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In this article, environmental analyst and journalist Angelina Davydova reports on the rise of home-grown environmental activism in Russia. The original version of this article was written for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, and is published here with the consent of the author through 350.org, an organization building a global movement to solve the climate crisis.
Nina Popravko, one of the few professional environmental lawyers in Russia, is in court defending a group of a dozen activists in the small town of Kozmodemiansk, in the Mari El Republic on the Volga River. The activists have been fighting for years against plans to build a domestic waste landfill, which they say is too close to a residential block.
Straight after the court hearings Popravko jumps on a train to Ufa, a city of more than a million inhabitants in the south Urals, where several hundred people are trying to organise an independent public hearing about the construction of a wood-processing factory.
And back at home near St. Petersburg, where Popravko lives and works for the environmental non-governmental organisation Bellona, another fight is under way. A group of activists has begun mobilising since the felling of almost 200 large pine trees to make way for a new luxury residential development. As part of a drive to stop further logging in a larger forested area, the activists are filing a lawsuit against the development company, which they believe acquired the plot of land illegally.
“I really notice the growing involvement of many ordinary people in the environmental movement,” Popravko says.
City-dwellers across Russia are getting organised and fighting for their environmental rights at a more professional level than before, the lawyer says. In addition to building protest camps and obstructing construction sites, they are learning to file lawsuits, organise public hearings, and work with journalists and social networks.
Many such local initiatives get support from larger, established environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace and WWF Russia, but many also are fighting on their own—with varying degrees of success.
There is no clear recipe for victory, says Alexander Karpov, an expert with the ECOM centre who has spent over a decade supporting local environmental and urban initiatives throughout Russia.
Karpov recently began working as a consultant with the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, drafting laws and doing other legal work, and offering much-needed insight and expertise to the regional parliamentarians.
Karpov argues that the success of any environmental cause depends on the amount of time and energy activists are prepared to spend on protecting their rights. He also maintains that expertise is crucial, and that the more “professionally” activists interact with local administrators, draft legal documents and engage in high-quality lobbying for their causes, the better their chances of success.
Public interest in environmental issues has been rising in Russia over the last few years. Some experts link this with the growing financial well-being of Russian citizens, which affords more people the opportunity to travel abroad, and to plan their future and that of their children.
Corruption and Governance Link
Other experts say it is a reaction to mounting corruption and “bad” governance, often at a local level, involving local authorities who make dubious alliances with local or national companies at the expense of local residents.
The push toward greater environmental activism has been met with a mixed response by Russia’s leaders.
Nikolay Gudkov, a spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, said his ministry is “actively working with citizens, environmental initiatives and activists—both through our community liaison office and through further online resources,” such as the website Nasha Priroda (“Our Nature”). The website was launched in late 2013 and allows people from all regions of Russia to report environmental violations in their neighbourhoods, using geo-location technology.
Gudkov said ministry representatives have also organised meetings with environmental activists working on notorious local conflicts, such as the fight over the wood-processing facility in Ufa, and a case in central Russia where residents are fighting plans to introduce nickel and copper mining.
But the State Duma, Russia's parliament, has recently initiated a number of bills that threaten to hinder the rights of local activists and limit opportunities for wider public participation in city planning and regional development.
In late December, members of parliament tried to pass a draft law cancelling public hearing procedures for a number of infrastructure construction projects. After civil campaign initiated by activists and environmental lawyers, however, the draft “got hung up,” according to Nina Popravko. In mid-March another bill significantly reducing the number of instances in which public hearings must be held passed in its first review. Environmental lawyers say the bill contradicts Russian and international rules of law.
“The Russian Parliament is moving forward draft laws which seriously limit public participation,” a group of environmental lawyers said in their public appeal. A campaign against the bill is ongoing.
One of the most popular environmental issues in Russia at the moment is urban ecology, which studies the environmental aspects of urban development. Urban ecologists focus on issues such as clean transport, air and water quality, the protection of green zones and parks, and sustainable consumption and lifestyles.
Such movements are centred mainly in large cities with populations of over half a million, but has begun springing up in small towns as well.
Roughly speaking, most of these civil initiatives fall into two groups, experts say.
The first comprise protest actions, against new construction of infrastructure or housing, for instance, or the destruction of a park. Such groups form quickly, and their success often depends on the solidarity and energy of their participants, as well as on the resources they can invest.
Groups of this kind initiate legal cases or public hearings, work with media and social networks, and organise protests. Quite often the group disbands after the case is won, or lost.
The most complicated efforts are long-running ones that last several years, which can result in activists becoming burned out, losing energy and interest in the case.
Activists face a variety of threats, including physical violence and legal prosecution. Activist Evgeny Vitishko, from Tuapse in southern Russia, was jailed for three years for writing protest slogans and sticking posters on a fence around the villa of the Krasnodar governor.
Vitishko alleged the villa had been built illegally in a forest reserve, and its owner had fenced off a stretch of the coastline.
A Vitishko support campaign has been launched. “It is particularly important that we also get international support for the case,” says Dmitry Shevchenko, a Krasnodar-based activist with the NGO Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus. “Both for Evgeny Vitishko himself and for the growing environmental movement in Russia.”
Filling the Vacuum
Another group within Russia’s growing environmental movement consists of community and civil society activists trying to develop bottom-up initiatives to substitute for failing state regulation, in the absence of an environmental agenda and policy mechanism at both federal and regional levels.
These groups develop environmental and volunteer networks in areas such as garbage collection, recycling, tree-planting, park and shoreline preservation, and promoting eco-friendly agriculture and green lifestyles. One of the best known of these is the movement Musora bolshe net (meaning “no more rubbish”), which started as a volunteer initiative to remove trash from forests and lakeshores. Today it's a full-scale network organisation, active in projects ranging from community recycling to environmental education.
Such groups gather annually at Delai Sam (Do it yourself) Summits, to exchange practices, technologies and skills. Initially held only in Moscow, these events now take place in other cities as well,.
And it's not only the young and trendy, who take part in such urban initiatives. In some cities, groups are led by female pensioners who devote their free time to building do-it-yourself community groups.
Activists sometimes shift focus from one issue to another. Tatyana Kargina, originally from Irkutstk and now living in Moscow, is one of Russia’s best-known environmental activists. Kargina spearheaded the first eco-housing project in Moscow, one of the first Russian networks for environmental-friendly living and consumption, as well as other initiatives. But during the last couple of years she’s also been active in a civil society protest action against plans to begin nickel mining in the Voronezh region in Central Russia, an agricultural region with fertile black soils, rich in nature reserves and biodiversity.
Growing environmental activism in Russia also is focused on the need for more sustainable and inclusive urban and regional development. An Open Urban Lab uniting around 30 young professionals involved in urban planning, architecture, public participation and sustainable development, has been trying to introduce participatory principles into city and neighbourhood planning in Russian cities.
The organisation works with regional administrations and businesses, and sees participation as “a technology to transform social groups previously not included in decision-making into included ones, in order to create and sustain public good,” according to spokesman Oleg Pachenkov.
The process of civil society development is hardly smooth or quick, but it's definitely an upward trend, experts say.
“Quite often ordinary citizens don’t really want to become activists, don’t want to spend all their free time campaigning, protesting, talking to media, promoting the case in social networks 24 hours a day,” said lawyer Nina Popravko. “But after realising that they can’t really appeal to anyone—not to city authorities, not to control bodies—they just have to become activists themselves and try to influence the situation, which they reckon affects their lives and living environments.”