So far, things seem to be playing out more or less as I expected:
Russia has dropped charges of piracy against 30 detained Greenpeace activists connected to a protest against Arctic drilling and replaced it with a lesser charge of hooliganism, the environmental group confirmed.
The charges of hooliganism carry with them a possible sentence of seven years in prison. The piracy charges came with a maximum jail sentence of 15 years.
There could be any number of reasons behind this, ranging from a genuine belief that piracy did not take place but hooliganism did, to the Russians wanting to keep Greenpeace as confused and off-balance as possible just for fun. Who knows?
One possible explanation is that it removes a key element of hope from those enjoying the warm hospitality of a Murmansk prison: the fact that Putin said that Greenpeace’s actions did not constitute piracy. I’m sure those imprisoned would have been clinging to this statement to some degree, and now that’s been removed from the picture entirely. Putin said nothing about hooliganism.
As I said before, I think the Russians want to show the detainees enough of their criminal justice system to deter anyone else from trying a similar stunt in future. In Russia, the process is the punishment (and in case anyone thinks I’m getting on my high-horse here, the UK is rapidly heading in a similar direction).
That said, I think Greenpeace need to tread very carefully at this point. They need to recognise that Russia is probably posturing here, and has no intention of imprisoning these people for too long. They also need to interpret the Russians dropping the piracy charges as the first step in a compromise, and I’m not sure they do.
It is fine to argue with Russian authorities, they don’t mind it too much – provided you begin by acknowledging their authority and position, and you don’t try to play hardball. You’ve got to be ready to concede something, even if you’re 100% in the right. When the local tax authorities find “anomalies” in your accounts and impose a nominal fine, you don’t self-righteously challenge them. You apologise, pay up, and let them move on. That’s how it works in Russia, in a multitude of situations. So if I was Greenpeace, I’d be negotiating with the Russians on how we can both come away from this with both sides being able to credibly say that they made their point. As this article notes:
The country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has … offered a possible olive branch to the so-called “Arctic 30” who have all been charged with piracy over an Arctic drilling protest, as it said Russia is “open to settling the situation”.
However, I’m not sure Greenpeace has got the message:
But Greenpeace is still determined to contest the current charges, which the group called just as much a “fantasy… that bear(s) no relation to reality” as the previous piracy allegations.
“The Arctic 30 are no more hooligans than they were pirates,” Vladimir Chuprov of Greenpeace Russia said in a statement. “This is still a wildly disproportionate charge… It represents nothing less than an assault on the very principle of peaceful protest.”
In other words, ignore the concession on the part of the Russians – if indeed it was a concession – and continue to stamp your foot and shout loudly. This ain’t gonna work. For a start, the Greenpeace protesters are in jail, whereas the Russian authorities will go home each night. If this turns into a waiting game, Greenpeace will come off far worse.
In my experience, Russians can be a petulant lot: willing to work with you to a point, but if you put a gun to their head or offend them in some way, they can be as stubborn as hell and refuse to budge an inch on pure principle. That is why I don’t think it’s a good idea that the Dutch government has decided to wade in on behalf of Greenpeace. What was a dispute between regional authorities and Greenpeace has now been turned into a direct challenge of Russian national authority by a foreign power. If there is one way to get Russians to adopt a hardline stance and start making examples of people, this is it. It may be that Russia has downgraded the charges because they have now decided that it is no longer a charade, and they now intend to fully prosecute those involved. They’d be unlikely to convince even themselves that this was genuine piracy, never mind the rest of the world. But hooliganism? That’s a different story.
For a start, the average Russian is probably struggling to get his head around the idea that forced entry onto an industrial offshore facility constitutes peaceful protest. In a country which sees genuinely peaceful Russian protesters campaigning for Russian human rights getting the shit kicked out of them by their own security apparatus, they are unlikely to be moved to tears by the sight of middle-class foreigners being roughed-up after trying to force their way on board a drilling rig.
Indeed, I’m not sure how many in the west have much sympathy for Greenpeace in this regard. Peaceful protest to most people means standing a little way off shouting slogans and waving banners, not clambering on board oil rigs. I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciates that had the people climbing on board been called Mohammed and had dark skin and beards, by now they’d be wearing orange jump suits and trying to breath through a wet hessian sack. Wealthy middle-class lefties being denied special treatment for once is likely to invoke a degree of schadenfreude in some who would otherwise support Greenpeace’s broader aims.
And this also amused:
Masked men broke into a Greenpeace office in Russia on Thursday night, stealing a structure intended for use in a protest against Arctic drilling, the environmentalist has claimed.
The development came as a court in the northern city of Murmansk rejected bail applications for two more of the so-called “Arctic 30” who stand accused of piracy following a protest against Gazprom in the Pechora Sea last month.
CCTV footage and images released by Greenpeace on Friday claim to show six people clad in balaclavas scaling a fence outside an office in Murmansk that the group is using as it tries to free the 30 activists arrested a month ago on board its flagship vessel Arctic Sunrise.
The group has claimed that a mock cage was stolen from the premises.
So a group that specialises in entering the premises of others without permission in order to achieve their own ends finds itself being burgled? What did they think was going to happen? That the Russians were just going to play nice?
As I said in my previous post, I think Greenpeace have blundered badly here. For years they’ve deployed underhand tactics and relied on their opponents respecting the Queensbury rules to avoid getting their heads knocked off, and they’ve now carried this approach into Russia.
Good luck with that!