Russia aims 'foreign agent' law at green NGO

| 15th September 2015
Dmitry Lisitsyn. Photo: Goldman Prize.
Dmitry Lisitsyn. Photo: Goldman Prize.
The respected Russian campaign group Sakhalin Environment Watch is being forced to choose between registering as a 'foreign agent' label and closing down, writes Oliver Tickell. Environmental campaigning, it seems, is now a 'political activity'.
Recently we have concentrated on the protection of local wild salmon. It doesn't get international media coverage, but we have lots of successes. We have been protecting Sakhalin and its citizens' environmental rights for 20 years.

Sakhalin Environment Watch (SEW), a civil society group in Russia's far east, has been ordered by the Russian authorities to register itself as a 'foreign agent'.

Introduced in 2012, the restrictive 'foreign agent' law has been roundly criticised for the way in which it intrudes on and hinders the activities of independent civil society organisations.

In the case of Sakhalin Environmental Watch, the classification would tarnish its impeccable reputation of two decades and limit its ability to engage with decision-makers, the media and the general public.

"There is no justice at all in this claim", says Dmitry Lisitsyn, SEW's director. "SEW cannot operate under the label of 'foreign agent, because it never was a foreign agent, and cannot accept being labeled as something it is not."

He also points to an inconsistency in the law and how it is applied: "Russian law doesn't consider political parties getting foreign financing as 'foreign agents'. United Russia, the ruling political party, is getting a significant part of its funds from abroad. The party is not a foreign agent. But if you are an NGO getting foreign financing then you are foreign agent. Is it justice? I don't think so."

Foreign-funded, yes. Foreign agent, no way!

The group has indeed been funded from foreign sources, Lisitsyn acknowledges. These include the Ford Foundation, the Wild Salmon Centre, the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). It is also supported by WWF Russia.

Most recently it received a donation from the Leonardo di Caprio Foundation to protect the marine area surrounding the 67,000 ha Vostochny Reserve in the Sea of Okhotska off the cost of eastern Russia, the most productive and undisturbed salmon ecosystem in the world. The reserve is itself protected as a result of an SEW campaign.

And Lisitsyn insists that the group would be unable to survive as an independent group without foreign funding: "There are exactly two sources of funding for environmental NGOs in Russia. One is controlled by Gazprom, the second one is controlled by the Kremlin. It's impossible to be an independent NGO with such funding sources."

Under to 2012 amendments to the federal law on non-commercial organisations, local nonprofits that engage in 'political activity' and receive funding from abroad are to be classified as 'foreign agents'.

The term 'political activity' is only vaguely defined in the law, however the protection of flora and fauna has been explicitly excluded from this definition by an April 2014 ruling of Russia's Constitutional Court.

Recently we have concentrated on the protection of local wild salmon. It doesn't get international media coverage, but we have lots of successes. We have been protecting Sakhalin and its citizens' environmental rights for 20 years.

So far, 91 non-governmental organisations have been put on this list; most of them are now trying to legally challenge this status. SEW too is contesting the classification, says Lisitsyn. "However, if these efforts are unsuccessful the organisation will convene a general assembly to consider its dissolution."

So now environmental campaiging is political?

The Russian government's decision follows an unscheduled two week long inspection in late August by officers from the Ministry of Justice of the Sakhalin Province, the fourth such inspection in two years.

The inspection report received by SEW last week says it found no indications of extremism in the group's activities, the decisions of its governing bodies are competent, and the organisation's operations are in line with its statutory objectives.

Yet, the Ministry of Justice report says the inspection found "a focus on the formation of public opinion in order to influence the decisions of government authorities, an intention directed at a public reaction and attracting the attention of the government authorities of the Sakhalin Province."

As evidence the report cites:

  • a link to a WWF Russia statement on the need to protect the Arctic posted to SEW's unofficial account on Russian social media website Vkontakte;
  • a signature of SEW's director on a letter of support from Russian environmentalists to their Ukrainian peers sent during the Euromaidan protests;
  • and a May 2015 article by the organisation's director on the need for parks and for stopping the construction of new buildings at the expense of greenery in the crowded city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

These findings, the inspectors opined, indicate SEW's engagement in 'political activity', and since the organisation is partially funded by international charities, it should have applied to register itself in the "registry of noncommercial organisations performing the functions of a foreign agent".

However Lisitsyn, who is also a 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize laureate, denies that campaigning for environmental protection is any true sense political:

"We have never engaged in politics. We do not support any political party and do not participate in the elections ourselves, nor do we engage in any political struggle. Appeals to the authorities and publications on environmental topics - this is our constitutional right and one method of protecting the environment."

A 20 year history of eco-defence

The group's most prominent activity has been its opposition to oil and gas projects on Sakhalin Island and in its coastal water, such as the $12 billion Sakhlalin 1 project which aimed to produce 2.3 billion barrels of oil and 17.1 trillion cubic feet of gas.

They also brought a successful legal challenge against the Sakhalin II project, led by Shell, in 2004, persuading a Russian court that the project's environmental assessment was unlawful and severely understated the impacts of the development.

In both cases the group has forced much higher standards on the oil and gas extraction, saving critical habitat for marine wildlife, and forcing Shell to abandon plans to build pipelines across Gray whale migration routes.

Since then the group has maintained a lower profile, says Lisitsyn: "Since 2009 we have concentrated on the local issues that don't attract international interest, primarily on the protection of local populations of wild salmon. It doesn't get international media coverage, but we have lots of successes in this area.

"We have been protecting the environment of Sakhalin and its citizens' environmental rights for 20 years. We have much to be proud of.



Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.

Principal source: Bankwatch.

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