Democracy Lab

The Ferocious Pirates of Greenpeace

Russia's decision to charge environmental activists with piracy sets an ominous precedent.

MOSCOW — On Oct. 3, when I visited the Moscow headquarters of Greenpeace, the organization's office was buzzing with anxious staffers and friends. The activists were shocked, their faces drawn and nervous. They had spent hours at meetings with the Kremlin's administration and the Federal Security Service (FSB) looking for some solution to their problems. Earlier that day, a Russian criminal court had issued prison sentences to 16 more Greenpeace employees and sympathizers, on top of the 14 activists sentenced the day before. The charge: piracy.

The Greenpeace members I spoke to have endured years of official pressure and threats in their long struggle to prevent oil spills and other natural disasters. There have been many occasions when Greenpeace ecologists have found themselves confronting the FSB, the successor to the old Soviet KGB. But 15-year jail terms as punishment for environmental activism? The news was a bombshell. 

In fact, the protest itself was innocuous. On Sept. 18, the Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise, anchored a few hundred yards away from Gazprom's Prirazlomnaya oil platform, a 100,000-ton metal giant sitting 60 kilometers off the coast in the icy Pechora Sea. A few unarmed activists (one of them, the Russian journalist Denis Senyakov, equipped only with a camera) approached the platform on two inflatable boats. Then, two of the activists used rock-climbing equipment to climb up the rig's wall in an attempt to raise a protest banner. "They were later accused of threatening the security of the rig," noted Vladimir Chuprov, the head of Greenpeace's energy department in Moscow. "But why is the rig out there in the ocean if it can be threatened by two guys with ropes?"

The activists were soon stopped. Russian Coast Guardsmen in balaclavas pointed guns at the activists and fired warning shots; water cannons on the top of the rig loosed torrents of water at the Greenpeace men. The next day, a helicopter arrived, and security forces soon detained the rest of the Arctic Sunrise crew. Putin later expressed regrets that he never had a chance to sit down with Greenpeace to hear about "their complaints, demands, and concerns." However, he explained that Russian security forces did know the identities of the people who were storming the platform. "It is absolutely evident, that they are, of course, not pirates," he continued. "But formally they were trying to seize this platform. It is evident that these people violated international law."

Greenpeace is indignant and has called the FSB's decision an extreme overreaction. "The Arctic is melting before our eyes and these brave activists stand in defiance of those who wish to exploit this unfolding crisis to drill for more oil," read the statement on the group's website. "Greenpeace International insists that piracy charges are unjustified, and that Russian authorities boarded the Arctic Sunrise illegally in international waters. Several international legal experts have supported that view."

The Russian Greenpeace employees wondered how President Vladimir Putin could possibly allow the draconian punishment of environmental protesters, especially since Greenpeace has performed exactly the same protests in many countries over the years, including Greenland, New Zealand, the Netherlands -- even, just a year ago, in Russia itself. Such activism has generally been recognized as free expression; until this past week, no government has ever sentenced environmentalist protestors on piracy charges. I watched as the activists in the Moscow headquarters browsed through pictures of their 30 arrested colleagues, all of whom have received two months of pretrial detention: citizens of Finland, Ukraine, Britain, the Netherlands, the United States, and 13 other countries. It seemed that citizens representing half the world were locked behind bars in Murmansk.

The FSB has a close relationship with Russia's big oil companies and their pipelines -- which is something that Vladimir Chuprov has experienced firsthand. Greenpeace first opened its bureau in Russia in 1989, and went on to work uninterrupted for the next decade. Police raided the organization for the first time during the environmentalists' struggle to prevent the import of nuclear waste into Russia. Secret agents questioned Chuprov's family, friends, and even his teachers back in his hometown in the Komi region about his criticism of Russia's gas and oil giants. His father expressed pride about his son's activism and pushed the interrogators out the door. Chuprov's math teacher Galina Shpekht told the FSB: "If you intend to arrest Chuprov, then you can send me along to the gulag with my former student."

But not everybody in Russia feels the same way about Greenpeace's storming of the oil platform in Pechora Sea. As reported by the polling group VTSIOM, around 60 percent of Russians believe the authorities were justified in employing harsh measures against Greenpeace. Russians often accuse Greenpeace activists of working as agents of the U.S. State Department, protesting to support policies that serve U.S. interests in exchange for money.

Members of Russia's underground art scene, by contrast, are more likely to take the activists' side. They often criticize the country's oil and gas companies for embodying a destructive national culture of addiction to the energy industry. Last July, for example, the punk rockers of Pussy Riot released a new song called "As in a Red Prison." The lyrics describe Russia as kingdom of gas and oil pipelines enriching Putin's best friends. Indeed, activists across Europe are staging dramatic protests against the recent arrests. The photo above shows protesters in the Puerto del Sol square in Madrid on Oct. 5.  

International diplomats and celebrities, including artist and activist Annie Lennox, Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke, and actor Ewan McGregor, spoke out against the Russian authorities and their efforts to intimidate Greenpeace. The Dutch foreign minister vowed to free the activists: "I don't understand how this could have been thought to have anything to do with piracy," he said. "I don't see how you could think of any legal grounds for that." A Russian conservationist, Mikhail Kreindlin, who has also been threatened by the FSB for his attempts to prevent the destruction of nature around the future Winter Olympics site in Sochi, told me that the charges against his colleagues sounded outrageously unfair. "We are by principle a peaceful organization," Kreindlin said. "Our colleagues obviously weren't trying to take Gazprom's property by force."

The Kremlin's response to these criticisms was consistent with its reactions to previous arrests of oppositionists: President Putin's press spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that Putin was not involved in any way in the charges against Greenpeace. He pointed to Putin's observation that piracy wasn't an appropriate charge. "He does not and cannot interfere in the work of investigative agencies," said Peskov. Yet one has to wonder how many Russians who heard Peskov's words took them at face value.

PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images

Comments

Load More Comments