Maria S. Tysiachniouk, Svetlana A. Tulaeva, Juha Kotilainen & Laura A. Henry
Liberal spaces in an illiberal regime: environmental NGOs, state sovereignty and the struggle for nature
Abstract: In the post-Soviet period, Russian environmental activists, supported by transnational networks, have contested the Russian government’s environmental policies. Invoking international norms and rules and advocating for the public’s, Russian environmentalists in effect have struggled with the state over sovereignty. Transnational discourses, resources and collaborations have promoted a liberal model of environmental governance. However, the Russian political context has grown increasingly illiberal and exclusionary. Based on qualitative fieldwork and analysis of state documents and data, we examine this struggle in periods of constructing and transforming networks that span the global–local interplay where struggles over the non-human world take place.

Keywords: Russian Federation; environment; sovereignty; networks; transnational; illiberalism
Since the early 1990s, Russian environmental activists, embedded in and supported by transnational networks, have advocated for environmental protection in Russia and challenged state actors over how policy is made, the role of international norms and rules, and the implementation of environmental laws (Henry, 2010; Yanitsky, 1999). In effect, Russian environmentalists have struggled with state officials over aspects of sovereignty – who has rule-making authority over the environment on the territory of the Russian Federation and what role citizens can play in environmental protection. Transnational flows of discourse, resources and collaboration directed at Russian environmentalists have promoted a liberal model of environmental policy-making, emphasizing the legitimacy of civil society, NGOs, and average citizens as political actors. However, over time the Russian political context has grown increasingly illiberal and exclusionary as the state reasserts its vision of sovereignty.

We examine this struggle in two time periods of constructing and transforming transnational environmental networks. In the first period from the 1990s to the early 2000s, the perestroika and glasnost reforms of the late Soviet era prompted an increase in environmental activism and transnational connections in Russia; environmental NGOs cooperated with foreign donors who funded a variety of civic initiatives that helped create new networks. During this period of transnationalization, both NGOs and the new regime appeared aligned in a project of liberalizing governance in Russia. In a liberal system, citizens are able to articulate and debate ideas for environmental protection, to autonomously organize, and to participate in governance processes. The second period, starting in the 2000s, and intensifying in 2012 with the Law on Foreign Agents, was characterized by the regime’s effort to reassert its own definition of state sovereignty and increasingly illiberal political conditions, leading to clashes between NGOs and the regime (Daucé, 2014; Martus, 2021). More repressive measures were introduced with the Law on Undesirable Organizations in 2015 which disrupted NGOs and donor networks. As repressive measures have continued to proliferate, transnational networks continue to transform as Russian environmentalists and their transnational supporters adapt to more illiberal conditions.

This paper seeks to answer two research questions. What is the role of transnational networks in creating liberal spaces and how do they adapt to an increasingly authoritarian regime? How have these networks across multiple scales challenged the state’s exclusive sovereignty by promoting international rules and norms and public engagement, and how does the state reassert itself? In answering these questions, we examine the struggle over natural resource management on a state’s territory (Davis, 2017, 2020). Such forms of hybrid sovereignty produce fragmented sovereignty or ‘sovereignties in contention’ (Sieder, 2011, p. 1). We make a scholarly contribution to the study of illiberalism, sovereignty, and environmental governance more broadly. We join other scholars who investigate contested or hybrid sovereignties (Comaroff & Comaroff, 2008), as well as scholars who look at illiberalism and the environment (Sonnenfeld & Taylor, 2018; Wilson, 2019). As Sonnenfeld and Taylor (2018, p. 516) argue, ‘Illiberalism, in a wide variety of forms, has important implications for the implicit or explicit social contract, accountability and legitimacy, and public participation in environmental and natural resources management’. We demonstrate how hybrid sovereignty and forms of liberal and illiberal governance coexist and conflict over the environment as an essential non-human materiality. By hybrid sovereignty, we refer to situations in which non-state actors supported by organizations from outside a specific regime challenge the ability of the state to monopolize ecosystem governance) in spaces where different rules apply – those deriving from domestic law and other rules drawn from international agreements, certification schemes, collaborative NGO-led projects, or corporate policies.

Our research both engages and challenges the understanding of hybrid sovereignty in several ways, allowing us to make several scholarly contributions. First, we examine a case in which the state itself is increasingly illiberal, while non-state actors with transnational connections attempt to carve out and maintain spaces of liberalism which are under threat in a struggle over rule-making and governance. Second, we analyse how transnational flows used to challenge illiberalism also become a lightning rod for sovereignty struggles. Third, we consider a case in which the state is willing to use various forms of coercive power to reclaim its sovereignty, and to change its own laws to reduce the role of citizens in governance. Fourth, we use the lens of governance generating networks to track the transformation of Russia’s environmental movement over time, showing how rapid shifts in legal context and resource availability shape activism. While we concentrate on the environmental organizations in Russia, we anticipate that our findings may speak to other cases of illiberal environmental governance in the post-Soviet region: Asia, the Middle East, and beyond, particularly where transnational environmental networks are active and NGOs rely on donor funding.

In the sections below, we examine how governance generating networks (GGNs) emerge from growing connections between Russian NGOs and transnational supporters of environmental activism in Russia (Henry, 2010; Tysiachniouk, 2012) to operate across multiple scales to promote a liberal approach to rule-making. Russia’s biologically rich ecosystems and valuable natural resources create the fundamental non-human materialities that serve as the basis for the struggle over sovereignty in which the state asserts its authority to extract natural resources, governing the environment for economic growth, while environmental advocates promote international norms and laws centred on preservation and sustainability. We examine network formation, demonstrating how Russian environmentalists’ efforts to construct liberal environmental politics was shaped by several factors, including the partial liberalization of Russia’s political regime in the 1990s and the influx of transnational actors who promoted a vision of advocacy rooted in free speech and assembly, and public input in policy-making familiar in the West. Next, we consider network disruption as Russia’s political regime grew more illiberal over time (Gelman, 2010; Smyth, 2020) and donors were pushed out of the country, calling into question the survival of this form of environmentalism in an increasingly hostile political context. Environmentalists have responded with new strategies to adapt to these conditions. Finally, we suggest that these considerations may provide insights on other cases of globally embedded environmental NGOs that embrace a vision of hybrid sovereignty despite illiberal governance.
The struggle over who governs a particular space and how rules and laws are developed and enforced is in effect a struggle for sovereignty. This struggle encompasses questions such as: who is a legitimate actor in the public sphere, who may legitimately use violence against whom, and what is valued about a given territory? In the case of Russian environmentalism, the struggle takes a very concrete form in the contestation over material processes such as the extraction of natural resources, the survival of old growth forests, and the protection of diverse species. As a consequence of transnationally networked environmental NGOs’ efforts to engage with global agendas to preserve nature and the environment, the states’ centralized coercive power may be contested and reconfigured (Sieder, 2011), allowing fragmented sovereignty to emerge on particular territories (Davis, 2014, 2017, 2020). Demands by international donors and NGOs that citizens participate as stakeholders in the governance of natural resources presents a challenge to a particular vision of sovereignty that centres the state. The process produces dynamic, unstable, disputed and overlapping forms of contested, fragmented or hybrid sovereignties (Comaroff & Comaroff, 2008; Stepputat, 2015) that challenge traditional understandings of state-centred governance.

In Russia, this struggle over sovereignty in the realm of the environment and natural resource use has been especially fraught. Since the early 2000s, the Putin regime has been promoting its own interpretation of sovereignty that focuses on the centralization of authority in the hands of the state apparatus domestically (Squier, 2002) and Russia’s identity as an autonomous great power internationally (Ziegler, 2012). The Russian government has charged that in the postCold war period Western nations (such as the United States and the governments of the member states of the European Union) have dominated the formulation of international treaties and laws to the detriment of states like Russia that hold different, often more authoritarian notions of governance. Against this background, the achievement and maintenance of state sovereignty has been a goal of the Putin presidency since the early 2000s and this desire became stronger after ‘colour revolutions,’ in post-Soviet countries that, in the view of Russian politicians, were funded by the West. For a period of time, government officials even adopted the term ‘sovereign democracy’ to describe the Russian regime, meaning that elected officials develop national policies independently from western influence and in light of Russia’s unique destiny (Kortukov, 2020; Surkov, 2008). While use of this concept faded over time, upon his return to the presidency in 2012 Vladimir Putin continued to argue that Russia’s sovereignty was under threat from a variety of factors – economic globalization, NATO expansion, flows of information in the digital sphere, and efforts by western governments to promote democracy in the post-Soviet space. For example, in 2017 Putin argued that, given US interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, ‘worldwide there are not so many countries that have the privilege of sovereignty,’ yet in his view Russia was one of the few countries that has held on to its sovereignty in practice (Meredith, 2017). This sovereignty project is one element of the Russian regime’s swerve toward illiberalism, most notably since 2012 when the state began keeping a registry of ‘foreign agents.’ Against this background, NGOs were seen as a threat to sovereignty given that they challenged the state as the only decision-making body in governance.

In order to examine how transnational NGO networks interact with Russian state actors and how over time these NGO-based networks became seen as a threat to sovereignty (that is, of the regime-in-power), we use the concept of governance generating networks (GGN) (Tysiachniouk, 2012; Tysiachniouk & McDermott, 2016; Tysiachniouk, Henry et al., 2018). A GGN represents the complex ties that link transnational and local actors in a dynamic interaction in which they co-construct liberal decision-making processes within territories ruled by an illiberal governmental regime. A GGN consists of three major structural elements: transnational nodes of design where global rules and programmes are established; sites of implementation where global policies are grounded and enacted; and forums of negotiation where actors negotiate the rules that translate global norms into local policies.

A GGN encompasses flows of ideas, information, and resources among actors in the field of environmental politics. Within a GGN, a key international actor with resources – a private foundation, foreign government donor agency, or an international NGO – occupies a central space in a transnational node of governance design, offering resources to domestically rooted environmental organizations in recipient countries. Often transnational donors strategically develop policies to foster democratic, liberal decision-making processes and practices associated with a particular set of norms ranging from gender equality to Indigenous rights or environmental sustainability. Within a GGN the interests of donors and NGOs generally align as the donor seeks to empower marginalized groups within a domestic political context and promote the rights to speech and assembly, thereby contributing to the creation of liberal spaces within the illiberal state regime, and the recipient seeks to implement certain projects and programmes (Tysiachniouk, 2012; Tysiachniouk, Henry et al., 2018). As the GGN’s nodes of design become linked with sites of implementation, flows of information and material assistance from donors to beneficiaries produce ‘islands’ of liberal spaces through NGO projects that link these spatially distant actors. In this way, the GGN’s intervention in domestic politics may lead the state to perceive an emergent threat to state sovereignty.

More specifically, donor–recipient GGNs focused on the environment operate as follows. International environmental conventions serve as forums of negotiation where agendas for environmental protection are decided (Vadrot et al., 2021). International conventions prompt foreign donors to support environmental projects through competitive grant programmes. Grant applicants develop projects to be carried out at the sites of implementation. These projects often include proposed environmental policies as well as target groups such as local governments, economic actors, and citizens in response to donor requirements that projects encompass community engagement, stakeholder consultation, multi-sector partnerships, adherence to the global environmental standards, and promotion of environmental norms to state officials and the public. A donor–grantee relationship creates a new connection within a GGN, a new forum of negotiation, and contributes to new facets of hybrid environmental governance in which multiple stakeholders have roles to play in planning action on the environment (Tysiachniouk, 2012; Tysiachniouk & McDermott, 2016). Donors and grant recipients’ iterative interaction in forums of negotiations co-construct models of governance, as grant recipients provide progress reports and feedback to donors through multiple channels of communication (conferences, trainings, presentations of results) in a complex global/local interplay (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Funder–recipient governance generating network.
In this way, a donor-driven GGN assists in carving out liberal spaces in specific territories where local actors promote democratic decision-making and citizen engagement. For example, in private governance initiatives such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), non-state actors work with companies and affected stakeholders to create governance arrangements that go beyond the rules of the state. FSC and MSC requirements for citizen participation bypass or supplement state authority in natural resource management, and their rules for sustainable forestry and fishing are often stricter than domestic laws. As a result, they challenge the sovereignty of the state to design rules guiding the use of the physical environment by promoting a form of hybrid environmental governance (Tysiachniouk, 2012).

The GGN concept captures the global–local interplay of actors in a network as they enact complex forms of agency and power across a hierarchy of scales (Baldassarri & Diani, 2007). In adapting to an increasingly illiberal context, environmental NGOs have attempted to maintain existing – and even create new – liberal spaces as they struggle to protect the environment. The GGNs have agency in how they shape the creation of liberal ‘islands’ to resist the regime’s illiberal project, but the state regime also has agency in continuing to assert its authority to govern its sovereign territory. Both GGN actors and the state attempt to exercise influence over each other and the natural world.

In what follows, we explore the diverse ways in which Russian environmental NGOs have responded to a changing legal-institutional environment and altered flows of resources in order to continue their environmental advocacy. We argue that the creation of liberal spaces through the GGN is at the heart of the conflict between the NGOs and the state authorities. The latter see the activities by the GGNs as a threat to their vision of state sovereignty – as a coercive policy towards the choices and actions of its citizens. We investigate empirically the agency of the state as it tries to limit the activities of environmental NGOs by directing its coercive power to the nodes of design and the sites of implementation. We also explore the agency of the NGOs and their GGNs as they seek to adapt to the state measures and thereby to maintain and expand the liberal spaces. Thus, we provide a longitudinal analysis of the evolution, disruption and adaptation of GGNs. Our research sheds light on what happens in cases where the state makes a significant effort to disrupt elements of GGNs, disempowering nodes, forums and sites of implementation. The experience of GGNs ‘under attack’ has not been studied to this point. We find that GGNs may erode, restructure, or adapt and continue to function – insights that may apply beyond the Russian case.
We investigate how Russia’s increasingly illiberal governance has affected the ability of NGOs to create liberal spaces in environmental management, and how NGO strategies have changed over time. This study uses qualitative methods to gather data to address the research questions outlined above, including interviews and document analysis. Semi-structured and open-ended interviews were undertaken with representatives of Russian environmental NGOs and informal conversations were held with international donor organizations from 2015 to 2021. The total number of interviews was 51, of which 19 interviews in 2016 were by Skype across Russia with NGOs included in the register of foreign agents. In-person interviews included seven in Murmansk in 2021; eight in Arkhangelsk in 2021; and 17 in Moscow in 2021. Follow-up interviews were done online. Materials from NGO websites also were analysed to identify the NGOs’ main areas of activity. In addition, we used data from the Register of Foreign Agents of the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation (Register of Foreign Agents, 2022), as well as data collected by OVD info (2022), which is an independent online initiative to provide legal help to those who are repressed by the Russian regime. Finally, we also utilized information from participant observation and personal communications with NGOs and donors during 1991–2021.

Our focus is on those NGOs that have had essential linkages with international funders. For our interviews, we used criteria-based sampling, which involves the selection of informants based on certain criteria related to the research problem (Robinson, 2014). In this study, such criteria were: experience of interaction with international NGOs and donors; a long period of NGO work, including the period from 2000 to 2021; and the importance (according to the expert informants) of the NGOs at the regional and national level. We limited our research to exploring those NGOs that have been included in the global–local networks of actors, as we wished to understand the changes in these networks in the past three decades.

In semi-structured interviews, we asked questions related to NGOs’ dynamic interactions with international donors and state authorities to identify their adaptation strategies over time. All interviews were transcribed and analysed by thematic and axial coding (Brinkmann & Kvale, 2018) to highlight the main themes and key categories for analysis, as well as their subsequent description and problematization. The following key categories were identified: strategies of interaction with the state; collaboration with companies or for-profit activities; the consequences of new legal restrictions; changing NGO structures and strategies; and future prospects for the survival of the organization

The environmental movement developed in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s. Nature Protection Corps (Druzhiny) were created under the Young Communists organizations within Biology and Geography departments at universities in different Russian regions. The corps were engaged in protecting natural areas, combating poaching, and environmental education (Yanitsky, 1999). In this period, the Soviet regime attempted to shift public attention from acute economic and political problems to what it perceived as more neutral concern about the environment. Some of the first Russian environmental organizations (Dront, Bureau of Environmental Research) were created in partnership with the Komsomol (youth communist) organization and initially operated under the supervision of the All-Russian Society for Nature Conservation, ensuring their legitimacy and state support. However, at the end of the 1980s, the Green Corps gained more independence These organizations, along with the Soviet nature preserves, created an ‘archipelago of freedom’ for ecological thought and action (Weiner, 1999, p. 36). Later, the leaders of several youth corps created the Social-Ecological Union to unite Russian environmentalists in a broader movement (Yanitsky, 1999; Weiner, 1999, Henry, 2010).
4.1. Constructing networks: the emergence of the Russian environmental movement and creation of GGNs (1990s–early 2000s)
In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the environmental movement gained considerable scope. This growth, often supported by international financing, contributed to the development of liberal spaces for environmental action. In these post-perestroika years, the Russian state and environmental NGOs worked together to liberalize environmental decision making and expand citizen engagement across Russia, and a raft of environmental legislation was introduced. This early civic activity emerged ‘from below’, as leaders from the Green Corps joined ordinary citizens in environmental activism. The liberalization of the political sphere facilitated environmental activists’ participation in elections. In the first democratic elections in the Soviet Union in 1989, a large number of candidates emphasized environmental issues as well. According to Yanitskiy, 12% of all deputies, and 30% of the programmes of the elected deputies contained environmental commitments (Yanitsky, 1999). However, the government’s attempts to enforce environmental laws were limited by the country’s severe economic recession and the challenges associated with both state weakness in the 1990s – related to low state capacity, regional autonomy in the federal system, and the rise of the oligarchs – and reactive political centralization efforts in the 2000s. Gradually, the broadly liberal space for environmentalism in Russia in the 1990s was replaced by smaller ‘islands’ of liberalism, as the regime pushed an illiberal agenda starting in the 2000s (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Governance generating networks in 1990–early 2000 in Russia.
Throughout the 1990s, the Russian environmental movement had become increasingly transnational due to the presence of international donors and the formation of trans-border networks. Among the largest foundations to sponsor Russian environmental NGOs in the 1990s and early 2000s were the MacArthur Foundation, USAID, Eurasia Foundation, the Open Society Foundation (one of the Soros foundations), Pacific Environment, ISAR, European Union TACIS Programme, and SIDA. Western governments were interested in promoting a transition to democracy and a market economy in Russia, and they allocated significant funds to support liberal politics through training workshops on NGO management, fostering transborder networks, environmental education, supporting local civic initiatives, and disseminating best practices in nature conservation – all activities co-created by actors within the GGNs. For example, the EU TACIS programme sponsored a stakeholder engagement process around the creation of Kalevala National Park in Karelia (Tysiachniouk, 2009). Local democratic decision making was a core requirement of many grants. The Eurasia Foundation, for example, allocated 40% from each project for grantees’ efforts to build local democracy along with environmental protection. During this period, donors also required NGOs to demonstrate their efforts to influence environmental policy in Russia by engaging public authorities in a manner familiar to a liberal model. As a result, even NGOs with little previous experience learned to engage in community development, stakeholder engagement and lobbying.

Within the GGN, relationships were established between donors and environmental NGOs which allowed the latter to maintain regular contact with international actors and with other grant recipients. Donors served as nodes of governance design within the GGNs and, as such, played an important role in liberalizing local institutional and organizational environments. They facilitated the inclusion of environmental NGOs in international networks, linking transnational and local spaces in Russia. They fostered the professionalization of environmental NGOs through competitive grants and training on how to organize environmental campaigns, environmental management, community organizing, as well as research related to environmental issues. Most significantly, collaboration between NGOs and donors led to environmental experts’ greater independence from the state authorities. An environmental NGO leader, who received foreign grants recalls: ‘We wanted to create an expert organization … [It was] not just a desire to preserve a local forest. We were trying to gain independence from state scientific institutions and became an expert organization in the field of biodiversity conservation’ (interview with the representative of Kola biodiversity conservation centre, Murmansk, 6 April 2021). During this period, GGNs were dynamic, as they adapted to donors’ changing priorities and NGOs’ proposed projects. For example, from the mid-1990s to early 2000s, issues of biodiversity conservation and preservation of old-growth forests were priorities for the Russian environmental NGOs as well as the donors within GGNs, while other issues, such as industrial pollution, received less interest from donors (Henry, 2010).

In the early 2000s, GGNs continued to evolve, with some donors leaving Russia due in part to the country’s economic growth and greater political stability, and due to donors’ changing global priorities in the developing world and ‘new’ issues such as climate change. ‘Foundations began to lose interest long before the law on foreign agents. When the standard of living rose, they [the donors] decided that there is no reason “to feed” Russia’ (interview with an activist in multiple environmental NGOs including Center for Wildlife Conservation, Transparent World, FSC, Moscow, 4 June 2021). For example, SIDA, a donor focused on reducing poverty in forest communities, left Russia in the 2000s (Tysiachniouk, 2010). At the same time, some large professionalized NGOs (such as Greenpeace and WWF) were able to maintain foreign funding and continue operating as before. Other actors in the environmental movement, such as local environmental initiatives and green GONGOs, persisted as they were less vulnerable to the rise and fall of donor interest (Henry, 2010).

The departure of a significant number of donors forced many environmental NGOs to seek new resources. In some cases, expert ecologists based in NGOs were able to find work under the auspices of government projects for nature protection. Some ecologists were even employed part-time by the state environmental institutions, while maintaining ties with the NGOs. A more common trajectory described by our interviewees was the commercialization of environmental expertise in the private sector. Environmental advocates began to work with companies which were establishing new environmental management departments. ‘Many [of the environmental activists] started doing business … I also couldn’t find myself part of the environmental movement [as an activist] … in fact since 2000 we have had a lot of [paid, not grant based] work’ (interview with the representative of NGO Transparent World, Moscow, 2 June 2021). Thus, while in the 1990s environmental activists adopted a critical stance toward the private sector, in the mid-2000s they more often relied on consensus building practices, such as encouraging companies’ participation in environmental ratings and certification systems (Shvarts et al., 2016). In this way, some liberal spaces shifted from grant-based activities to market-based spheres, especially in international product certification initiatives like the Forest and Marine Stewardship Councils. At the same time, the shift from NGO-based environmentalism in the political sphere to the marketing of environmental expertise in the economic sphere presents the risk that neoliberalism might overwhelm and subsume grassroots efforts into corporate structures. However, it also represented environmentalists’ acceptance of what is possible in Russia where economic growth and extraction have been prioritized over environmental protection. Thus, the shift to the market also represents a mixed picture in the fight for liberalism, given some NGOs’ acceptance that economic actors seemingly were more willing partners on environmental issues than political actors.

Politically, the 1990s and early 2000s were a period of time in which the notion of sovereignty in Russia – which had always been centrally focused on the state as the key actor exercising sovereignty (Squier, 2002) – became unsettled. New models of rule-making based on interventions by international environmental rules and programmes as well as significant input from citizens, interest groups, and parties were experimented with and then later slowly abandoned in favour of a return to a centralized state. Yet during this period NGOs and the state did not appear to struggle directly over sovereignty, although the state’s role in managing natural resources was weakened by multiple actors involved in environmental decision-making. The state lost power to regional elites, commercial interests, corruption as well as NGOs. Due to the state’s withdrawal or absence in many spaces, both pro-environmental actions (freedom for NGOs to criticize the government and undertake projects) and risks (lack of enforcement of existing environmental laws) coexisted. This transition to fragmented sovereignty within the environmental management regime took place without significant contention – a sort of liberalism by default – yet it created prerequisites for struggles to come. The state’s reassertion of the ‘power vertical’ in the early 2000s was in part an effort to regain state capacity, and not inherently illiberal at the start, although it grew more illiberal over time – including, after 2004, the declining power of regions, the failure of laws on local self-governance, the taming of opposition parties, and the reassertion of state-dominated media (Gel’man, 2015; Fish, 2005). At this point, the state’s project to centralize its power began to be seen as a broader fight for sovereignty that necessitated eliminating foreign influences of all sorts, including in environmental rotection. Indeed, environmental NGOs’ demands for public participation and donor-supported projects were reframed by state actors as Western intervention into Russia’s domestic affairs, although it is unclear whether state actors deployed this sovereignty rhetoric authentically or strategically.

4.2. Transforming networks: NGOs and GGNs under state repression
During the 2010s, Russian NGOs embedded in transnational networks came to be seen by the state as challenging Russian sovereignty and representing Western interests. Since 2012, transnational networks and environmental NGOs have been the targets of changing state legislation, leading to the decisive contraction of remaining liberal spaces that imagined alternative forms of governance. The Russian government’s pressure on liberal environmentalists, who are perceived as critics of the current regime’s strategies and priorities, has challenged and weakened environmental NGOs in Russia and disrupted the remaining GGN networks. Scholars have explored the transformation of Russian civil society under the law of foreign agents and the legitimacy of the foreign agent law (Daucé, 2014; Henry & Plantan, 2022; Malkova, 2020; Romanov & Iarskaia-Smirnova, 2015). However, fewer studies have explored how GGN networks have been transformed by both the law on foreign agents and the law on undesirable organizations and how network adaptation has changed the ability of NGOs to foster liberal spaces for environmental decisions (Tysiachniouk, Tulaeva et al., 2018).

State repression of the Russian NGOs sharpened in 2012 with the passage of the Law on Foreign Agents, under which organizations receiving foreign funding and engaging in ‘political activities’ were threatened with inclusion on a registry of foreign agents (Federal Law No. 121- FZ, 2012). The situation was made more difficult for NGOs because the concept of ‘political activity’ has no clear definition in the legislation. The law states that a non-profit organization is engaged in political activities if it seeks to influence state policy or impact on public opinion. At the same time, the law emphasizes that political activities do not include the fields of science, nature protection and charitable activities, among others. In practice, any activity in a public space could be labelled as political. Therefore, the key criterion by which the organization would be classified as a foreign agent was its receipt of foreign funding. Organizations identified as foreign agents are placed on a Ministry of Justice registry and subjected to additional audits. Organizations that do not voluntarily declare themselves to be foreign agents, but are singled out as such by the Ministry of Justice, are subject to fines. Foreign agent status leads to financial and reputational costs for an NGO; the semantic connotations of the term ‘foreign agent’ imply a betrayal of the country’s interests and are designed to cultivate negative attitudes towards NGOs on the registry.

A number of environmental NGOs (and many other types of NGOs) were listed on the foreign agent registry (see Figure 3). ‘Some completely innocent organizations were hit. Help for the disabled, for example. Everyone fell under this law’ (interview with a representative of NGO-4, Moscow, 2 May 2021). In total, 260 NGOs were included in the register of foreign agents from 2012 to 2021, of which 30 were environmental organizations, so the share of environmental NGOs was 11.5% (OVD info, 2022). In the end, 22 environmental NGOs (73.3% of all environmental NGOs included in the registry) were officially closed (see Figure 4). Five environmental NGOs (16.7% of environmental NGOs in the registry) were able to move off the registry after disavowing foreign funding. Only three organizations (10%) remained in the registry in 2021 (OVD info, 2022). Although the most frequent trajectory for ‘foreign agent’ environmental NGOs was closure, this does not mean that the organizations’ activities ended as they often continued as a part of the GGN informally (Tysiachniouk, Henry et al., 2018).

The primary reason that NGOs were placed in the registry was because they were receiving foreign funding. Given the vague definition of ‘political activity’, the Ministry of Justice was able to justify the foreign agent status by citing any interaction of an NGO with state officials, a clear blow to the model of a liberal polity.
Figure 3. Total number of NGOs and environmental NGOs on the registry of foreign agents, 2013– 2021
For example, the NGO Educational Centre for Ecology and Safety was designated a foreign agent because it presented its research on sustainable environmental management at a conference organized by the Samara mayor’s office. ISAR-Siberia held a competition for environmental projects in cooperation with the regional department of natural resources. The Silver Taiga Foundation was identified as a foreign agent when one of its experts served as a member of a public council organized by the government of the Komi Republic. Many NGO experts noted the unpredictability of the foreign agent status: ‘This system works like a bad computer’ and ‘You don’t know where you will slip’ (interview with a representative of NGO Silver Taiga, Moscow, 4 June 2021). NGOs that do not receive foreign money for one year can be removed from the registry, but during that time they also lose their connections to foreign foundations and may be excluded from the international networks. Some NGOs labelled foreign agents tried to challenge the Ministry of Justice in courts, but none were successful. Other NGOs sought redress in the European Court of Human Rights, a venue where many Russian activists attempted to defend liberal norms, but as of the end of 2021 there had been no successful cases and in 2022 Russia withdrew from the ECHR.
Figure 4. Environmental NGOs on the Russian Foreign Agent Registry.
The foreign agent law’s effect goes beyond NGOs on the registry as this form of selective repression has a dampening effect on the movement as a whole. The threat of being placed on the registry has changed NGO practices and their public engagement: ‘We became more careful. We try to avoid using any words that can be interpreted as political activity’ (interview with a representative of Barents Center, 7 April 2021). Or: ‘There are very few of us. We’re not very lively and minimize our activity’ (interview with a representative of Kola Biodiversity Conservation Center, Murmansk, 6 April 2021). Regional NGOs found themselves in a more vulnerable position than NGOs working in Moscow and St. Petersburg as they are more visible due to the lower number of regional NGOs and more likely to come to the attention of regional authorities: ‘It’s a little simpler in Moscow with lots of NGOs around. If there is only one organization in the region – it will more easily be labeled as a foreign agent’ (interview with a representative of NGO Transparent World, Moscow, 2 June 2021).

Environmental NGOs’ strategy in the 1990s for increasing influence over rule-making, which included participating in GGNs and using foreign funding, had some unintended consequences. First, in some cases, NGOs focused intensively on transnational ties, but their roots in Russian society were weak. As a result, when the state labelled NGOs as foreign agents, citizens did not defend them and many quickly broke their ties to them: ‘We had a partnership with one children’s center. But it stopped completely. Literally a week after we were recognized as agents, they called and said that, unfortunately, we cannot continue to cooperate with you, we have children, and there is a pernicious influence of the West and all that’ (interview with a representative of NGO Belona, Murmansk, 8 April 2021). The law on foreign agents eroded the reputation of NGOs in wider society. Moreover, the state and private actors often refuse to cooperate with foreign agents. In some cases, economic actors started using the law on foreign agents to avoid pressure from environmental NGOs. They reported environmental NGOs that criticized their activities to the Ministry of Justice, which prompted unplanned inspections: ‘This is […] some kind of roulette’ (Representative of the NGO Center for Wildlife Conservation, Moscow, 1 June 2021).

State pressure on environmental NGOs affected not only sites of implementation, but also nodes of design. In addition to targeting NGOs with foreign support, the Russian government also began to pressure the granting agencies through the Law on Undesirable Organizations in 2015, later tightened by 2021 amendments (Federal Law No. 129-FZ, 2015). According to the law, an undesirable organization is a foreign or international non-governmental organization that may pose a threat to national interests and national security. Undesirable organizations are prohibited from acting in Russia and the employees of undesirable organizations that continue their operations may be prosecuted. Russian actors cooperating with these organizations at home or abroad are subject to first administrative and then criminal liability (Figure 5).
Figure 5. Governance generating networks under Russian state repressions.
A total of 55 organizations received the status of undesirable organizations by May 2022 (OVD info, 2022). In 2018, Pacific Environment, a US-based NGO that was active in financing a significant number of environmental projects in the Russian Far East, was the first environmental NGO to be listed as an undesirable organization. Other undesirable organizations sponsoring environmental NGOs include the Open Society Foundation and the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation. Interviewees also report that when the NGO German–Russian Exchange, which funded collaborations on climate education, was listed as an undesirable organization, the EU closed down the joint projects.

Further legal developments have constrained environmental NGOs. In 2020, the law on foreign agents was expanded to include private individuals who receive financial support from any foreign source. These may include unregistered organizations as well as individuals. The criteria for obtaining this status remain the same: engaging in political activity and foreign funding (Federal Law No. 481-FZ of December 30, 2020; On amendments to FZ-121, 2020). Finally, in March 2021, amendments were made to the law on education so that any activity aimed at education, including organizing conferences and workshops, must be permitted by the authorities (Federal Law No. 85-FZ, 2021). By the end of 2021, 61 people, most of them journalists and one environmental activist, received the status of individual foreign agents. Together these laws have resulted in a sharp contraction in space for liberal forms of environmental activism. The introduction of legal restrictions has led to a significant disruption to and reconfiguration of existing partnerships, both within Russia itself and within GGNs, a theme we address in the next section.

This period since 2012 has witnessed the creation of new national legislation targeting actors at all levels of the GGN. The law on foreign agents aimed at reducing transnational linkages within the GGNs that had connected foreign donor foundations with the sites of implementation in Russia, principally targeting Western influence. In the guise of reasserting state sovereignty, these legal measures disrupted the GGN and disempowered NGOs, hindering their ability to advance the goals of nature protection. As a result, citizen participation in environmental decision making waned, criticism of the state is less and less tolerated, and liberal spaces are increasingly constrained.
Our research suggests that NGOs have devised three main strategies to adapt to growing state illiberalism: first, the search for new partnerships with economic actors; second, applications for public funding; and third, efforts to find ways to maintain international partnerships within the GGN despite restrictive laws. We detail each of these strategies below.

The first two strategies are characterized by Russian environmental NGOs leaving existing international networks, limiting foreign funding, and looking for new domestic funding sources, mostly from Russian subsidiaries of multinational corporations. The first strategy is an extension of earlier efforts to commercialize environmental expertise. Some professional ecologists have changed their affiliations from NGOs to private or state-owned companies or state agencies. According to an interviewee: ‘Environmental expertise has flowed into the state structures, commercial structures. Many experts work on contracts from the state or business … However, they continue to work for environmental protection’ (interview with an activist in multiple environmental NGOs, including the Center for Wildlife Conservation, Transparent World, FSC, Moscow, 4 June 2021). However, this shift from civic activism has transformed NGO networks, which are now more focused on interaction with companies rather than with foreign donors. Some NGOs working on biodiversity conservation became FSC consultants for forestry companies, helping them to designate high conservation value forests. For example, experts from the forest conservation NGO SPOK divided into two separate organizations, one of which is engaged in advising timber companies on sustainable forestry: ‘Everything has turned into politics. I have never been involved in politics. I left for an industry where my actions will be useful’ (interview with a former activist of NGO SPOK, currently representative of the company Forest Territory, Moscow, 3 June 2021). By engaging in commercial work, the organization avoids falling under the law on foreign agents. The original NGO SPOK continues to operate on a voluntary basis. The two organizations share goals and remain in close contact with one another.

The second NGO adaptation strategy is related to gaining public funding through state grant programmes or contracts. Access to state agencies’ programmes and projects has become an important resource for environmental NGOs. This strategy is especially relevant for regional NGOs that have a good reputation and have cooperated with regional authorities in the past. Regional governments rely on NGO expertise for the development and implementation of government programmes. ‘There, organizations like ours become an important actor and partner for regional authorities. The regions are interested. NGOs take on those cases for which the regional authorities do not have the strength and skills. These NGOs become expert support for the state’ (interview with a representative of the NGO Center for Protection of Wild Nature, Moscow, 1 June 2021). Some NGOs even have collaborated with state authorities without being paid for their services. The NGO BROK (Far East) and Sakhalin Environmental Watch (Sakhalin Region) both help fight corruption in the forest and fisheries sectors. ‘We have an established exchange of information with authorities, mutually beneficial, mutually interesting’ (interview with BROK founder, 5 June, 2021). The Friends of the Konozerie National Park (Arkhangelsk Region) work to support the national park. An affiliation with the state reduces the risks of being identified as a foreign agent and may be the price for continuing environmental advocacy. ‘To avoid a listing as foreign agents, some NGOs joined the People’s Front [a government-sponsored political movement designed to connect NGOs and the dominant United Russia party]’ (interview with a representative of NGO Transparent World, Moscow, 2 June 2021).

In certain cases, the Russian state’s desire to maintain its international reputation and influence on environmental issues has created a small space for a few NGOs not listed as foreign agents to continue to engage the authorities on policy (Martus, 2021). In rare cases, foreign agent status does not prevent an NGO from cooperation with the state. For example, the state-owned corporation Rosatom continued its regular cooperation with the Russian branch of the NGO Bellona even after it was designated a foreign agent. ‘Rosatom has chosen Bellona as a PR vehicle for interaction in the international arena’ (interview with a representative of NGO Bellona, Murmansk, 8 April 2021). Later Bellona was divided into two branches – one commercial and one non-profit – in order to continue receiving foreign funding. A few regional NGOs were able to continue operating with the status of a foreign agent and receive foreign funding. For example, Silver Taiga was receiving support from Mondi Business Company, a forestry firm in Austria and conducting training workshops although the amendments to the law do not allow foreign agent NGOs to be involved in education (Federal Law No. 85-FZ, 2021; On amendments to FZ-121, 2020).

In the third adaptation strategy, NGOs attempt to identify new ways to maintain their transnational connections. International foundations have been willing to experiment with new forms of cooperation that are still possible under Russian legislation. There are several methods that allow continued foreign funding, such as creating a commercial organization to receive international funds or channelling funds to an NGO leader. Furthermore, many NGOs that were liquidated as legal entities still exist as social movements without formal legal registration. ‘We have created a [name of organization] movement without a legal entity’ (interview with a representative of an environmental NGO, 7 April 2021). In this case, funding for the initiative may be provided directly in cash from an international donor. A small number of NGOs have been able to continue working without significantly changing their operations. For example, WWF and Greenpeace, the most influential international environmental NGOs in Russia, continue to operate with foreign funding. Greenpeace is registered abroad and thus far it has not been listed as an undesirable organization despite its frequent opposition to state policies. According to an informant, retaining a small number of high profile environmental NGOs that rely on foreign funding allows the state to demonstrate its dedication to addressing environmental issues, including at the international level, despite repressive measures. ‘They demonstrate to the whole world that Russia is loyal to environmental organizations. State officials and WWF have meetings at the high political level’ (interview with an activist in multiple environmental NGOs including WWF and FSC, Moscow, 4 June 2021). Government officials often turn to WWF experts to help them to write the reports that Russia is required to submit for international conventions. Regular cooperation with the state has allowed WWF to maintain its conservation priorities and placed it at less risk from state pressure: ‘WWF has always cooperated with the authorities. So, the WWF in this sense is the least threatened’ (interview with NGO Transparent World, Moscow, 4 June 2021). However, although WWF enjoys the confidence of some state actors, it has not been able to maintain its established networks as regional NGOs that received small grants from WWF were listed as foreign agents.

Overall, even though environmental NGOs have been creative in their efforts to continue their work, the introduction of the new laws on undesirable organizations and on individuals as foreign agents have reduced the space for NGO adaptation strategies. Russian NGOs have stopped engaging with organizations officially labelled ‘undesirable’, even if they once worked together within a GGN. According to our interviewees, declines in available funding and media attention have led to a weakening of connections among environmental NGOs across Russia, and many NGOs have shifted attention to local environmental problems. ‘The time for coalitions is over. Basically, NGOs focus on the local agenda. They become less centralized. The level of NGO cooperation is gone. There are only a couple of large organizations left’ (interview with an activist in multiple environmental NGOs including WWF and FSC, 4 June 2021). In 2020–2021, state control and regulation have prompted the revival of Soviet-era practices such as reliance on informal connections that allow organizations to survive in conditions of state repression. ‘We are returning to pseudo-Soviet practices; nothing is possible without informal connections’ (interview with a representative of NGO Transparent World, Moscow, 2 June 2021).
We have identified two periods of environmental activism in Russia that significantly differ. First, in the 1990s through early 2000s, NGOs developed as linkages grew between environmental NGOs in Russia and transnational donors in GGNs. Donors’ financial support helped incorporate Russian environmental NGOs into international networks and allowed them to transform from volunteer associations into professional organizations with greater capacity. These GGNs promoted liberal norms within the practice of environmentalism in Russia, including a critical stance toward the state’s policies, the articulation of policy alternatives, lobbying, and citizen participation in decision making. However, some international donors began to leave Russia in the mid-2000s due to their own changing priorities. The result appeared to be a landscape of ‘islands’ of liberal space.

Gradually since the colour revolutions of the early 2000s, and more rapidly since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, the Russian government has taken steps to reduce Western influence in Russia. Under a more illiberal political system, foreign donors’ efforts to support Russian environmental NGOs to advocate for nature protection and sustainability were seen as a threat to the sovereignty of the Russian state (Henry, 2021). The laws on foreign agents (2012) and undesirable organizations (2015) have increasingly limited the ability of Russian environmental NGOs to participate in GGNs. In many cases, linkages within GGNs have been broken down as Russian NGOs have lost access to international financial resources and networks. Moreover, the new political and legal context has cultivated negative attitudes in society towards foreign funding and devalued international collaboration, further influencing the global/ local interplay of GGNs. Since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, illiberal trends have accelerated (Treisman, 2022), and activism perceived as opposing the regime is even more repressed. Many activists, including environmentalists, have left Russia. The environment is also under threat as a result of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, as dependence on an extractive economy is growing.

Russian environmentalists have demonstrated significant resilience under growing illiberalism. A more constrained political and legal context for NGOs has led to the transformation of NGO networks and NGO–donor relations. New constraints have prompted environmental NGOs to search for creative alternatives, involving new actors and new forms of agency. Among the new strategies, some environmental NGOs seek domestic donors, develop new ties with government agencies and businesses to continue to make an impact through the provision of expert services, or become increasingly informal to evade restrictive laws. Despite environmentalists’ new strategies and some adaptation by donors in nodes of design, the overall situation is very challenging for actors within the GGNs. Donors and NGOs are ‘making the best of a bad situation’, but only managed to retain very small spaces for a liberal model of environmental advocacy. They have largely lost the struggle for introducing international rules and new models of governance in a country preoccupied with ensuring its sovereignty. In a few cases, GGNs have not been disrupted entirely, as NGOs such as Greenpeace, WWF Russia, and Bellona continue to receive foreign funding. The Russian state’s desire to maintain its international reputation and influence on environmental issues has carved out a small space for some NGOs to continue to influence rule-making, but these are only minor instances within the larger sea of illiberalism.

These trends are apparent on a broader scale as well. If we look at the dynamics of the inclusion of environmental NGOs in the registry of foreign agents, we can see that the surge in pressure on environmental NGOs came in 2015. This was partly due to the Ministry of Justice’s enforcement practices as they attempted to implement the foreign agent law more fully. In recent years, the inclusion of environmental NGOs in the registry has practically ceased. As of June 2022, only four environmental organizations are listed in the registry of foreign agents. The decrease in the number of environmental NGOs designated foreign agents is likely related to the fact that many NGOs no longer receive foreign funding. However, it also may indicate the partial utility of environmental expertise to the authorities, as many international conventions require participation of civil society actors (Henry & McIntosh Sundstrom, 2021).

As a result of the law on foreign agents, environmental activism has become less formalized and less visible to the state as NGOs engage in fewer public outreach activities. Some NGOs have shifted to local environmental issues that are not perceived by the authorities as politically sensitive. Government officials may even be responsive to local environmental concerns and prepared to make concessions to citizens, if they are able to shift public attention to seemingly neutral local problem-solving. New local initiatives of youth and volunteers offer an alternative hope for creating islands of liberalism in Russia, despite difficult conditions. Indeed, Russian citizens often perceive environmental issues as a rare space for civic activism, especially as other opportunities for political participation have been curtailed by the state. Public interest in environmental volunteering was surging prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, reminiscent of the late Soviet period. There were numerous environmental protests in the Russian regions in 2019–2021 (Clardie, 2022; Tsepilova & Golbraih, 2020). Some protests have influenced regional politics, such as protests against a giant landfill in the Arkhangelsk region in 2019 and against a mining project in Bashkiria in 2020 (Poupin, 2021). However, the state only tolerates environmental activism if it does not represent a struggle over sovereignty – it does not try to challenge the state, but simply creates some space for some citizen input.

We have sought to make several contributions in scholarly literature. First, we have examined the case of Russian environmentalism to show how transnationally connected NGOs might serve to promote liberal practices in an authoritarian regime. Additionally, we have shown that over time environmental NGOs embedded in a global network have come to be seen by the authoritarian state as a threat to state sovereignty. The state has targeted these NGOs as ‘foreign’ actors and severely disrupted the donor–NGO networks, forcing environmentalists to pursue new strategies to survive. Another contribution that we seek to make is that of using the GGNs as a lens to explore larger scale societal transformations. We have analysed environmental NGOs’ linkages with donors, which can be transferable to other fields of activism and to other countries.

While we have concentrated on the environmental organizations in Russia, we anticipate that our findings may speak to other cases of illiberal environmental governance around the world. In the post-Soviet region, we see that in Belarus the donor–recipient environmental GGNs were totally eliminated (Novikau, 2015), in Russia transformed (Gilbert, 2020) and in Georgia and Ukraine they continued to flourish (Oleinikova, 2017). Environmentalism does not require democracy or liberalism to emerge (Sonnenfeld & Taylor, 2018). Historically, environmentalists were active even in the Soviet Union and Maoist China, without transnational linkages (Wilson, 2019). Under certain conditions, we see that authoritarian regimes will allow environmental advocacy that fits within the broader goals of regime stability and effective governance (Plantan, 2018; Rooij et al., 2016; Wu & Martus, 2021). This tolerance ends if the NGOs are seen as promoting hybrid or fragmented sovereignty that involves displacing the state as the central actor, however.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).
This work was supported by Kone Foundation [grant no.202005986 Diversities of the Environmental Movement in Russia].
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