On September 1, 2017, the Ministry of Justice included "Aetas", one of the most famous and respected environmental non-profit organizations in the Arkhangelsk region, in the register of "foreign agents". Participation of activists in the Climate Summit in Paris, their records in social networks and the signature of an open letter to Vladimir Putin with the request to work out issues of safe oil production and fighting oil spills were recognized as political activity. The organization was fined 150 thousand rubles for the fact that it did not file an application for inclusion in the register. On January 11, activists of "Aetas" will challenge this decision in the Arkhangelsk regional court.
After the organization was recognized as a "foreign agent", officials preferred to stop any contacts with the organization, although they had previously held many joint events, stressed the importance of awareness-building of volunteers and included the organization's events in their reports on the Year of Ecology.
«7x7» tells the story of the organization, which successfully formed the ecological culture of the Arkhangelsk residents for 17 years, but it actually became an outcast after being included in the register of "foreign agents".
Call from the Ministry of Justice
On July 12, 2017 head of "Aetas" Anastasia Kochneva took a bus from Arkhangelsk to Kenozersky National Park, where she, together with other eco-activists, was going to open the International Summer Climate School. Now this is the most ambitious project.
It takes about eight hours to get to the park. First by bus, then by ferry. Approximately half way Anastasia was called by a woman who introduced herself as an employee of the Ministry of Justice of the Arkhangelsk region. She asked her to come to her office: recently, "Aetas" applied for the re-registration of NGO. "The documents are ready, you can take it," said the official of the Ministry of Justice. "They never did anything so quickly," Anastasia was surprised. "But there is also another issue," woman added after a short pause, she did not explain.
The connection was bad, Anastasia Kochneva agreed to come to the Ministry of Justice after the climate school.
When she came to the ministry, she was told that the Ministry of Justice was starting an unscheduled inspection of "Aetas". The planned inspection was about a year ago, therefore Anastasia was assured that it was necessary to bring documents only for the last 12 months. However, the Ministry of Justice later asked to bring all the papers for the last three years, although the activists warned them that no one would be in the city at that time. As a result, the volunteers of "Aetas" did it with a delay of 10 days, so the organization was fined 5 thousand rubles, and the head — 2 thousand rubles.
On September 1, 2017 "Aetas" was recognized as a "foreign agent" on the results of this unscheduled inspection.
Eviction from the previous office
Head of "Aetas" Anastasia Kochneva bypasses a small brick building a few dozen meters from one of the Arkhangelsk schools. For 17 years there has been an environmental office since the foundation of the organization, then it was evicted.
In Soviet times there was a school greenhouse. Later, the building was empty, it was chosen by the marginals. "Aetas" rented it, volunteers patched up the roof, made an extension, built an attic and a veranda, installed solar panels and a windmill, set up a greenhouse, cultivated seedlings that were handed out to people and relocated in the city.
The first signal on eviction was received in the summer of 2016, recalls Anastasia Kochneva:
"In the summer we had new volunteers. We all began to clean up the office. They wanted to patch up the roof, bought the materials. The deputy director of the school told us: "It's okay, you just need to mow the grass and keep order." A few days later, when we repaired the roof, she said that she wanted to terminate the lease with us — the mayor's office forced her."
Activists of "Aetas" did not sign any papers. They appealed to the mayor, deputies, the governor. After that, the school principal did not demand to leave the premises for six months. But one day the building lost light. At first, the volunteers thought it was a breakdown on the electricity grid. But the light did not appear any more. A few days later they turned off the water. Then members of "Aetas" began to look for another office.
Before moving, they removed the profiled sheeting from the walls, which they themselves laid several years ago, and gave to the animal shelter "Mata-mata", took away the furniture, handed out the seedlings and left.
“At school they worried. They said that due to the fact that we removed the profiled sheeting, the building can not be passed on to anyone. Previously, We asked if they had money for this, they answered: "Yes, there is already a repair estimate." As a result, after six months the building is abandoned," Anastasia Kochneva said.
"We promote ecoculture"
On the floor of the largest room in the new office of "Aetas" in the industrial area of Solombala, where they moved not so long ago, there are linoleum, wooden beams, building materials, props for events, two washing machines. There are two more rooms for working with documents and projects. Enough to hold meetings with activists and volunteers, who are more than 30 in the organization. This evening five of them stayed here.
Amalia Kaipova came to "Aetas", because she wanted to do civil work. She studies to be an ecologist at the Northern Arctic Federal University, but admits that there is still a lot of theory in the curriculum. In "Aetas", she finally found practice: she began organizing events, writing projects, diving into the topic of waste processing in more details. Therefore, she considers "EcoBattle", organized by volunteers, her favorite event; it is a regional championship among enterprises and municipalities for collecting recyclables: waste paper, plastic and batteries. This year it was held for the fifth time. Volunteers collected almost 60 tons of waste paper and more than a ton of plastic.
"EcoBattle" is important for us and for the city. With its help, more and more people are learning about separate waste collection," Amalia says.
Student Polina Nikitina accidentally ended up in a summer forest school, after which she became a volunteer of "Aetas". A few months later, she was already entrusted with her first event. Her favorite project is "Storage". In fact, this is an open-air market where people can either exchange different things, or bring secondary raw materials and get coupons for it to "buy" things.
""Aetas" does a lot for the development of ecological culture of citizens. Most likely, our authorities are very much afraid of it. A citizen is the one who is responsible for what surrounds him," Polina says, and immediately adds that local officials have added the activities of "Aetas" in their plan for the closing year of ecology in Russia.
Maria Saragi came to study in Arkhangelsk from Indonesia. She also got in "Aetas" by accident, after "EcoBattle". Despite the fact that three years ago she still spoke badly in Russian, the activists warmly accepted her and offered to help them.
"I saw that the students of the NArFU threw garbage. In "Aetas", we thought that it was necessary to make a university project — "Eco NArFU". At the university buildings and at the hostel we managed to install containers for separate collection of garbage, began to tell why it is important. After that they organized a student union, I see how the culture of students is changing," Maria says.
"The usefulness of "Aetas" for the city is obvious," Anna Begeva said. "This is a solution to landfill problems, landscaping, changing the appearance of the city."
The head of "Aetas" Anastasia Kochneva admits that her most favorite event in recent times is the International Summer Climate School, which was held in 2017 for the first time. There were about 50 people. Ecologists decided to show the inhabitants of the area the use of windmills and solar panels as an example. They launched a project to transfer the village of Zekhnov to renewable energy sources. Anastasia explains that in remote villages there are often problems with electricity, or there is simply no electricity. Therefore, it is important to try to transfer at least one village to fully renewable sources and then spread this experience.
"During the lecture in our camp, a thunderstorm started. Electricity turned off everywhere in the village, and we still had it — from solar panels. We did not even notice that there was no light in the village, we learned about it only the next morning," says Anastasia.
After "Aetas" was recognized as a "foreign agent", holding both the summer school itself and other events is now under threat.
"No one has ever talked about politics"
"A clear understanding that we are recognized as "foreign agents" appeared a year and a half ago, when our partners were included in the register, as well as organizations operating in our region," says activist Nadezhda Inieva. "Besides, some indirect signs indicated it. And somehow it became the custom that "there are no innocent people — there are unverified ones".
"We've been waiting for this all year, but we hoped that it would bypass us," Anastasia Kochneva says.
"Practically any NGO, according to law enforcement practice, is a "foreign agent". But they chose "Aetas" — the amount of foreign financing is large, and we do not hide it," Nadezhda emphasizes.
"Aetas" has been cooperating with Norway's largest environmental organization Natur og Ungdom ("Nature and Youth") for many years, which has always financially and institutionally supported some Russian projects. Also, "Aetas" received grant support from the Norwegian Barents Secretariat (created in 2008, a structure which purpose is to strengthen cooperation between Russia and Norway in the North). There was a one-off grant from the affiliate of the American non-profit corporation American Bar Association, SIILI, Inc. In 2015, one of the "Aetas" volunteers received funding for a project on the utilization of solid domestic waste.
"Over the past year and a half, we faced so many severities. Some believe that we are really acting on the orders of foreign countries," Anastasia Kochneva adds.
"Most of the money goes to summer events. We invite the youth, we go to some important place for the region and try, for example, to think about how to solve a certain problem — sustainable forest management, renewable energy sources and others. Participants do not pay for the road. We take all at our own expense. More than 100 thousand rubles for the summer school was spent on travel. We are trying to provide opportunities for those who do not have them," says Anastasia Kochneva.
It is important to correctly perceive grants. We are engaged in a business important for everyone. But we need support. Not any support, but the support of exactly our activities, not the other way around. And although we write the application to the donor for the grant, and he decides which to support, we choose the donor first. None of our donors have ever said what to do and what projects to implement:
"Moreover, no one has ever talked about politics or rallies. Some argue: "Why do you need foreign money, get only Russian grants." But after all, the support of the state is our taxes. Why should only Russian citizens spend money on preserving the country's natural resources that are of value to the whole planet? When the state sent planes to extinguish fires in Canada, it was perceived as normal."
Now it is much more difficult for them to attend public environmental councils, it is more difficult to hold joint events with environmental services.
After including "Aetas" in the register of "foreign agents", its leadership decided to liquidate the organization. But the Justice Ministry itself is not in a hurry to do it.
Activists are litigating a fine of 150 thousand rubles for voluntary refusal to enter the list of "foreign agents". The new meeting is scheduled for January 11.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and the timber industry complex of the Arkhangelsk region, which worked closely with "Aetas" for many years, distanced itself from environmentalists. Head of the department of expertise, rationing and monitoring in the field of environment Lyudmila Artemova refused to comment on the situation without "permission of higher authorities."
"The authorities do not need it"
"Aetas" is not the only environmental organization in the Northwest, recognized as a "foreign agent". In the beginning of the year the Ministry of Justice included in the register "Bellona" from St. Petersburg. Leaders of two respected and successful organizations from Murmansk and Syktyvkar commented on the pressure on environmental NGOs.
The head of environmental NGO from Murmansk "Nature and Youth" Alexey Zakharenko sees the same reasons of both NGOs for getting into this list: their independence and autonomy from power:
“"Aetas" is a unique organization for the Arkhangelsk region. There is no logic or common sense in recognizing them as "foreign agents". From the legal point of view, "Aetas" acted in the interests of other states. That is, attracting young people to active participation in the life of the city and the region, bringing them to the culture and traditions of the Russian North, all the projects of "Aetas" in the field of separate collection of garbage, climate and protection of forests in the Arkhangelsk region are the interests of some state. Are they dangerous for the authorities? Obviously, our current authorities do not need people to unite, to think about anything, except what they see on the "box". The disunity and passivity, apparently, are the main interests of our state in relation to citizens.
A similar point of view is shared by the leader of the "Komi Ecologists" from Syktyvkar Nina Ananina.
"In order for our country to be clean, it is necessary to change the world outlook of the population. This is what NGOs are doing, "Aetas" in particular. In addition to environmental actions aimed at creating responsible attitude to the environment, NGOs are also taking initiatives with the necessary regions, for example, the creation of new specially protected natural areas. But in this case, people have a persistent association — the protection of nature is the responsibility of NGOs, not the state. I believe that this may cause some dissatisfaction with the authorities.
If the Justice Ministry finally decides to liquidate the "Aetas", then they will be engaged in enlightenment as a social movement or an initiative group.
Material prepared for the project «Our Eyes on Barents» — a joint media partnership of the Barents Region
Maxim Polyakov, photo by the author and "Aetas", «7x7»
Maxim Polyakov, «7x7»