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Faiz Oulahsen
The image of Faiz Oulahsen behind bars is a PR disaster for the Kremlin (c) Igor Podgorny/Greenpeace
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Hands off our Russian Arctic!

Elena Racheva

28th October 2013

Russia's seizure in international waters of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise has provoked worldwide outrage. But what are the reasons for Moscow's heavy-handedness? And why has the official western response been so muted?

For Putin the Arctic is of paramount importance: he’s proud of the projects and he is personally outraged that foreigners would encroach upon them in this way

The young girl with long hair stands behind the bars, holding on to them and occasionally breaking down into tears. Her lawyer gives her a bottle of drinking water, but the woman guard grabs it and takes it away from her ... These pictures of the Greenpeace campaigner, Faiza Oulahsen, who was arrested on that day two months ago, have come to symbolise the case against Greenpeace.

Almost a month has elapsed since the Greenpeace volunteers tried to board the Prirazlomnaya oil platform. This was just one in a long line of memorable Greenpeace protests: from occupying the Shell Brent Spar oil platform in 1995 to flying a paraglider over the French nuclear power station Bugey last year. Unlike these other protests, however, this protest has escalated into a dramatic head-to-head with Russian authoritarianism.

The government seems determined, as it was with Pussy Riot, to make an example out of the Greenpeace protesters. The arrests were highlighted in a loud propaganda campaign on TV and state media. It was claimed that the Greenpeace protest was financed by the US State Department, bragging that "at last Russia had taken the Greenpeace eco-blackmailers down a peg or two", and maintaining that "their battle is not with Gazprom Oil & Gas, but with Russia itself ... "

And the campaign seems to be working. VTsIOM (Russian Centre for Studying Public Opinion) data shows that 60% of Russians approve of their government's action and 8% consider it too lenient. Moreover, two-thirds of Russians are convinced that any attempts by foreign ecological organizations to halt Russian development of the Arctic should be stopped. It's almost as if, with this huge propaganda campaign, Russia is preparing for a new cold war with the West.

Greenpeace has 12 active campaigns in Russia: from forest fires to the protection of Lake Baikal. It has organised a great number of protests and many people have have been inconvenienced by them. So why, then, have the security services waited until now to react, and react so forcefully?

The precursor

The Prirazlomnaya protest is not, by the way, the ecologists' first encounter with the FSB. A year ago Greenpeace activists somehow managed to chain themselves to an oil rig, staying there for fifteen hours. Igor Podgorny, who took part in the protest, recalls how the radio interceptors picked up rig operatives, coastguards and the FSB shouting, swearing and panicking ...

"You could hear them on the platform, alternately trying to get through to the coastguards, asking what they should do, yelling 'flush them off into the sea', or swearing that we would drown and they would be held accountable ... there was general panic and confusion."

The coastguards never did show up, so the platform operatives spent several hours trying to get the activists off the rig and into the water. They turned fire hoses on them and showered them with metal objects. The activists' suspended tents were ripped off; one person's helmet was smashed by a piece of iron; and the protest had to be stopped for safety reasons. Eventually, the protesters returned to the Arctic Sunrise.

The border guards were prepared for the next attempt. Igor Podgorny is sure that this time everyone on Prirazlomnaya knew exactly what kind of 'pirate' ship was approaching the platform and what to expect. They were ready and it was payback time. But revenge is only one possible explanation for why the 'Arctic 30' have ended up in remand prison; the reality is that no one knows the real reason.

"An integral part of Russia"

President Putin has had his say following the arrest. "It's obvious Greenpeace aren't pirates", he noted. "But formally speaking, they tried to seize an oil platform. And our law enforcement agencies and coastguards didn't know who might have been attempting to board the rig under the auspices of Greenpeace." It was an unexpectedly mild comment that gave Greenpeace activists cause for optimism, and many expected that the ecologists would soon be released. Alas, the President's words do not seem to have counted for much.

In all only two government departments have commented on the arrests. The FSB stated that in conjunction with other security services it was preparing to take "coordinated measures to ensure the safety of the platform crew and the defence of Russia's interests in the Arctic region." At the same time, Vladimir Markin from the Russian Investigative Committee has declared that "such actions are not only a violation of our country's sovereignty, but a threat to the ecological safety of the whole region." This seems to be the key to understanding Russia's aggressive reaction towards the Greenpeace protesters.

"Whether they knew it or not, it was not Gazprom that the activists were attacking, but the state," says Irina Borogan, an expert on Russian security services and deputy editor of the site Agentura.ru. "Gazprom, Lukoil and Rosneft are strategically important companies whose business interests are equated with the national interests of the country. The state identifies with these corporations, so to attack them is to attack the Kremlin."

On 27 September an interesting piece of information appeared in the Russian media. Andrei Patrushev, a former FSB officer and son of the influential Secretary to Russia's Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, had been made Vice President of Gazprom Dobycha Shelf, a Gazprom subsidiary. According to Irina Borogan, the children of security service officers are often appointed managers in oil companies. "It's a cushy number as well as being a way of controlling big business," she says. "Oligarch capitalism and the security services are very closely linked, and Gazprom needs Andrei Patrushev – for his connections with the Presidential Administration, rather than the security services. This appointment is yet more proof of how important Gazprom is to the Kremlin."

It subsequently emerged that Andrei Patrushev had taken up his new job some two months before. These appointments often remain secret in Russia and the information about Patrushev had obviously been leaked to journalists. The message was clear: guys, do you have any idea who you've attacked?

"Arresting foreigners was Russia's way of telling the world to keep its hands off anything Russian," says Borogan. "Russia will not countenance demonstrations or peaceful protests. If members of the Russian opposition had protested in this fashion, there is no doubt that they would have ended up in prison. Now the Kremlin is making it clear that foreign passports won't save you either. Oil and gas sites are OURS and should be left well alone. For Putin the Arctic is of paramount importance: he's proud of the projects and he is personally outraged that foreigners would encroach upon them in this way."

Moreover, it would appear that Greenpeace chose a particularly bad moment to initiate this protest. From 3 to 12 September a division of ten warships from the Northern Fleet were passing through the Arctic, led by the nuclear guided-missile cruiser Peter the Great. This was part of the Defence Ministry programme to return Russian troops to the Arctic.

The 'Russian Arctic' has officially been declared a matter of national security. Thus, from the Russian government's standpoint, the Greenpeace activists had violated Russia's sovereignty, crossed the business interests of the security services, and, on top of that, done so at a time when the Arctic was full of atomic icebreakers. Perhaps it isn't a matter for fifteen years in prison (the sentence for piracy in Russia), but some time in prison seems very likely.

A bowl of soup once every three days ...

"They've increased the temperature in the cells, so it's warm there now", says Anna Smirnova, Greenpeace representative in Murmansk. "There's no separate food for the vegetarians, but once every three days they get vegetable soup they can eat ... " She sounds sad and unsure. Later, her Moscow colleagues explain that the telephone line is tapped, so she has to watch her words, and the lawyers for those under arrest try to avoid any contact with journalists. They explain only that they will be appealing to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) about the conditions in which the activists are being held. They say they have a strong chance of winning, but it's not quite clear how this will help the campaigners, who are currently only able to eat vegetable soup once every three days.

That the Murmansk remand prison is no hotel is quite clear without the confirmation of the ECtHR. It's cold and dirty, letters can only be sent by snail mail (ordinary Russian postal service), and to put through a call to relatives an application has to be lodged in Russian! Video cameras have been installed inside the prison, covering the whole space, including the toilet. For a long time the Finnish activist, Sini Saarela, who has no thyroid gland, was refused her essential medication and the Argentinian consul stood for five hours in the rain outside the Investigative Committee to get permission for a meeting with Miguel Hernan Perez Orzi, an Argentinian citizen. He subsequently travelled the 25km from Murmansk to Severomorsk, only to discover that a special pass was needed to gain entry because it's a border town.

A half-hearted response from the West ...

There were eighteen nationalities on the Arctic Sunrise. As soon as they had been arrested, eighteen foreign diplomats went on board. Anna Smirnova has said that representatives of Argentina, Italy and the UK are still in Murmansk. Amnesty International and Reporters without Borders may have demanded the immediate release of the ecologists, but the diplomats are still not united.

"Brazil and Argentina have made very strong representations, but in Turkey only the opposition has protested", says Greenpeace Russia lawyer, Mikhail Kreindlin. Together, we try to grasp which of the eighteen countries have gone into battle for their detained citizens. The list is not very long.

Indeed, it would seem that the piracy case is proceeding with the tacit consent of the European Union, and Western nations have not been compelled either to unite or to formulate a single position. One of the main questions now is not only why the Russian authorities have reacted so strongly, but why the countries whose citizens are currently sitting in Murmansk remand prison are not reacting more strongly.

"The US Embassy has not made a public statement, but a team has been set up to work on the case," says Kreindlin. "The Canadian Prime Minister (there are two Canadians amongst the protesters) is the only person to have said that the offenders should be punished, but we are in a conflict with Canada over shale gas and Greenpeace is not popular there." Indeed, it has become increasingly clear that Greenpeace is not particularly popular anywhere. Most nations have issues with the ecologists and many would like to see them punished, so this is one of the rare instances when the interests of Russia and the West coincide.

Vested interests

Another important factor is Gazprom and Rosneft's offshore oil production partnership with US ExxonMobil, Italy's Eni and Norwegian Statoil, which means that all these companies have a vested financial interest in increased offshore production.

There were no Norwegians on the Arctic Sunrise. Italy's Foreign Minister, Emma Bonino, called a meeting of EU ambassadors in Moscow, but Italy is also not hurrying to make loud noises about releasing its citizens. Nor is the US. Finnish citizen Sini Saarela can't count on much help either because Gazprom owns 25% of the Finnish state gas monopoly Gasum Oy, and Lukoil owns 33% of Finnish filling stations. So a dispute is in no one's interest.

There are, however, other suggestions as to why diplomatic reaction has been so feeble. Irina Borogan is sure that a struggle over the ecologists has already begun: "The activists have become hostages in an auction," she says. "They can be used for exerting pressure on the diplomats: don't do this, don't support that ... I'm sure that negotiations behind closed doors are already happening."

Political considerations certainly have a part to play, but the foreign diplomats are simply underestimating the problem. They think that two months in pre-trial detention is not so terrible, and the activists will soon be released by the court. Not many people remember that Russian courts acquit fewer than 1% of cases. Anyone who gets into a Russian remand prison can bid goodbye to his or her freedom for a long time.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence. It was first published by Open Democracy.

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