Vienna, March 9 – The refusal of Russian prosecutors to open a criminal case against VIPs who engage in the hunting of endangered species is transforming what had been an ecological protest into a political one, a situation that the powers that be have exacerbated by their propaganda campaign against the defenders of wildlife.
On Saturday, some 80 people assembled in Moscow to protest both hunting of endangered species by VIPs and the unwillingness of the government to open a criminal case against those involved, even as officials in the Altay Republic blocked plans for a demonstration there (www.rabkor.ru/?area=articleItem&id=2002).
These protests, which followed an earlier round in February, were the latest response to coverage of a helicopter crash on January 9th in which Aleksandr Kosopkin, the presidential representative to the Duma, and several other officials who were hunting the endangered mountain sheep in an area sacred to the indigenous peoples of the Altay region, died.
Participants in the Moscow meeting held up signs accusing the VIPs who had been involved of poaching, noting that such crimes are increasingly widespread across the Russian Federation, and demanding that both those who survived the January crash and others involved in illegal hunting be forced from office and brought to justice.
Speakers called on President Dmitry Medvedev “give provide a moral assessment of the activities of people who hunt rare animals,” something that is particularly important they said because lower-ranking officials and prosecutors have refused to bring charges against the VIPs involved.
At a press conference before the protest, Igor Chestin, the head of the Russian section of the World Wildlife Fund, said that the January case highlighted a growing problem, and he said his organization’s website had collected 6,000 signatures on an appeal to President Medvedev calling on him to take action (www.sobkorr.ru/news/49B111FA2AD3A.html).
What the Kremlin leader does will be “a litmus test for all the declarations of the president about the struggle with corruption,” he continued, because it will show whether the regime is serious about having its officials obey the law. But the situation was not promising as officials had not only refused to open a criminal case but also put the investigation under seal.
Aleksey Yablokov, a leading Russian ecologist, seconded that view: “The silence of the powers that be [in this case] is also an answer. It is a signal to its own people – do what you want, we will not punish you.” He called for new laws that would not only prevent such hunting but punish those with trophies from it (www.rabkor.ru/?area=articleItem&id=1993).
And Akay Kanyyev, the leader of the Movement for the Cultural Revival of the Altay who has demanded that the January hunt be investigated, said that the authorities there have unleashed “a propaganda war” against his group, putting out stories that it wants to unite the Altay Republic with the Altay kray, something that the movement in fact opposes.
He said that the authorities both in Moscow and in the Altay had failed to reckon that the people of the Altay are furious about this case because they consider both the mountain sheep and the place where that animal is found sacred. Consequently, what the Russian officials had done was triply wrong.
In a commentary on this sequence of events, Moscow social critic Boris Kagarlitsky argues that it both highlights problems within the elite – he suggests that the entire crash would have been covered up unless someone from on high wanted it exposed – and increasingly within the population more generally (www.rabkor.ru/?area=authoredArticleItem&id=1965).
Because of official clumsiness in the Altay, what had been “an ecological case” is rapidly being “transformed into a political one,” the Moscow writer says, noting that those calling for an investigation have now been denounced for supposedly wanting an “orange” revolution in the Altay or even the transfer of that region from Russia to Mongolia.
The officials fail to understand that what these protests are about is not the protection of this or that animal but rather the issue of “the equality of citizens before the law. If the VIP poachers are not punished, that will send a clear signal that members of the Russian elite view themselves as “standing above the law and the Constitution.”
But Kagarlitsky admits that the powers that be have a problem: If they do not punish these people, popular anger will grow, but if they do, then “public opinion will begin to feel its own strength. In either case, the government will have helped to “transform the passive observer into a protesting citizen.”