A notable addition last week to Russia’s “foreign agent” list was the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). Oddly, this charity was funded by VTB, one of Russia’s biggest state-owned banks, for many years. And Putin has publicly lauded its work. However, in recent years the fund has faced criticism from pro-Kremlin environmentalists.
- In its announcement, the Justice Ministry accused the WWF of “trying to influence the decisions of the executive and legislative authorities of the Russian Federation, hindering the implementation of industrial and infrastructure projects”. It said the WWF disguised these efforts by claiming to be protecting the environment.
- Pro-Kremlin Russian ecologists first called for the WWF to be made a foreign agent last year. At that time, however, the government took the WWF’s side. Members of the Russian Ecological Society accused the WWF of discrediting both the Russian government and domestic conservation organizations. A month ago, Sergei Ivanov, special presidential envoy for environmental matters, also criticized the WWF.
- This is a dramatic change. In 2014, Putin publicly praised the WWF’s work. At that time, the Russian president highlighted WWF projects to restore the European bison population, protect the snow leopard from poaching, preserve the Amur tiger and return leopards to the Caucasus. Putin himself is closely involved in projects to return wild cats to Russia. In 2008, he personally attached a GPS collar to an Amur tiger and, in 2011, he observed scientists putting a similar device on a snow leopard.
- The WWF also worked closely with major state companies. The fund worked with oil giant Rosneft on biodiversity preservation programs and led a project with VTB to protect Russia’s wild cats. The bank donated several million dollars to the WWF.
Why the world should care
Nobody in Russia is safe from appearing on the “foreign agents” list. Even organizations whose work has been praised by Putin himself can fall out of favor. Today, it’s sufficient just to be an international NGO and associated with Western countries.