Andrei Rudomakha, head of Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, was attacked and beaten by three masked men on Thursday, December 28, 2017. Rudomakha was returning to Krasnodar from Gelendzhik on the Black Sea, where he was documenting the unlicensed construction of a luxury property in a coastal forest area. Sustaining a fractured skull and broken nose, the activist was beaten and three cameras containing footage from the trip were stolen. The Russian Interior Ministry has stated that regional authorities are investigating the assault.
Dmitry Shevchenko from The Associated Press said the group has “recently had many conflicts with officials… the question is where this [attack] came from specifically.” Likewise, activist Aleksandr Savelyev said, “their goal was to collect the material that we filmed.. they ran from behind, sprayed him with pepper spray, then knocked him to the ground and kicked him in the face…” Savelyev has also voiced his suspicion of local authorities, questioning how the attackers came to know of the environmentalist’s whereabouts without information from police or security services. Rudomakha was not naïve or unacquainted with the dangers of working as an activist in Krasnodar. Following government investigation into his work three years ago, Rudomakha told Human Rights Watch, “What the authorities really want is to keep us very quiet…”
The attack on Thursday was not the first time that Rudomakha has encountered harassment for his work in interrogating illegal and environmentally destructive construction projects. Environmental Watch focuses laterally across local and federal authorities, and most recently, the group exposed illegal hunting trips carried out by local officials. In 2014, the group was unabatedly critical of the environmental impact of construction in Sochi during the Olympic Games. Resident advocate Yevgeny Vitishko was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison for supposedly damaging the regional governor’s fence. However, the government has transitioned from ad hoc interning of members to implementing a more systematic crackdown on the group’s operations. For instance, in September 2016, Environment Watch was declared a ‘foreign agent’ by Russia’s Justice Ministry.
The ‘Foreign Agents’ Register was established in 2012 and requires groups to identify as ‘foreign agents’ if they either receive foreign funding or engage in ‘political activity,’ along with branding all published material accordingly. The umbrella term ‘political activity’ is a catchall phrase with a legal scope to encompass all advocacy groups and organizations that engage in environmental, LGBT, health, and social issues. As of September, 158 groups and NGOs were classified as foreign agents, while a further 30 are known to have shut down rather than bear the restrictive compliance burden that comes with that characterization. While the law has been challenged in Russia’s Constitutional Court, it was upheld as a matter of public interest on the grounds that it was “not intended to persecute or discredit” groups.
The combination of these judicial efforts to undermine NGOs with recent piecemeal attacks threatens to suffocate authority critics into self-censorship. While the international community relies heavily on civic activists, such as Andrei Rudomakha, to report on humanitarian and environmental abuses, activists themselves are increasingly at risk of abuse. To remedy the uncertain, contested sphere in which rights defenders operate, there is a need to look to international, non-state models of protection and support for NGOs operating in highly politicised settings. That said, independent and oppositionist voices are an essential dimension for any society grounded in human rights, which will be imperative for forging positive change in the future.