In a court hearing in Murmansk on Monday to levy fines against Bellona’s local office for failing to register as a “foreign agent” under Russia’s 2012 law on NGO’s, the group received a fine that was far below the typical penalty – 50,000 rubles (€870). The smallest fines in similar cases in Russia have been 300,000 rubles.
Bellona Murmansk further avoided a direct penalty to its director, Andrey Zolotkov, who could have been personally liable for 200,000 rubles.
For Bellona Murmansk, an environmental group working with nuclear safety, industrial pollution and alternative energy on Russia’s Kola Peninsula, the “Foreign Agent” stamp from the Ministry of Justice in Moscow came as a surprise in late March.
“Our organization had an inspection by the regional Ministry of Justice in January 2014 and by the procurator’s office the year before that. Both concluded that we did not conduct political activity,” Zolotkov said to BarentsObserver.
The Murmansk division of the ministry’s petition said Bellona Murmansk was suspected of committing two political activities. One involved the publishing a report on industrial pollution in the Barents Sea region, where Murmansk is located. The other, according to the petition, was that Bellona Murmansk conducted a public roundtable discussion on best practices for limiting that industrial pollution.
A necessary function for society
During the court hearing Anna Koltsa, a specialist with the Murmansk division of the Justice Ministry, admitted to the court she had no expertise in determining whether Bellona Murmansk’s activities could be characterized as political. Further, she said budgetary constraints prevented the hiring of legal experts to determine the question.
“No one argues the need for Bellona Murmansk’s activities. It performs a necessary function for society – we are not speaking of whether the organization conducts negative activities,” Koltsa said, but added that ”Although the organization doesn’t deny receiving foreign funding, it deals with shaping public opinion, both positively and negatively, which is political activity,” Bellona’s web site reads.
For Bellona Murmansk as an independent Russian organization it is game over.
“The process of terminating the organization is already announced. We published the announcement in the local newspaper on April 15. The process will take minimum two months, but could take longer,” Andrey Zolotkov said to BarentsObserver.
The work is however not over. “We will see how we now can establish a Murmansk office as a filial of Bellona in Norway,” Zolotkov tells ansuring that the work on environmental issues will continue.
A branch office or a filial of a foreign organization is within the legal frames of the Russian law.