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Greenpeace Arctic activists feel chill of Russia's repression

After a protest near the Prirazlomnaya oil platform, Russian officials boarded Greenpeace's ship the Arctic Sunrise outside the port city of Murmansk. Photo: Dmitri Sharomov/Greenpeace/Handout via Reuters.

He’s a bird, he’s a plane, he’s….Ecoman?

Maybe not so much. Although President Vladimir Putin strapped into a hang glider and “guided” some Siberian cranes on their migratory path to somewhere a year ago, his claim to ecological ethos is going nowhere.

Russia is not only one of the most polluted countries in the developed world – a legacy of the Soviet Union’s military industrial complex – but one of the most hostile to its environmental activists.

Mostly that passes under the radar in a world of mayhem and media-melt. But the charge of piracy against 30 Greenpeace activists who were protesting Russia’s Arctic oil drilling in the Far North has brought it into sharp focus.

Pirates, as any kid knows, are guys with cutlasses who are out to rob and pillage. Or nowadays, Somali gangs with state-of-the-art weapons who are holding ships to multi-million-dollar ransom. Not the shoestring operations carried out by non-profit groups on missions to save what’s left of the planet.

Putin himself knows it. And he’s publicly scoffed at a piracy charge, but sniffed that that was no excuse for “violating international law.” More tellingly, he’s put oil and gas development at the top of his agenda – especially as Russia has been overtaken by its old rival the U.S. in economically crucial oil and gas production, according to latest figures.

Putin’s stay in power, which he may try to extend beyond 2018, as a virtual president-for-life, depends on fuelling the budget with energy profits. Think of the Harper government on steroids.

But it isn’t just the energy business that brings such a backlash against environmental activism – something Canadians are already familiar with. The struggle over clearing the Khimki forest  north of Moscow for an $8 billion highway to St. Petersburg got ugly three years ago, when environmental protester Konstantin Fetisov had a baseball bat broken over his head and ended up in a coma.

He survived, and his attackers got a rare conviction, although a senior official suspected of directing the hit was not implicated. Earlier, fellow activist Mikhail Beketov was savagely attacked, leaving him literally speechless for life. He lost a leg and several fingers as result, but his assailants were never arrested.

Last year zoologist Suren Gazaryan fled Russia after a criminal investigation was launched when he joined a group of activists taking pictures of illegal yacht moorings built on the Black Sea shore, near a palatial property linked with Putin. Other activists have been beaten or shot to death in Russia's remote regions.

But environmentalists are only some of the activists who are under attack today. Putin's political opponents have been charged and jailed. And in an attempt to marginalize NGOs that survive on non-Russian funds, the authorities have passed a law to brand them "foreign agents," raided their offices and intimidated staff.

On Friday, Amnesty International complained that “the Moscow authorities’ refusal to sanction a small (AI) event to highlight Russia’s appalling human rights record ahead of the Sochi Olympics highlights the lack of tolerance for freedom of expression in Russia today.”

Human rights, clearly, are low on the agenda in spite of Sochi. If the Greenpeace detainees had feathers, they might fare better in Putin’s Russia.

Olivia Ward covered the former Soviet Union as a bureau chief and correspondent from 1992 to 2002.    




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