by Eugene Simonov
Translated by Jennifer Castner
UWEC Work Group expert Eugene Simonov comments on the Russian government’s declaration that WWF Russia is a foreign agent.
The Russian Federation Ministry of Justice conducts its very own “Fridays for the Future”. Almost every Friday after lunch, they announce new foreign agents. The timing is convenient; victims don’t have enough time to mobilize a response in the press. I met my own personal foreign agency on 8 October 2021, while celebrating someone’s birthday in Haifa. By and large, I wasn’t even indignant – I just didn’t understand why I was the first individual environmentalist foreign agent to be appointed.
But on Friday, 10 March 2023, the Ministry of Justice’s latest press release was enraging:
“Under the guise of activities defending nature and the environment and the biological diversity of species, representatives of the World Wildlife Fund tried to influence decisions made by Russia’s executive and legislative branches and hindered implementation of industrial and infrastructure projects,” the Ministry writes. “The Fund distributed negative information about decisions made and policies pursued by public authorities.”
Of course, it’s ridiculous to remind the Ministry of Justice that the law “On Foreign Agents” itself makes a clear exception for those involved in the protection of flora and fauna, directly implying that appeals to government on this matter are not “political activities”, even when it comes to infrastructure projects that threaten wildlife. Every day we see that the Russian government can be taken at its word: as they gave, so shall they take it back without even a blink.
Even more amusing is the new euphemism for the word “criticism”: “distributed negative information about government decisions and policies” – in any viable society, criticism is acceptable and it is impossible to improve state mechanisms without it.
Regardless of what the State Duma’s “mad printer” printed into law, we all understand that, today, nature conservation is the most important part of politics. The ongoing survival of countries and humanity as a whole depend on the quality of environmental policy. So, it was not the Ministry of Justice’s wicked statement that aroused my stormy emotions, but rather the exact victim being branded and trampled by the Ministry.
Over the last decade I have seen three dozen of the best environmental NGOs in Russia branded as foreign agents (and subsequently liquidated)… NGOs where my comrades worked and adjusted to the idea that every community group working honestly to protect its nature would sooner or later be branded and devoured by the Leviathan. But there were also major international organizations, ones that, as I recently wrote about regarding militaristic development of Wrangel Island, are still valuable to the authorities as world-class centers of expertise that help improve the clumsy state machine. Their mere existence is a kind of alibi for the authorities, proving their recognition of the value of international environmental relations.
The history of the World Wildlife Fund in Russia begins with the very establishment of the earliest international environmental relations by the Russian Federation. In autumn 1993, in a Moscow office-apartment rented to assess prospects for environmental cooperation with Russia, a future WWF program for the protection of rare species developed in parallel with the preparatory phase of the Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) “Protection of Biodiversity in Russia” project, an initiative that played a key role in the preservation and expansion of the country’s protected areas system. Two young coordinators of the GEF project work and argue day and night – I, recently graduated from an environmental conservation master’s program in the United States and the legendary Laura Williams – she co-founded WWF in Russia and dedicated the greater part of her life to it. After her tragic death in 2018, WWF-Russia established an award in her name for young environmentalists. So, WWF’s response today to the Ministry of Justice sounds somewhat strained: “The supreme governing body of our Fund – the Council – is made of citizens of the Russian Federation. All the Fund’s employees are also Russian citizens…” But de facto, this is a sad truth – it has become dangerous and awkward for foreign specialists to work in the Russian branch of an international environmental organization. This reduces the possibility of international cooperation and strains mutual understanding between the Russian Panda and its huge international family.
After 2000, WWF made its peace with the regime and argued minimally with the government, but did a great deal to strengthen Russia’s environmental potential. So, in response to the announcement of the organization’s foreign agent status, they write: “For the last 28 years, the Fund has implemented over 1,500 field projects. More than 145 federal and regional protected areas totaling 72 million hectares in size have been created and expanded with the support of the World Wide Fund for Nature.” And this is the truth; the Fund’s main projects are aimed at patching gaps and improving government mechanisms in Russia’s nature protection system. And, of course, the Fund regularly makes recommendations to the government on ways to improve various aspects of environmental policy.
WWF tries to secure as much government support as possible, signing official cooperation agreements with ministries and regional authorities; Rosneft and VTB are among its sponsors. In 2014 Putin congratulated the Fund on its 20th birthday: “Your organization’s active civil society role deserves the deepest recognition. It was WWF that first used the Internet to promote a public legislative initiative … and with your participation, laws were enacted that toughen responsibility for the poaching and trafficking of animals listed in Russia’s Red Book.” There’s a glint of poison in these congratulations; Putin remembers very well how in 2000 the Fund’s team threatened to hold an all-Russia referendum on the restoration of an independent environmental agency, which the government had to suppress using fraudulent manipulations of “illegal signatures”.
WWF works in 100+ countries, bringing international expertise, the latest environmental technologies, and big international money for their implementation. From the beginning of the war, various commercial firms and regional governments began to speak out against cooperation with WWF, partly to eliminate the extra “eyes” that track negative ecosystem impacts, and partly to score points in the fight against “foreign evil”. The last straw was an article dated 14 February in Komsomolskaya Pravda and signed by Putin adviser S. B. Ivanov and Justice Minister Chuichenko, entitled “Advice to true environmentalists: stay away from Russian WWF.” The Minister of Justice serves as Chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Amur Tiger Center, an organization that has become WWF’s main competitor in raising and disbursing funds for protection of the Amur Tiger, reaping the glory associated with it. The article frankly (and with little evidence) speaks not about WWF’s “subversive activities”, but about the fact that it gets in the way of two “autonomous non-profit organizations” established by very big sovereign people for the protection of the Amur tiger and the Far Eastern leopard. Not long after, and “using its official powers”, the Ministry of Justice carried out WWF’s execution. It’s clear that this step is irreversible, while the organization being destroyed is simply created for “foreign influence” in the best sense of the word.
Toothier colleagues from Greenpeace described the Ministry’s decision as “absurd”, stating “to protect biodiversity, the Fund, like hundreds of other Russian environmental organizations, is forced to enter into ‘dialogue’ with the government, highlighting bad government decisions and opposing their implementation (which has the potential to harm our nation’s ecology), despite being known as “industrial” and “infrastructural”.
Be that as it may, in rejecting WWF, the Russian state machine has sunk to yet another low on the path to international self-isolation. Russia’s next step could be “freezing” or refusing to participate in international conventions. And, alas, such changes are already visible. Introduced to the State Duma on 13 February, an outrageous bill to weaken protections of Lake Baikal also contains a proposal to remove any mention of World Heritage sites from the law “On Environmental Protection”, a move to eliminate this international category of protection from Russian law.