Russia’s overreaction in prosecuting Greenpeace protesters, including the two journalists, is set to unfold into an international scandal that will seriously damage country’s global reputation.
So far the situation is that 28 Greenpeace activists and two freelance photographers (one British, one Russian) will remain in custody in Murmansk for the next two months, on charges of piracy. The international reaction was muted at first. Despite worldwide public outrage, only the governments of Argentina and Ukraine voiced their protest. Finland, for example, while still opposing the charges of piracy, unofficially agrees the Finnish activist arrested (she was one of the few who actually made it onboard the platform) could serve her sentence at home.
Yet to what extent Russia is willing to yield to international pressure remains open. Domestically, public opinion is split on the matter. The state-controlled media has conducted a defensive campaign against foreign influence in Russia or any interference in the vital oil and gas sector, an industry considered sacred under the current state capitalism regime.
Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin called Sergei Medvedev, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, a moron after he suggested turning the Arctic into an international nature reserve to save it from corporate and state interests.
The scholar responded in a number of interviews, emphasising the idea that Russian national interests are much wider than those of Gazprom or any territorial ambitions. But not everyone sees it this way. A recent, state-run public opinion poll claimed around two-thirds of Russians support the state’s handling of the Greenpeace activists. Even some Russian environmental activists have criticised Greenpeace for being too “pro-Western”. They argue the organisation fails to involve Russians, leaving the country to play the role of the “aggressive” country in the Wild East.
Another poll suggested Greenpeace’s stunt attracted the attention of only 1% of respondents, with other issues seen as being of greater importance. In fact the government’s line of accusing environmentalists of violating Russia’s sovereignty while trying to impose its capital interests abroad is somewhat new in the country. A similar action in Russia by Greenpeace last year provoked almost no official reaction – all activists were set free. Even in the recent crackdown on NGOs operating in Russia it was seldom environmental groups that suffered; human rights organisations are always first under fire. The president and government speak of the importance of environmental issues, yet whenever they conflict with economic issues, the former stand little chance of prevailing.
But it was different this time. Shortly after the Arctic Sunrise was boarded, state-controlled media (mostly television) launched blunt, anti-environmentalist campaigns that accused the ecologists of piracy, violating Russia’s territorial independence, or restricting the rights of Russia to work in the Arctic. Such patriotic, often defensive, “everyone’s against Russia” opinions are not uncommon.
According to various sources, diplomats are still trying to negotiate informally with Russia on the matter, but in the second week stronger steps have been taken. The Netherlands launched legal proceedings against Russia for unlawfully detaining Arctic Sunrise, a Dutch-flagged vessel. Other international organisations have begun issuing statements in support of the Greenpeace activists, among them the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, and the European Parliament is expect to release a statement this week.
To what extent can international criticism influence domestic Russian policy? Experts claim Russian officials may well ignore international opinion and launch yet another show trial. Similar in many respects to the Pussy Riot case, it sees a minor infraction answered with the full weight of the state-controlled legal system, once its “sacred interests” are hurt. This overreaction may in turn further fracture Russia’s already very fragile reputation and relationships abroad.
On the other hand, it could prompt a more open discussion inside Russia, among experts and citizens – on the balance of environmental and economic policies, short-term vs long-term priorities, openness to criticism, the role of civil society, and the future of the Arctic and other refuges - even a more engaged dialogue within Russia on its future and what governance people want in that future.