Russian Actions against Greenpeace International Part of a Familiar Trend

Last week, the CGP blog commented on the state of the CSO sector in Russia amidst the oncoming 2014 Winter Olympic Games in the country. The highly controversial interactions between the environmental group Greenpeace International and the Russian government in the past weeks align with the past grievances we reported on:

A Russian coastguard official points a knife at a Greenpeace International activist who tried to scale an oil platform owned by state-owned energy giant Gazprom (Source: Denis Sinyakov/Greenpeace).

30 people from 18 countries detained on the Greenpeace International ship “Arctic Sunrise” are awaiting trial on piracy charges and face up to 15 years in prison if convicted related to a September 18th  incident in which some of the activists tried to scale an oil rig in the Pechora Sea owned by the national oil-giant Gazprom. The activists may spend up to two months in pre-trial detention in a Murmansk jail awaiting the decision of Russian prosecutors. Greenpeace International director Kumi Naidoo called the seizure of the vessel and the arrest of its crew the worst “assault” on the environmental activist organization since one of its ships was bombed in 1985. The detained activists are reportedly being kept in “solitary confinement for 23 hours a day,” while others are held in “extremely cold cells.” Russian officials have called the protest “pure provocation” and an “encroachment on the sovereignty” of Russia.

Among the detained activists are two journalists, including the well-known Russian freelance photographer Denis Sinyakov. International journalist organizations assert that the journalists have been jailed for just doing their jobs. Reporters Without Borders called on the Russian government to release both men and many independent Russian media sites responded to the detention of Sinyakov with blackouts of online photographs as a sign of protest. Many photographers began holding individual pickets outside the main office of the powerful state Investigative Committee, the only form of public protests that can be held in Russia without “prior sanction”. For a short time, even NTV, a pro-Putin television station that has shown vitriolic documentaries against Russian opposition leaders in the past, joined in the online photo blackouts.

This incident has incensed the ire of many international actors even as President Putin appears intent on defusing diplomatic tensions. Putin defended the seizure of the ship—which was within Russia’s declared exclusive economic zone—as in compliance with the terms of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea yet questioned the appropriateness of piracy charges against the crew members in public comments that reeked of disingenuous  political correctness. Greenpeace insisted that under international law, Russia had no right to board its ship and has no grounds to charge its activists with piracy. The Netherlands has filed a lawsuit against Russia in an international tribunal court in an effort to win the release of the Dutch-registered ship and its crew; Russian officials have shrugged off the legal action. “Thousands of people reportedly took part in about 100 demonstrations held on all continents including cities like London, Moscow, Madrid, Hong Kong and Toronto” in a sign of global solidarity with the direct action environmental organization.

The Russian government had allowed a similar operation by Greenpeace International to take place in 2012 without any seizures, detentions, or arrests, further proof of the government’s recent crackdown on civil society.

Greenpeace and other groups oppose drilling in the Arctic because they want to protect the region’s fragile ecosystem. They argue that it is currently impossible to fully clean up potential oil spills and that any increased drilling risks an environmental disaster. In addition, this incident is indicative of Greenpeace’s recent tactical adjustments. The group is redirecting its resources into emerging economies and emphasizing public mobilization and direct action. On the other hand, Russia has staked a claim to a huge part of the Arctic in order to secure new energy sources as its continuing economic export. The question of who has the right to drill in the Arctic Ocean, and where, is likely to become an important foreign policy issue as China, Canada, Denmark, and the United States, among others, will seek a share of the action.

This strong and increasingly characteristic response to CSO activity by Russian authorities is yet another attempt to stigmatize and intimidate civil activists, especially international NGOs. The Russian government had allowed a similar operation by Greenpeace International to take place in 2012 without any seizures, detentions, or arrests, further proof of the government’s recent crackdown on civil society. Moreover, these recent developments are certainly not in accordance with prior Russian governmental regimes, as Mikhail Gorbachev himself started an environmental activist organization similar to Greenpeace International, Green Cross International. CGP will continue to monitor this story in the coming days.

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