Human Rights and Environmental Activism in Russia: Lessons from the Past and Challenges for the Future
At a recent Kennan Institute talk, Ivan Pavlov, Director of the Bellona Environmental Human Rights Center in St. Petersburg and Galina Starovoitova Fellow on Human Rights and Conflict Resolution at the Kennan Institute, described the state of the human rights and environmental movements in Russia today. Pavlov warned that these movements are in a state of crisis. In order to survive this crisis, organizations must improve their professional capacity and overcome internal divisions to overcome the obstacles posed by a hostile government and an indifferent population.
Pavlov described several major problems that human rights and environmental activists face in Russia. He noted that there is an atmosphere of mutual distrust and confrontation between activists and government officials. According to Pavlov, this is a legacy of the Soviet past. He stated that officials view activists as a threat and have taken many steps to undermine the human rights and environmental movements or bring them under state control. Nevertheless, he believes that there are possibilities for cooperation between activists and at least some state structures, and he faults most activists for being unwilling to even consider such possibilities.
Russian activists also suffer from disunity within the human rights and environmental movements. According to Pavlov, activists are united in their opposition to certain events or policies, but they cannot unite in support of a common program. Another problem is that young Russians are not drawn to human rights work, and the movement is dominated by aging Soviet-era dissidents. However, he argued that the human rights movement could be re-invigorated by young people who are attracted to the environmental movement. Pavlov also noted the lack of interest in civil society among the general population, and the lack of reliable sources of funding for human rights and environmental organizations.
Pavlov served as defense attorney to Alexander Nikitin and Grigory Pasko—two well-known Russian environmental activists who were charged with espionage. He used their two cases to illustrate the decline of human rights in post-Soviet Russia. Nikitin's case was tried under Yeltsin, and Pavlov believes that the court system was more open and less determined to convict in Nikitin's case than in the case of Pasko, who was tried during the Putin administration. Pavlov provided numerous other examples of the lack of respect for human rights in Russia, including the recent arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, closings of newspapers and television stations, and the war in Chechnya.
Pavlov briefly discussed the activities of his own organization, Bellona Environmental Human Rights Center, in addressing the problems that he presented. Bellona is not an opposition or protest organization; according to Pavlov, it seeks to work with the state—particularly through the courts—to protect human rights and the environment. Bellona also engages in educational and informational activities to improve public awareness of environmental issues and attract young people to human rights and environmental activism. He noted that this approach is unusual in Russia, but he believes it to be the most productive.