Vienna, June 25 – Forty years ago, public support for environmental protection helped power the growth of ethno-national movements in the USSR. Now, in a testament to both the strength of environmentalism and the new legal environment in today’s Russia, those backing projects that threaten environmental harm are ever more willing to employ questionable means.
In a report posted on the APN.ru portal yesterday, Siberian analyst Dmitry Verkhoturov describes how RusHydro, which seeks to build a hydroelectric dam that will flood a major portion of the traditional lands of the Evenks, has launched a three-pronged campaign against that projects increasingly numerous opponents (www.apn.ru/opinions/article21757.htm).
While some of these efforts reflect uniquely Russian legislation and conditions, others will be entirely familiar to environmental activists in other countries who often have to contend with the activities of powerful, well-funded and media-savvy corporate and government advocates of similar projects opposed by the people most immediately affected.
First of all, Verkhoturov notes, RusHydro exploited Russia’s anti-extremism law by calling on Krasnoyarsk kray officials to crack down on Plotina.net and its editor Aleksandr Kolotov for posting on the site an article arguing that the Evenk hydroelectric dam RusHydro wants to build might drive the Evenks to violent resistance.
In response to RusHydro’s appeal, the authorities twice called in Kolotov for “conversations,” but the Siberian analyst says, the corporation’s attempt to discredit its opponents not only “failed” but backfired when the Russian sections of World Wildlife Foundation, Greenpeace, and similar groups denounced such actions as “impermissible.”
Moreover, in a May 7 declaration, a coalition of these groups pointed out that what RusHydro and its allies in the Krasnoyarsk government were doing was “unacceptable from the point of view of pubic interests and the rights of citizens to a good environment and to freedom of speech,” an appeal that attracted international attention at the time.
RusHydro’s leadership, however, refused to back down and at the end of May restated its views about the “extremist” nature of those opposing its project, saying that at least some of them appeared to be “unacquainted” with Russian laws and that they “preferred to act according to the laws of the jungle.”
And now, Plotina.net has responded by bringing suit against RusHydro to defend the site’s business reputation, Verkhoturov reports. The suit suggests that RusHydro is attempting to force the closure of the site and to ignore “information about the business of the majority of the residents of Evenkia,” which is against the hydroelectric dam project.
Second, RusHydro appears to have created a pocket organization called “Evenkia for
Future Generations,” which is headed by a certain Viktoria Merkul’yeva and which “actively speaks out in support of the construction of the Evenk hydroelectric station, in order to raise questions as to how much opposition there is.
That would not be worthy of noting, Verkhoturov continues, were it not for the fact that the National Institute for the Development of Contemporary Ideology has pointed out that this organization represents above all “a successful PR project” designed to generate “positive public opinion” toward RusHydro’s investment project.
“Evenkia for Future Generations” works closely with RusHydro, but neither local activists nor the respected Association of Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East say they know anything about it. Pavel Sulyandziga, that group’s vice president, denies that it is an organization of the indigenous people.
And third, Verkhoturov says, RusHydro has not been averse to disseminating information that distorts the record. As an example, the Siberian analyst points to the enterprise’s report that it has signed “a memorandum on cooperation” with the Regional Association of Public Organizations of the Numerically Small Peoples of the North of Krasnoyarsk.
If such a memorandum does in fact exist, the analyst points out, they have no legal force because the statute of the Association does not permit the regional association to sign such an accord, and if its head did so, Verkhoturov continues, then “he exceeded his authority,” something RusHydro has not acknowledged.
Verkhoturov’s discussion of the situation among the Evenks, a small people far away about whom many in Moscow and the West know little, may strike most readers as marginal, but the case as he lays it out is useful as an indicator of what Moscow and its corporate allies are prepared to do as they push forward larger projects.
Most prominent among these efforts, of course, is construction for the Sochi Olympics planned for 2014. So willing have been some of the enterprises involved in their approach to the delicate ecosystem there that environmental groups this week appealed to UNESCO to take up the issue (www.natpress.net/stat.php?id=3909).
In short, as the Evenk case shows, both sides in this struggle have new resources at their command, a change that requires different approaches not only by each of them but also by observers who are attempting to understand what is going on and what in each particular case is really at stake.