And the forest. I rather quickly got keen on hikes in the woods. Che Guevara was my idol and hero.”

Rudomakha studied Spanish and Greek, began playing guitar and formed a band. He calls his mid-1980s self a “rocker.” In 1987, immediately after his army service, Andrei was offered a job at the Krasnodar House of Young Pioneers, in the Candle Amateur Song Club.

The Rocker
Peaceful and troubled
Troubled and easy
What infuses the air
In the meadows around Pseushkho?

These are lines from a poem by the bard poet Vladimir “Berg” Lantzberg. In the 1980s, he was living in Tuapse, putting together amateur song festivals and establishing the first communes. It was then that Rudomakha first encountered the communard scene, whose principles he would later adopt. The Pseushkho of which Lantzberg sang is a mountain with an Adyghe name in Krasnodar Territory’s Tuapse District. In 2019, Rudomakha would protest against the construction of a limestone quarry there.

In the 1980s, however, the Kuban was fighting another construction project. A nuclear power plant was slated to be built in the Energetiki district of the village of Mostovskaya. In its waning years, the Soviet Union had planned to build dozens of such plants, from Crimea to the Ural Mountains.

rud-4Several Soviet nuclear plants whose construction was begun in the late 1970s and early 80s were not completed. After the breakup of the USSR, one of those stations, Krymskaya, came in handy anyway—not, however, for the nuclear energy industry, but for purveyors of electronic music: it became the venue for the Republic of KaZantip festival of electronic dance music.

“Back in the early 80s, the mammoth construction of a power plant similar to Chernobyl began. In 1988, I was one of the people behind a protest rally. We organized it near Goryachy Klyuch on Lysaya Gora.  I remember how we went underground and hid from the KGB. It was then that I first crossed paths with the Nature Conservation Brigades (DOPs), which had been organized at the universities,” recounts Rudomakha.

During perestroika, university students were often certified as conservation, fishing, and hunting inspectors; these groups were then dispatched into the forests to arrest poachers. Later, alumni of the DOPs would become the backbone of the Russian branches of the WWF and Greenpeace.

Like nearly all the nuclear power plants whose construction kicked off at the turn of the 70s and 80s, construction at the Krasnodar plant was soon frozen. But Rudomakha’s career as a music teacher also came to a screeching halt: KGB officers showed up at the Young Pioneers House, and Rudomakha lost his job. His employment at the Candle Club would be the only entry in his official work record book.

The Communard
Over the last nine years, four criminal cases have been brought against Rudomakha, and seven police searches conducted. He has been jailed on misdemeanor convictions more than fifty times. In the end, EcoWatch was even declared a “foreign agent,” although the decision was reconsidered last year.

In recent years, the growing physical and legal pressure on environmental activists has been as big a trend as the increase in the number of environmental protest rallies. Among the main methods of pressure are forcible dispersal of protests by police, pressure on activists at work, threats to relatives, court cases, straightforward violence, and even murder. In March 2019, environmental activist Denis Shtroo was murdered in Kaluga while participating in, among other things, a campaign against the building of a waste landfill near the village of Mikhali.

______________________________________________________________

Intimidation of Russian Environmental Activists in the First Five Months of 2019
According to information from the Russian Socio-Ecological Union

rud-5Denis Shtroo

activist murdered. In March 2019, environmentalist Denis Shtroo died of stab wounds in Kaluga. He was involved in a campaign against the construction of a waste landfill in the village of Mikhali.

5 cases of criminal prosecution.

7 attacks on activists, attacks on dwellings, property damage, and police searches.

110 cases of administrative prosecution. The total in fines has amounted to more than a million rubles [approx. 12,000 euros].

In 2019, cases of intimidation against environmentalists were most often recorded in Shiyes, Arkhangelsk Region, where illegal construction of a landfill for Moscow’s solid household waste is underway; in Yekaterinburg, where activists were defending the city’s green spaces; and, as in years past, against activists from Stop GOK, in Chelyabinsk, and EcoWatch.

______________________________________________________________

When the New Russia of the early 90s dawned, Rudomakha was in the woods.

“I decided to build a commune at Kisha Station in the Caucasus Nature Reserve. It is a secluded place in Adygea’s Maykop District. Later, our base moved to Ust-Sakhray. In 1988, for a ridiculously small amount of money (the cost of a Zaporozhets car), we bought a house there. It was an area of abandoned villages that people were trying to leave, but we were doing the opposite. I lived in Ust-Sakhray until 1995. I won’t mention the names of the comrades with whom I started out. Many have their own lives and families now,” he says.

Andrei has his own way of viewing everyday life. Remembering those days, he says with regret that the communes fell apart because people started romantic relationships and left.

“We had a lot of ideas: we wanted to transform all of Sakhray and build a public school. My first daughter was born there, and my wife left — she preferred me to another. All of our ideas were shattered by the internal conflicts and disagreements that arose among the settlers. And, basically, I regret that we sat out perestroika in the mountains. It would have been better, of course, in the city,” he says.

The New Russia brought big money to the Kuban. With its sea, mountains, forests, and springs, the southern region attracted businessmen and politicians from Moscow. Some businessmen began to cut down wood on the unique Bolshoi Thach Mountain and haul it out with helicopters.

“And I came out of the woods. The times had drastically changed, as it turned out. Grassroots organizations were on the upswing,” Rudomakha says.

Soon Rudomakha would turn up in Maykop, where he lived in a small house at a weather station run by Vladimir Karatayev, leader of the Union of the Slavs of Adygea. There a branch of the Socio-Environmental Union would be opened, the first environmental organization founded by Rudomakha.

rud-6Rudomakha examines a forest clearcutting in the Caucasus Nature Reserve

“With money from western foundations, we bought a computer and a modem—and things took off. We organized protest rallies, spiked tree trunks, and stopped clearcutting. And, as a result, Bolshoi Thach was made part of the Western Caucasus UNESCO World Heritage Site,” Rudomakha explains.

Pandora’s Box
The planet in Ursula K. Le Guin’s cult science fiction novella The Word for World Is Forest is called Athshe. This planet would become the prototype for Pandora in the movie Avatar, and would also give its name to Rudomakha’s 1990s commune, from which EcoWatch arose. Le Guin grew up in leftist Berkeley and was interested in anarchism and environmental movements. In her novella, the kind forest inhabitants, called “creechies” by earthlings, defend their planet from the “yumens.” Athshe Commune was also focused on environmental protests. Commune members took names from the novella’s characters.

Today, activists would be jailed for many of the protest actions carried out then. Rudomakha’s commune took part in many of them alongside the Federal Anarchists of Kuban (FAK) and radical environmentalists from the Keepers of the Rainbow.

“We were always blocking or blockading something,” Rudomakha recalls. “There were tragedies, too. In 1997, we locked ourselves together with metal chains and blocked the road to Sochi. A crazy trucker drove at us, who knows why, and Anya Koshikovaya’s hand was torn off. In the late 90s, this sort of thing brought palpable results. We seriously considered the idea of creating a guerrilla environmental army, to waste everyone. The forests here are wonderful—one could be guerrillas endlessly. Theoretically, if the necessary contingent of people were found, all this would be quite feasible. To do that you would need to break with your usual life and go rogue. Basically, I’ve been ready for that since childhood. If I could find five people just as mad as me!”

rud-7An environmental protest involving Rudomakha, 1990s

In the finale of Le Guin’s novella, the creechies surround and kill almost all the earthlings. They are especially keen to hunt down the women to prevent new generations of humans from taking over their forests.

Palace Coup
“Sanya [i.e., Alexander] is a thief”: in November 2011, Rudomakha’s comrades in arms spray-painted this graffiti, among others, on the fence of a luxurious estate on the Black Sea shore in Blue Bay, not far from Tuapse. The estate was officially called the Agrocomplex JSC Recreation Center, and it was owned by the family of Alexander Tkachov, former Krasnodar Territory governor and former Russian federal agriculture minister. For all of 2011, enviro-activists battled against this dacha, on whose premises rare trees were presumably being clearcut and access to the sea was illegally fenced. A protest action in November, during which one section of the fence fell, was the last for many activists. Agrocomplex soon filed criminal charges for property damage. Rudomakha’s comrade in arms Suren Gazaryan left the country after receiving political asylum in Estonia. (He now lives in Germany.) Yevgeny Vitishko, another EcoWatchman, was given a three-year suspended sentence, with two years of probation; in December 2013, the suspended sentence was replaced with a real one, and Vitishko served more than a year in a work-release penal colony near Tambov. Amnesty International recognized the activist as a prisoner of conscience.

rud-8“Sanya is a thief”: graffiti on the illegally erected fence in Blue Bay

“The constitution is in a noose, Vitishko is in prison,” Pussy Riot sang at the time. And, in fact, environmental protests against palaces owned by high-ranking officials and the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics were perhaps the main public issue in southern Russia in the early 2010s.

EcoWatch had taken on palaces practically from its official founding in 2004. There was good reason to work on the issue—the Kuban had become a favorite spot for both officials and businessmen.

______________________________________________________________

rud-9Putin’s palace on Cape Idokopas. Source: navalny.com

The Kuban—Homeland of Palaces: Vladimir Putin’s Palace

In 2010, businessman Sergei Kolesnikov told the world about the construction of a luxurious palace for the Russian president. The site was located in the Kuban, not far from Praskoveyevka on Cape Idokopas. In 2006, the land plot was transferred from the Russian Federation to the Tuapse Vacation House of the Office of Presidential Affairs, and then to the Indokopas Company in 2010.

According to EcoWatch, during construction of the residence and the roads leading up to it, more than forty-five hectares of forest were clearcut; among them, parcels harboring the threatened Pitsunda Pine (Pinus pityusa) were destroyed. According to the calculations of EcoWatch and Greenpeace, the damage from illegal clearcutting came to more than 2.7 billion rubles. Inquiries to the authorities from EcoWatch about the illegal cutting on the palace territory went unanswered.

[Note: the original article in Russian also has short briefs on the Kuban “dachas” of Dmitry Medvedev, Yevgeny Prigozhin, Alexander Tkachov, Alexander Remezkov, Patriarch Kirill, and Anatoly Serdyukov. — TRR]

______________________________________________________________

“Lots of federal officials have dachas on the coast. And basically, we don’t care who owns them. We’d like for those people not to behave like swine. It doesn’t matter whose they are,” says Rudomakha.

The first and perhaps most well-known victory was scored in 2009 when the Watchmen halted construction of a proposed dacha for Dmitri Medvedev in the tiny town of Utrish.

The campaign against environmental violations in the runup to the Olympics brought Rudomakha and EcoWatch international fame: foreign journalists flocked to them in droves. Rudomakha is now certain that the series of refusals by European cities to bid to host the Olympic games (for example, when residents of Munich voted no in a referendum on the city’s bidding for the 2022 Olympics) came about precisely because “we succeeded in creating an image of the Sochi Olympics as the most anti-environmental, expensive, and absurd in the entire history of the Olympic movement.”

“It was then that the authorities started to vigorously persecute us,” Rudomakha says about the time. “I understood that serious ‘winds of change’ had begun to blow. They no longer tried to sit down at the negotiating table with us, and cops chased us around the woods. It was kind of funny.”

The Autocrat
“Andrei’s authoritarianism has always been my number one problem,” Yevgeny Vitishko now recounts. In 2016, he and another well-known EcoWatch alumnus, Suren Gazaryan, left the organization.

“From the outside, the Watch looked quite democratic, but in fact everything revolved around one person. His leadership style can be described in sociological terms as narcissistic,” says Gazaryan.

Vitishko and Rudomakha have since reconciled. However, for many, the head of EcoWatch remains a fanatic with autocratic manners.

For several years, local and even national media have been publishing stories about Rudomakha hinting that he is guilty of everything from pedophilia to cooperating secretly with officials. Rudomakha calls the reports nonsense, saying that the regional government is behind them.

rud-9“Gazprom is a murderer” / “Stop Blue Stream”: Kuban environmentalists protesting against Gazprom 

Rudomakha does not separate the personal from his work life: he admits that his activism has not affected his family’s fortunes in the best of ways. The first floor of the rented house on Kerchenskaya is used as an office, while the second floor is home to Rudomakha and his second daughter, who, in the wake of her parents’ divorce, enrolled in university in Krasnodar and moved in with her father. Rudomakha had once hoped that his daughter would also become an environmentalist, but now he has lost that hope.

“I am quite pessimistic when I assess the evolution of Russia’s environmental movement,” says Rudomakha. “The population is very inert and severely intimidated, and the level of passionarity among people is at a minimum. People rise up, for the most part, only when they are personally affected. If there were organizations like ours in every region, it would be possible to change the situation in this arena and in the country as a whole. After all, a large number of such organizations would naturally make it necessary for them to unite.”

“I haven’t seen an influx of new people into EcoWatch,” notes Rudomakha’s former colleague Gazaryan. “Andrei’s lifestyle and views are on the fringe, and his office is also his residence. It’s hard to work in this environment. And there is no [broad environmental] movement in Russia. There are separate organizations and local groups, but they have no coordination or goals. They are not represented on the political level, and fall apart after a problem is solved,” Gazaryan says, but after thinking about it, he adds that he could be mistaken. “I haven’t lived in Russia for a long time.”

* * *

Late in the evening of December 28, 2017, Rudomakha, his colleague Viktor Chirikov, and journalist Vera Kholodnaya had just arrived at the commune house on Kerchenskaya. Rudomakha had just exited the car when three men ran up to him. Dousing him in the eyes with pepper spray, they knocked him down to the ground and kicked him repeatedly. He lost consciousness. Chirikov was beaten less, and Kholodnaya was only “blinded” by the pepper spray. After that, the attackers took several cameras and a GPS navigator from the car. The entire incident lasted no more than two minutes.

Doctors diagnosed Rudomakha with broken bones in his face and nose, a concussion, and pneumocephalus—the leakage of air into his cranial cavity. He spent three weeks in the hospital.

An investigation into the attack yielded no results. But the enviro-activists have their own theory. They had returned that day from a trip to the area around the village Krinitsa, a small resort in Gelendzhik. There, in the forest, construction had begun on a site resembling a wine-making chateau—such was EcoWatch’s assessment. A prefabricated chapel had also been erected there by order of Axis Investment JSC.  The owner of this firm is Alexei Toth, a business partner of Nikolai Yegorov, who is a well-known Petersburg lawyer and a personal friend of Vladimir Putin.

Translated by Mary Rees. Except where noted, all photos courtesy of Proekt.

The Policemen’s Ball

DSCN6837At €2.50, the official licensed sticker album of the 2018 World Cup is a steal. Russian officials also plan to steal the civil rights of their own citizens during the month-long tournament. Photo by the Russian Reader

Restrictions on Movement and Freedom of Assembly during the 2018 FIFA World Cup
Denis Shedov and Natalya Kovylyayeva
OVD Info
May 25, 2018

Russia welcomes the 2018 FIFA World Cup with Presidential Decree No. 202, which places restrictions on the movements of people and the staging of public rallies in cities hosting the matches. According to the decree, “enhanced safety measures” will be enforced from May 25 until July 25 (although the first match, between Russia and Saudi Arabia, will not be played until June 14). Denis Shedov and Natalya Kovylyayeva studied the decree specially for OVD Info.*

The restrictions will be introduced on May 25, 2018. They will be enforced in the cities and regions hosting 2018 World Cup matches: Moscow, Petersburg, Volgograd Region, Sverdlovsk Region, Nizhny Novgorod Region, Samara Region, Rostov Region, Kaliningrad Region, Krasnodar Territory, the Republic of Tatarstan, and the Republic of Mordovia.  Additionally, the decree also applies to certain neighboring regions where, in particular,  competing teams will be accommodated: Moscow Region, Leningrad Region, Kaluga Region, Voronezh Region, Stavropol Territory, and the Republic of Chechnya.

It is worth noting Decree No. 202 applies absolutely to everyone who is located in the regions listed during the period the decree is in force. In this light, OVD Info felt it was vital to discuss these changes.

Monitored and Restricted Areas
The decree introduces “monitored and restricted areas,” which will either be entirely off limits to people or will have restricted access. These areas include training grounds (including at other stadiums), team headquarters, hotels where teams and referees are staying, cargo inspection points, the broadcast center at Crocus Expo in Moscow, fan festival venues, press centers, and parking lots for special transport. You will be able to enter these “monitored areas” only after security guards have conducted a thorough inspection of all your belongings.

In addition, there will be special pedestrian security zones, so-called last miles, consisting of areas of one to two kilometers in radius around the stadiums where the matches will be held. Aside from World Cup transport, only residents of nearby buildings, equipped with special passes, will have access to these zones. To obtain the passes you need your internal passport and the papers for your car and your flat. Information about these zones has been posted on the official municipal websites of the cities hosting matches and published in local periodicals.

  • During the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the city was off limits to cars from other cities, i.e., cars not registered in Sochi, with the exception of vehicles owned by the secret services and vehicles that had received accreditation as municipal maintenance and 2014 Winter Olympics support vehicles. Vehicles registered in Sochi were restricted from traveling in “monitored areas.” 

Mandatory Registration for Everyone
Upon arrival in a city, you must register with the local immigration authorities within three days. This rules applies to everyone except those who are registered to live permanently in the particular city. Additionally, special rules for registering domiciles and temporary stays will be introduced in the cities where World Cup matches are scheduled.

Russian nationals and foreign nationals must register with the police within 72 hours of arriving. Usually, during “normal” times, Russian nationals have the right to spend up to 90 days in another Russian region without registering, while foreign nationals have seven days to register. Decree No. 202 specifies that the party hosting the visitor, i.e., the hotel, spa, holiday home, etc., must notify the proper authorities of the arrival of foreign nationals within 24 hours, as stipulated by Russian federal law.

Immigration authorities in the regions mentioned in the decree will be open for business daily during the World Cup, including weekends and holidays. There are several ways of registering your stay in another city:

  • Submitting an application to the management of the hotel, hostel, camping ground or youth hostel where you are staying, or the management company, proprietor or landlord, if you are staying in a private flat.
  • Reporting to the local immigration authorities yourself.

Foreign nationals must personally present their papers to the regional office of the Interior Ministry (i.e., the police) or a multi-service center, or their official hosts must do it for them. It is forbidden to register via the post office or a government services website.

Arriving foreign nationals are obliged to provide notification of their arrival, a copy of their identity card (e.g., passport or either ID), a copy of their Russian visa, and a copy of their migration card. This rule applies to all foreign nationals, regardless of their nationality and status in Russia. If the host party is a legal entity, this organization must supply the authorities with a complete set of documents.

Private individuals who act as hosts need only present their Russian internal passports, proving they are permanent residents, a copy of their passports, and a copy of their ownership deed to the dwellings where they will house foreign nationals.

If these rules are violated, Russian nationals will be obliged to pay an administrative fine. In Moscow and Petersburg, the fine will range from three to five thousand rubles, while in the regions it will range from two to three thousand rubles. Foreign nationals who violate these rules can be expelled from Russia.

Restrictions on Freedom of Assembly
According to the decree, from May 25 to July 25, 2018, assemblies, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets that have nothing to do with the 2018 FIFA World Cup can be held only in places, along routes, and at times approved by the authorities. The authorities can also determine the number of attendees and the duration of the event.

Decree No. 202 was first enforced during last year’s Confederations Cup, also hosted by Russia. A large number of activists involved in group protests and solo pickets were apprehended at that time. Some of the people detained during solo pickets were subjected to “explanatory discussions” by the police, while others were written up for violating the rules for holding public events and fined as much as 20,000 rubles.

  • In May 2017, five activists from the local headquarters of opposition leader Alexei Navalny were detained for setting up a campaign booth on the main square in Kazan. Law enforcement said the action had not been authorized by the authorities. All the detainees were sentenced to ten to twelve days in jail, as well as 35 hours of community service.
  • During the Navalny-inspired anti-corruption rallies that took place in a number of cities on June 12, 2017, including Petersburg, Moscow, and Sochi, police detained protesters on the basis of Paragraph 11 of the decree, as paraphrased above. Although in Krasnodar, where the rally against corruption had been authorized, no one was apprehended, despite the special security regime.
  • During the protest rally “Farewell to the Communications Ministry,” in Moscow in June 2017, a teenager was detained when he tried to leave flowers outside the ministry due to restrictions on freedom of speech in Russia, including the possible blockage of the Telegram messenger service. The arresting officer cited the presidential decree restricting rallies during the Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup when he detained the boy. The teenager was taken into a police station for questioning before being released.
  • In mid-June 2017, fifteen people holding solo pickets against Moscow’s massive “renovation” program were detained outside the entrance to the State Duma.
  • Several activists who held solo pickets in support of mathematician Dmitry Bogatov and demanded an end to the prosecution of nationalist Dmitry Demushkin were detained on June 24, 2017, in Moscow.
  • Solidarity Party activist Mikhail Lashkevich was detained on July 4, 2017, while holding a solo picket demanding the people behind opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s assassination be found. The police admitted he had a right to carry out a solo picket and released him from Basmanny Police Precinct in Moscow without writing him up. Subsequently, Roman Petrishchev, another Solidarity Party activist, was detained for a solo picket.
  • In early July 2017, five activists of Protest Moscow were detained in different parts of the city while they held solo pickets against censorship. All of them were charged with violating the rules for holding public events, punishable under Article 20.2 Part 5 of the Administrative Offenses Code.
  • On July 5, 2017, the well-known democracy activist Ildar Dadin was detained during a solo picket outside FSB headquarters in Moscow, since his protest had not been authorized by law enforcement. On July 7, 2017, the Meshchansky District Court found him guilty of violating the “rules of solo pickets” and fined him 20,000 rubles.

In May 2017, Alexander Pomazuyev, a lawyer with Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) asked that Paragraph 11 of the decree be declared null and void in a suit he filed with the Russian Supreme Court. Pomazuyev claimed he had been denied the right to hold a solo picket. He also argued the presidential decree infringed on civil liberties guaranteed by the Russian Constitution, including the right to free speech and freedom of assembly. The court threw out Pomazuyev’s suit, thus rubber-stamping the restrictions on rallies and pickets during the Confederations Cup and the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

In February 2018, organizers of the Boris Nemtsov Memorial March in Nizhny Novgorod wrote an open letter to FIFA president Gianni Infantino asking him to protect freedom of assembly in Russia in the run-up to the World Cup. The football functionary did not react to the letter, apparently.

“Although the decree restricts certain rights only from May 25 to July 25, 2018, even the smallest pickets have been turned down by the authorities on the grounds of the terrorist threat,” the march organizers wrote on their Facebook page.

Commentary by Lawyer and Human Rights Activist Alexander Peredruk
Yes, Presidential Decree No. 202, dated May 9, 2017, definitely violates people’s constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of assembly in Russia.

If you want to hold a public rally from May 25 to July 25, 2018, at a venue of your choosing, there is no guarantee you will pull it off. The authorities could turn you down on the grounds the venue you have chosen was not vetted by the Interior Ministry and the FSB. 

As last year showed, when several applications to hold rallies were filed simultaneously, the authorities would reject all the applications. However, when the applications were filed, the authorities had not yet determined what venues could be used. They drew up a list of permissible venues only after looking over the first applications. It was thus a “complete coincidence” that the venues indicated in the applications that were submitted to the local authorities were not on the list of permissible venues. 

In other words, the rejections were perfunctory and practically groundless. The authorities were not interested in conducting a proportionality test, in striking a balance between public and private interests.

In addition, questions are raised about the legitimacy of the division between public sporting events, which are permitted during this period, and public political events, which are virtually banned. Russian citizens are thus subject to discrimination.

During the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, a local man, David Hakim, was detained while holding a solo picket in defense of the convicted environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko. (Hakim was jailed for four days for his “crime.”) Agora used his case to challenge the president’s Olympic decree in the Russian Constitutional Court. However, the court refused to examine whether the decree complied with the Constitution, since it had expired by the time the complaint was examined. 

* If you are worried about how Presidential Decree No. 202 will affect foreign fans traveling to Russia for the World Cup, you shouldn’t be. They are required to purchase special “fan IDs” that will exempt them from most if not all of the decree’s strictures. // TRR

Denis Shedov is a lawyer with the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow. Natalya Kovylyayeva is a journalist. Translated by the Russian Reader

Yevgeniya Chirikova and Nadezhda Kutepova: Open Letter to Dr. Jill Stein

Yevgenia Chirikova
Yevgenia Chirikova

Yevgeniya Chirikova
Facebook
September 6, 2016

Open Letter to Dr. Jill Stein, 2016 Green Party Candidate for President of the United States

Dear Dr. Stein,

We are writing to you in the spirit of green values and principles, which include fighting for a sustainable future, defending the environment and human rights, and engaging in international solidarity. We are also writing to you as eco-activists, women and mothers.

In November of this year, you will face an important challenge which will have an impact all over the world, even far from the US. As Russian eco-activists, we are following the US presidential election with curiosity and fear. Curiosity for your democratic system and fear for the impact that the result of this election could have on our lives and the lives of our children.

As environmentalists and human rights defenders, we often support Green candidates all over the world when they run in local, national or continental elections. However, we are asking ourselves if we can support your candidacy for the Presidency of the United States of America. We have carefully read your program and your website, and we have to admit that we are deeply shocked by the position you expressed during your visit to Moscow and your meeting with Mr. Vladimir Putin.

During the last few years, the Russian authorities have continued the destruction of the rich and unique Russian environment. The Kremlin is heavily contributing to global climate change and the destruction of global biodiversity by overexploiting Russian natural resources and promoting unsafe nuclear energy. The corruption and anti-democratic behavior of the current Russian government have also led to negative impacts on Russia’s unique forests and natural heritage. Russian eco-activists and human rights defenders are also facing an increasingly repressive system which was constructed under Putin’s regime. The list of the victims of this system is unfortunately becoming longer and longer. Russian environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko spent 22 months in prison for a non-violent action. Journalist Mikhail Beketov was violently attacked in 2008, suffered serious injuries, and died in 2013. Our personal cases are also symbolic: because of our activism, and in order to protect our children, we were both forced to leave Russia and to seek political asylum in the European Union.

Nadezha Kutepova
Nadezha Kutepova

After your visit to Moscow and your meeting with Vladimir Putin you said that “the world deserve[s] a new commitment to collaborative dialogue between our governments to avert disastrous wars for geopolitical domination, destruction of the climate, and cascading injustices that promote violence and terrorism.” We agree with you. But how can this new “collaborative dialogue” be possible when Mr. Putin has deliberately built a system based on corruption, injustice, falsification of elections, and violation of human rights and international law? How is it possible to have a discussion with Mr. Putin and not mention, not even once, the fate of Russian political prisoners or the attacks against Russian journalists, artists, and environmentalists? Is it fair to speak with him about “geopolitics” and not mention new Russian laws against freedom of speech, restrictions on NGOs and activists or the shameful law that forbids “homosexual propaganda”?

By silencing Putin’s crimes you are silencing our struggle. By shaking his hand and failing to criticize his regime you become his accomplice. By forgetting what international solidarity means you are insulting the Russian environmental movement.

Dr. Stein, you still have several weeks before the election in order to clarify your position on the anti-democratic and anti-environmental elements of Putin’s regime. We sincerely hope that our voices will be heard and that our questions will not go unanswered.

Best regards,
Yevgeniya Chirikova
Nadezhda Kutepova

Yevgeniya Chirikova is a Russian environmental activist who gained renown as one of the leaders of the fight to save the Khimki Forest, outside of Moscow. She currently lives in Estonia. Nadezhda Kutepova, an anti-nuclear activist from the small town of Ozyorsk in the Urals and founder of the NGO Planet of Hopes, was forced to flee the country last year with her four children after being accused on state TV of “espionage.” Photos courtesy of East West Blog and RFE/RL, respectively. NB. This letter was very lightly edited to make it more readable. TRR

Yevgeny Vitishko: Freedom or Death

Freedom or Death
Yevgeny Titov
December 12, 2015
Novaya Gazeta

The condition of environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko, who is on a hunger strike, is critical.

Yevgeny Vitiskho has been on hunger strike for seventeen days in Penal Settlement No. 2 in the Tambov Region’s Kirsanov District. His kidneys hurt and he is suffering from dizziness and low blood pressure. And yet the wardens have not exempted him from hard physical labor. Several hours before he was to be paroled, the prosecutor’s office changed its position, and so the environmentalist launched his protest.

Yevgeny Vitishko. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International
Yevgeny Vitishko. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International

Vitishko was supposed to be released on November 21. The Kirsanov District Court had decided to mitigate his punishment by changing imprisonment to limited freedom. Vitishko was supposed to go home and register with the police. The breakthrough in the case came after Mikhail Fedotov, chair of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Russia’s human rights ombudsman Ella Pamfilova had communicated personally to President Putin about Vitishko’s imprisonment.

At the court hearing, a spokesman for the penal settlement where Vitishko has been serving his sentence, and the district prosecutor’s office petitioned the court for the environmentalist’s release. But right before the scheduled release, on the evening of November 20, the very same prosecutor’s office sent the court an appeal asking it to overturn its decision. The alleged reason for the appeal was that prosecutors were unclear as to where Vitishko had to register, in his hometown of Tuapse or in Slavyansk-on-Kuban, where he has not lived for almost twenty years. The court will examine this appeal on December 22.

Kuban environmentalists Yevgeny Vitiskho and Suren Gazaryan were sentenced to three years of probation under Article 167 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code (“destruction of other people’s property”). Tuapse District Court Judge Galina Avdzhi ruled the men were guilty of ruining the fence around an elite residence in the village of Bzhid on the Black Sea coast. The fence illegally enclosed a considerable section of public forest, but when the environmentalists filed a complaint with law enforcement authorities, the authorities pointedly ignored the violations.

The residence has been linked to Alexander Tkachyov, former governor of Krasnodar Territory and current federal minister of agriculture. Before the Sochi Olympics, Suren Gazaryan was forced to flee to Estonia, where he received political asylum, while Yevgeny Vitishko’s probation sentence was changed to imprisonment.