Tag Archives: Russia

Yevgenia Chirikova and Other Environmentalists on the Run

Yevgenia Chirikova  (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel, file)

Yevgenia Chirikova (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel, file)

New Orleans       The Organizers’ Forum has conducted an International  Dialogue with community and labor organizers and activists in various movements around the world since 2002.  In our first trip to Brazil we almost miraculously stumbled into the wild excitement in Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro around the election campaign of Lula de Silva from the PT or Workers’ Party then.   Subsequently, we have been to thirteen different countries including South Africa ten years after the fall of apartheid  and Egypt right after the ill-fated revolution.  This year we will go to Poland.   Even after all of these years, some organizers will say, “Why Poland?   What can organizers learn there?”  My answer might be Yevgenia Chirikova.

In 2007 more than 15 of us visited Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. We were often asked, “Why Russia?  What in the world can organizers learn about organizing in Russia?”  You would be surprised.  We met a rank-and-file autoworker who had sparked the organization of a Ford Plant some distance from St. Petersburg and was involved in another half-dozen organizing drives with other labor activists.  We heard about the efforts to curtail and regulate nonprofits, which over the last eight years has been common in scores of countries, including the United States.

By happenstance we also met Yevgenia Chirikova who at that time was a  soft-spoken, young woman of 30 years old who was taking her first tentative steps as a grassroots community activist concerned with the  environment.  I never tire of telling her story of being a young mother  living in an outer ring suburb of Moscow and taking her daughters, one still in a stroller, walking near the apartment where she and her husband had moved, and almost stumbling on a sign indicating coming highway construction through what was supposedly the federally protected Khimki Forest.   Subsequently, the Save the Khimki Forest Campaign focused on the $8 billion construction project that ignored other, less environmentally intrusive routes, and exposed dark dealings by Prime Minister Putin and his cronies involved in the project being built by a French construction company.  We were moved by her organizing and have helped her campaign over the last eight years in small ways, while she has deepened her commitment and expanded her range.

One of the things we learn in our dialogues is the prices paid by organizers in other countries.The Khimki Forest fight has been marked by frequent arrests and brutal beatings including one that left a reporter brain damaged and terminal.   Global Witness, an international campaigning organization recently issued a report noting that the killings of environmental activists has risen by 20% in the last year.  Their report said there were 116 deaths worldwide in 2014, including 29 in Brazil, 25 in Colombia and 15 in the Philippines.  Others were sometimes kidnapped, beaten, and abused.

In the eight years since we met Yevgenia her profile has risen, she has won awards and prizes for her activism, but all at a price.  The police several years ago threatened to take her children from her, only dissuaded perhaps by an immediate video she did of her rage at the  threats that pushed them back.  The news now is that she has moved with  her children to Estonia because of the constant repression of activists in Russia.  She has no plans to change her citizenship so that she can continue to be active in organizing in Russia.  She told The Guardian,

“As soon as a person starts to be efficient at what he does, they begin to threaten you with taking away your children, or slapping you with criminal charges,”  She added that the only way to campaign in Russia now may be “leaderless resistance so that it’d be unclear who to target”.

Russia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Bolivia, India, wherever we go we meet organizers who wake up and work for change every day, just as we must do, and face the odds, whatever they may be.  Everyone pays a price, which is the cost of admission in the fight for justice and change.  It is good to look at the ledger and continue to make sure that the balances are being accounted in the solidarity of struggle throughout the world.

We’ll learn a lot in Poland, too.It is often a surprise for people in the United States, but actually it’s a big world and it takes a lot of  people to change it for the better.


First They Come for the Nonprofits

On 21 July 2014, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation registered five prominent Russian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the 'Foreign Agents' list. - See more at: http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/26677#sthash.CAIIw7Y1.dpuf

On 21 July 2014, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation registered five prominent Russian non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the ‘Foreign Agents’ list. – See more at: http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/26677#sthash.CAIIw7Y1.dpuf

Waveland   It seems not so much a pattern as an iron law that as governments move to clamp down on their citizens, first they come for the nonprofits. The evidence is everywhere, but the most recent examples can be found in Russia and Egypt.  When a delegation from the Organizers’ Forum visited each of these countries in recent years, first Russia in 2007 and Egypt in 2011,  the tendencies were clear, but now they are full-blown.

In Russia, the first steps involved registration of nonprofits, but it was obvious that the real issue was not so much whether or not there was proper registration with local authorities as whether or not it would be possible to block financial support from international NGOs and other foreign sources. In Egypt, since the repression following the revolution there have been arrests of representatives of nonprofits and human rights officials including foreign nationals from several countries including the USA whose work was focused on civic engagement or democracy building.

Journalists, bloggers, and activists have certainly suffered the brunt of continued repression. In Russia, we had met Evgenia Chirikova, who at the time was a young middle class mother of two children whose family had moved to the outskirts of Moscow and had become an environmentalist when she stumbled onto red X’s on trees in the Khimki Forest while walking her daughters and realized a highway was going to be built through the ancient forest. I still follow their fight against all odds, enduring beatings, false arrests, and constant harassment in what has been largely a losing fight. Similarly, some of the young organizers we met in Egypt who were in the middle of the action in Tahir Square during the revolution have now scattered to the winds after arrests and constant harassment.

Nonetheless, autocratic governments don’t  feel secure enough just going after these courageous activists and organizers, so they push to curtail nonprofit activity is an attempt to cut off all of the supply lines that support such work. The new application of such laws in Egypt seems especially chilling. According to the Times:

The new law imposes a potential life sentence for the crime of intending to “harm the national interest,” “compromise national unity” or “breach security or public peace,” if it involves receiving money from abroad. Foreign funding is how virtually every credible human rights group here has subsisted for decades because of the legal and practical obstacles to domestic fund-raising under Egypt’s authoritarian governments.

Ghada Waly, the Egyptian minister of social solidarity, in charge of administering the program is ironically a veteran of some of the same international NGOs that are fleeing the country, having worked for CARE and the United Nations Development Program. She likens the laws to anti-smoking regulations in hospitals in the US, saying simply that the new law “… is a rule and you have to respect it.” Meanwhile the Carter Center has closed its office in the wake of the new rule and the Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies after 20 years is moving to Tunisia.

No matter what these governments say, when they ask for the ability to approve every single grant to a nonprofit, seize staff and hold them for months during “investigations,” the nonprofit community is clear that they can hear the feet coming up behind them and the knock of the door to take them away. No matter what these governments say, if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.