Two of Russia’s fiercest environmental activists have written an open letter to Green Party candidate for president Dr. Jill Stein, criticizing her for insulting Russia’s human rights and environmental justice movements, similar struggles in Russia, with activists treated in the same ruthless manner by the Putin regime. Many have had to flee Russia to avoid persecution.
The criticism comes in response to Jill Stein’s public support and engagement with Vladimir Putin, including her attendance at a conference and banquet dinner celebrating the 10th anniversary of Russia’s propaganda arm, media channel “RT” (formerly “Russia Today”) in December of 2015. Stein can be seen seated at the gala at the table, along with Vladimir Putin, his then chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov and press spokesman Dmitry Peskov, among other notable Russian officials. Also seated at the same table is former Director of US Defense Intelligence Agency, retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn.
Both Stein and Flynn have been widely criticized in the US and Europe for attending a conference celebrating a propaganda arm of the Russian government. It is troubling that Stein and Flynn didn’t anticipate how their appearances would be used for propaganda purposes by the Kremlin, legitimizing a criminal regime under Putin that has broken accepted rules of international law with its seizure of Crimea, and staging and supporting war in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin’s criminal acts have been accomplished with the help of sophisticated state-controlled propaganda, the crown jewel of which Stein and Flynn were celebrating along with the perpetrators.
Worse still was Stein’s touting her delight at her perceived achievement of cooperation and collaboration with Putin’s regime on human rights and issues of social and environmental justice, as recorded in this video from Moscow’s Red Square. Stein suggests we need to “replace a US policy of domination with a way forward based on respect, collaboration, international law and human rights,” adding, “We’ve seen that vision really resonate here,” referring to her dialogue with members of the Russian government. Stein even believes she successfully “reached” Putin himself on her “principled collaboration vision,” quoting Putin on her website that he agreed with her.
Human rights observers as well as human rights defenders in Russia were horrified at this scene and at Stein’s words. Something I’ve been told over and over again when asked what we in the West can do to support Russians’ struggle for human rights and democracy is: speak the truth about Putin’s Russia, avoid euphemistic language that understates the reality of ever widening repression of dissent, and don’t legitimate the Kremlin’s criminality or corruption by treating Vladimir Putin as if he were a respected player on the world stage.
Of course, Stein did just that and more, and was proud of it. It’s unfortunate that Progressives even need to respond to Stein’s blatant disregard and/or ignorance of human rights issues inside Russia. The response in the form of this open letter from these two prominent Russian activists, both dedicated environmentalists, who have risked their lives and livelihoods in ways Jill Stein can probably not even fathom, is eloquent and powerful.
Evgenia Chirikova posted the open letter to Jill Stein on her Facebook page. Chirikova was recognized by Foreign Policy as a Top 100 Global Thinker. She’s received several awards for her work, including the Goldman Prize in 2012, which recognized her courageous and important efforts to mobilize fellow Russian citizens to reroute a major highway that would bisect the old growth Khimki Forest, known as “the green lungs of Moscow” as follows:
“Government officials did everything in their power to stop the movement, including wrongfully arresting and detaining protesters and threatening Chirikova and her family. Unnamed assailants, likely associated with Khimki officials, beat activists and journalists questioning the project. Most notably, the journalist Mikhail Beketov suffered permanent brain damage and lost a leg and four fingers in a failed murder attempt in November 2008. Chirikova herself has been arrested and detained numerous times, faced baseless rumors of being an American spy, and fought false claims of neglect and mistreatment from child protection authorities who threatened to take away her children.
In this atmosphere of violent political and civil repression, Chirikova and her colleagues continue to fight for an alternative route and an absolute halt to the forest destruction. Energized by the erosion of support for Putin’s ruling party, Chirikova is breathing new life into Russian civil society’s appetite for political reform, and with it, the fight to protect Khimki Forest.”
The second author is Nadezhda Kutepova, and environmental activist whose work focuses on the nuclear disaster zone in the Chelyabinsk region, many of whose surrounding villages remain devastated as a result of the USSR’s nuclear industry in the Ural Mountains.
Kutepova founded an NGO in the late 90s called Planeta Nadezhd (The Planet of Hopes) in the town of Ozyorsk which was built around the Mayak nuclear plant. It remains classified as a “strategic site” and is closed to visitors.
Mayak continues to make components for nuclear weapons as well as storing and converting spent nuclear fuel. In 1957, one of the storage facilities exploded and radioactive materials poisoned the surrounding area, including the River Techa. Some residents were moved out, but most remained and continued to drink the water and use the soil to grow food. Nobody was told what had happened or how dangerous the situation was. Countless people died from various cancers, and those who survived suffered very serious health consequences.
A documentary film entitled Chelyabinsk, the Most Contaminated Spot on the Planet was made in 1996 detailing the devastation wrought on the Chelyabinsk communities that is the focus of Kutepova’s work.
While other nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl have received widespread coverage in the media, relatively little has been published on Mayak, too distant perhaps for Europeans to worry about. But for families like Kutepova’s and my own who have suffered from the environmental degradation of Chelyabinsk, Kutepova’s work is an important step to understanding and preventing further adverse health effects of radiation.
Kutepova has been fighting for the rights of people in the Chelyabinsk Mayak area to get needed medical treatment as well as death benefits related to the 1957 nuclear accident. Last year Kutepova’s NGO was declared a “Foreign Agent,” the Russian regime’s way of silencing voices who are critical of the Kremlin by burdening them with regulations and fines, as well as removing any non-Russian source of funding. In addition to constant interrogation and raids, the law is so vague that virtually anyone troublesome critic or undesirable can be branded a “foreign agent,” after which their activity ceases.
Since the NGO law’s enactment in 2012, 141 NGOs have been branded foreign agents, including preeminent human rights, educational and charitable organizations, such as the MacArthur Foundation, Memorial, GOLOS, Committee Against Torture, Dynasty Science Foundation, and Transparency International. Just yesterday–less than two weeks before parliamentary elections–Russia’s only independent polling organization, the Levada Center, which tracks & analyzes public opinion in Russia, was crippled with “foreign agent” designation. Not coincidentally, a few days earlier, Levada published a poll showing Putin’s party “United Russia” fell in popularity from 39% to 31%. Levada’s CEO Lev Gudkov expressed his frustration and fury when he said: a cough, a sneeze or a look the wrong way at a government official can be deemed “political” and therefore prohibited under the foreign agent law.
Both Kutepova and Chirikova know from personal experience what the repressive Putin regime has done to human rights, independent voices and those who stand up for environmental causes. They and their families have suffered harassment, intimidation, and each has had to flee their own country to avoid prosecution and likely prison if they stayed.
Environmentalists and members of the Green Party should be familiar with Russia’s abysmal record as well. As a professed environmentalist with Progressive values and even a Green Party candidate for president, Jill Stein ought to be aware of conditions in Russia, particularly if she is meeting with the head of state and recording campaign videos from Moscow.
The open letter from Russia’s environmentalists charges Stein with having forgotten the meaning of international solidarity by embracing Putin while disregarding that his criminal regime has been devastating to Russia’s struggle for human rights, democracy and environmental justice.
Here’s the full text of Evgenia Chirikova & Nadezhda Kutepova’s letter to Jill Stein:
Dear Ms. Stein:
We are writing to you in the spirit of green values and principles, which include fighting for a sustainable future, defending the environment and human rights, and engaging in international solidarity. We are also writing to you as eco-activists, women and mothers.
In November of this year, you will face an important challenge which will have an impact all over the world, even far away from US borders. As Russian eco-activists, we are following the US presidential election with curiosity and fear. Curiosity for your democratic system and fear for the impact that the result of this election could have on our lives and the lives of our children.
As environmentalists and human rights defenders, we often support Green candidates all over the world when they run for local, national or continental election. However, we are asking ourselves if we can support your candidature for the Presidency of the United States of America. We have carefully read your program and your website and we have to admit that we are deeply shocked by the position you expressed during your visit to Moscow and your meeting with Mr. Vladimir Putin.
During the last few years, Russian authorities have continued the destruction of the rich and unique Russian environment. The Kremlin is heavily contributing to global climate change and the destruction of global biodiversity by over-using Russian natural resources and promoting unsafe nuclear energy. Corruption and anti-democratic behavior of the current Russian government has also led to negative impacts on Russia’s unique forests and natural heritage. Russian eco-activists and human rights defenders are also facing an increasingly repressive system which was constructed under Putin’s regime. The list of the victims of this system is unfortunately becoming longer and longer. Russian environmentalist Yevgeniy Vitishko spent 22 months in prison for a non-violent action. Journalist Mikhail Beketov was violently attacked in 2008, suffered serious injuries, and died in 2013. Our personal cases are also symbolic: because of our activism, and in order to protect our children, we were both forced to leave Russia and to seek political asylum in the European Union.
After your visit to Moscow and your meeting with Vladimir Putin you said that “the world deserve[s] a new commitment to collaborative dialogue between our governments to avert disastrous wars for geopolitical domination, destruction of the climate, and cascading injustices that promote violence and terrorism.” We agree with you. But how can this new “collaborative dialogue” be possible when Mr. Putin has deliberately built a system based on corruption, injustice, falsification of elections, and violation of human rights and international law? How is it possible to have a discussion with Mr. Putin and not mention, not even once, the fate of Russian political prisoners, or the attacks against Russian journalists, artists, and environmentalists? Is it fair to speak with him about “geopolitics” and not mention new Russian laws against freedom of speech, restrictions on NGOs and activists, or the shameful law that forbids “homosexual propaganda”?
By silencing Putin’s crimes you are silencing our struggle. By shaking his hand and failing to criticize his regime you are becoming his accomplice. By forgetting what international solidarity means you are insulting the Russian environmental movement.