Environmental Activism in Russia: Strategies and Prospects
Despite growing pressure on civil society activists and opposition leaders, grassroots environmental activism is on the rise in Russia. How have these movements evolved and adapted? What forms do they take now? And what is the future of environmental activism in Russia?
The last few years have witnessed growing environmental awareness across Russia’s regions, both according to polls and the number of observed protest movements and campaigns. (A good mapping of such protests can be found on crowd-sourcing platform Activatica.) These campaigns aim to tackle regional, local, or hyper-local problems and address a range of concerns: locally polluting enterprises, new and potentially hazardous factories and waste incinerators, the expansion of coal mines, a lack of access to trustworthy data about environmental pollution, the destruction of green spaces in urban areas, illegal logging, and the water pollution.
A number of factors contribute to this growing environmental awareness and activism. For one, the international “green” agenda has brought environmental concerns to the forefront of domestic political, societal, and media discussions. Research increasingly draws a link between high income levels and environmental awareness (even as the increased consumption of high earners raises their carbon footprint). Although Russians’ real disposable incomes have mostly declined since 2014, the country’s GDP per capita has nearly doubled since 2000. Russians now find that it has become “normal” to care about environmental issues, demand access to environmental data, and worry about potential health hazards from environmental pollution.
Indeed, 35 percent of Russians are ready to take part in environmental protests, according to a survey conducted by a number of sociological centers in the fall of 2020, with particular concern over industrial water pollution, illegal logging, illegal or mismanaged waste landfills, and urban water pollution. Another study from the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VSIOM) published in August 2020 revealed one in four Russians has begun to think more about environmental issues during the pandemic due to overall increased attention to health. The Levada Center, an independent pollster, found that 84 percent of Russians are worried about environmental problems; of those, 25 percent expressed highest concern over air pollution, 15 percent over water pollution, and 11 percent over waste management.
This growth in environmental awareness in Russia has coincided with a growing concern that local natural resources—“our land” and “our forests”—are exploited or mismanaged by multinational or domestic companies, and that profits from these resources are whisked away to Moscow or foreign capitals to the detriment of local communities. In this sense, heightened environmental awareness intermingles with Russia’s traditional center-region cultural and political divide and growing regional inequalities.
The landscape for environmental activism in Russia is more fluid and decentralized than in the West—but it has grown. New environmental groups in Russia are informal and frequently do not register as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Rather, they spring up around a particular issue and often dissolve once it has been addressed, only occasionally evolving into a larger and more permanent association. Despite their informal structures, many of these new civil society groups have managed to attract impressive levels of public attention and support, aptly utilizing both traditional and new media and building up capacity and involvement structures through online tools. One example is the successful campaign around the Shies settlement in the Archangelsk region of northern Russia, where for months local activists have sustained an encampment to block the construction of a landfill for household waste from Moscow.
These grassroots movements and groups provoke a range of reactions from state authorities. Some are tolerated and even brought into the policy process (e.g., “officially” invited into advisory councils). Occasionally, these campaigns also lead to real change. Such was the case in Bashkiria, where recent protests over limestone mining in a hillside viewed by local residents as sacred led to the cancellation of the project.
More often, however, campaigns butt up against political realities, leading to the prosecution of activists and even physical threats and abuse toward to them by state institutions, often on behalf of a private company. A case in point would be persecution of activists from the Voronezh region for fighting against copper and nickel exploration plans on agricultural lands, even though these plans have been put on hold. A recent report by the Russian Socio-Ecological Union highlights 169 episodes of pressure on 450 eco-activists in 26 regions of Russia in 2020. One activist was killed, 15 were injured or had their property damaged, and 14 criminal and 264 administrative cases were initiated against eco-activists. “Most cases of pressure on eco-activists are connected with the extraction of natural resources, waste management, polluting industries and construction projects,” the report says.
Types of Activism
Environmental activism in Russia falls into several categories.
The first category tends to work mostly on short-lived campaigns directed against a local source of pollution (i.e., a factory or an incineration plant) or against plans to erect new infrastructure on an existing green space, particularly in urban areas. Participants in this category tend to be residents of the region or neighborhood who organize through social networks and then dissolve once their cause is addressed. Occasionally, these groups form networks or associations based on common interests and causes, such as the Green Coalition of St. Petersburg, which aims to unite all grassroots groups fighting against demolition of parks and green zones, or the Association of Eco-Groups of Moscow and Moscow Region
Grassroots environmental groups
The second type of group tends to focus on issues that are absent from the governmental agenda: recycling, sustainable or ethical consumption, urban greening, and more. An example here would be the movement Razdelny Sbor (“Separate Selection”), which created a system of recycling points across many Russian cities. These types of groups rarely engage in protest activities and tend to focus their energies and resources on lobbying and engaging the general public though traditional and social media.
The third genre of environmental activism in Russia focuses on public monitoring and oversight of environmental and urban policy at the federal, regional, and municipal level, including project implementation and public funds spending. Watchdogs might also provide alternate estimations of environmental data (especially when data is not available or reliable) or initiate campaigns for access to environmental data, demanding transparency and accountability. Examples here include grassroots initiatives to create alternative, civic-based monitoring of air pollution in Krasnoyarsk, Chelyabinsk, and Moscow.
Activists also use a variety of tactics to achieve their goals.
Social media and informational technology
Social media platforms, including VK, Facebook, WhatsApp, and increasingly Telegram, are the lifeblood of new environmental groups. They are used to report news and provide updates on activities and achievements, publish statistics, mobilize public support, and raise awareness over the campaign’s cause. A number of activists from environmental campaigns have also launched their own personal blogs, which act as self-run media sources offering personal takes on recent changes in legislation and synchronizing campaign updates and news. Anna Garkusha of Razdelny Sbor, for example, runs a popular blog on recycling and waste policy.
Another distinct feature of the new wave of environmental movements in Russia is the use of information technology and open-source data tools, including mapping, organized hackathons, and web platforms, apps, and other user-friendly interfaces that facilitate wider communication and greater involvement of the general public. Several environmental groups cooperate closely with experts or activists from the tech industry. An interesting example here is Teplitsa Sozialnykh Technologiy (“A Greenhouse for Social Technologies”), an NGO resource center that helps activist groups better use online technologies and digital tools and solutions in their work and campaigns.
Engagement with authorities
Although civil groups face growing pressure in Russia, there are plenty of examples of environmental NGOs and activists working through more formal channels to achieve their political aims. For example, Moscow’s annual Russian Civil Forum provides a space for representatives of established environmental NGOs and new environmental groups to try to coordinate with each other and align their positions on environmental policy issues. In addition, the Russian Social Ecological Union’s annual conference convenes representatives of Russian civil society groups (both registered and grassroots groups) working on energy efficiency and renewable energy issues to develop positions in support of or against international and Russian climate policy. These position points are later shared with Russian decisionmakers on climate change policy and with the international community at UN climate conferences.
However, productive engagement with authorities is not always politically feasible—in particular when the object of protest concerns an investment project or a corruption scheme involving both local authorities and companies. Here, too, there are no set rules. Citizens may organize protest campaigns and attempt to attract the attention of regional or federal authorities via media and popular mobilization; go to the courts with the backing of professional lawyers, many of whom are also supported by NGOs such as Bellona or Greenpeace; enter into a dialogue with the local authorities via the civic chamber or similar structures; or combine these tactics to build pressure at multiple levels. In some cases, activists are persecuted by regional authorities and forced to leave the region (and even the country).
Regional authorities must walk a fine line between effectively managing environmental grievances and avoiding the heavy-handed persecution of activists or suppression of public opinion that could potentially damage their reputation. Indeed, a number of regional governors have lost their positions following large-scale environmental protests that they failed to tackle properly, at least in Moscow’s view. With this in mind, some governors are more willing to initiate dialogue with local activists just to avoid escalation.
Overall, the landscape for environmental activism in Russia is becoming more decentralized and less formal. A growing number of new groups and movements choose to remain unregistered entities—with no office, no full-time staff, and little or no budget—for a variety of political and societal reasons. First, repressive foreign agent legislation has raised the stakes for established NGOs who receive part of their financing from outside of Russia; increasingly, new environmental groups in Russia try to avoid any direct financing from abroad. Second, new groups try to preemptively avoid pressure from the authorities in the form of tax audits and health and fire code inspections that can lead to legal charges, fines, and even closure. Third, by skirting typical organizational or foundational structures, these groups can also claim to be closer to the ground and more connected to the immediate interests and concerns of local communities—working on local as opposed to global issues. More and more often, activism takes the form of crowdfunding campaigns or private donations only in an attempt to remain transparent to donors and accountable to constituencies.
Even as activist structures have become more local and decentralized, youth climate activism in Russia has begun to gain steam over the past two years, in part due to the global “Fridays For Our Future” (FFF) and “Extinction Rebellion” movements. The first youth climate protest in Russia took place in March 2019, and FFF has existed in digital form throughout the pandemic, organizing online protests and forming policy positions.
Though part of a global movement, these youth groups have attempted to formulate a Russia-specific agenda and apply global climate rhetoric to local environmental campaigns. These groups combine the experience, expertise, and technologies of Russia’s environmental tradition—honed in fights against new coal and gas infrastructure and for accountability over oil spills and landfill mismanagement—and the language of the global youth, emphasizing unsustainable economic and social developments and calling for major policy reforms in the energy, waste, and transportation sectors. At times, however, these structural demands can sound too radical and unrealistic for some of Russia’s more established green groups.
Principles of Successful Activism
The past and current experiences of grassroots movements illustrate a framework for subsequent campaigns to follow. For an environmental activist movement to be successful in Russia, a number of factors must be in place:
- The campaign must be truly local, with limited foreign support (which would be described and promoted as “meddling” and lead to accusations of “foreign agent” involvement that might ruin the reputation of a campaign or its leaders).
- The cause must have widespread public support (including people eager and ready to invest their time and money into the cause).
- The cause must be supported by the expert community. Support from Russian Greenpeace and WWF Russia, as well as other expert centers, environmental lawyers, registered NGOs, think tanks, and scientists, can help to raise the problem to the federal level.
- There must be a professional media and social media campaign to build up a network of trusted supporters across the country.
- The campaign needs passionate and courageous leaders who are willing to dedicate their time and energy for a significant amount of time.
The Future of Environmental Activism in Russia
The development of environmental and climate activism in Russia is gradually changing the political and societal landscape. “Green” topics are gaining importance within the overall political agenda, both at the federal and regional level. As public awareness of environmental issues grows in Russia, companies are beginning to pay more attention as well. So far, most of these movements are concentrated around the local environmental agenda, but youth are bringing a more international outlook to the focus and methods of Russian environmental activism. In many ways, this activism lays the groundwork for a new and more engaged civil society in Russia, one that resists easy categorization but appears in many forms across Russia’s diverse regions.
Angelina Davydova is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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