Nothing happens in Russia without the blessing of the president. On Wednesday, Vladimir Putin personally addressed Greenpeace activists that stormed a Russian oil rig in the Pechora Sea. He admitted that they are obviously not pirates, but might have been terrorists. They violated international law, and thus should be charged. Thirty activists from 18 countries protesting against the Arctic oil drilling were detained by the Russian Investigative Committee and face piracy charges. According to the Russian sources, piracy charges might soon be changed to something else.
Climbing an Arctic platform has two sides.
According to Greenpeace, activists on four inflatables headed to the oil platform and tried to climb it to peacefully protest imminent drilling that might cause harm to the Arctic environment. As they tried to do so, the Russian Guard ship launched boats with masked guards who slashed the ecologists’ inflatables, fired a few warning shots with automatic weapons and detained a few of those activists who were already on board. After a few hours, the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise, that had tried to stay three naval miles away from the platform in the international waters, was stormed by FSB agents. Remaining activists were seized and Arctic Sunrise was taken to Murmansk, Russia.
According to the Russian coast guards, Arctic Sunrise was drifting in the Russian waters during the accident. The guards pointed out that the Arctic oil platform is a very dangerous area and any attempts to climb it, or simply disembark near it, might lead to catastrophic results.
In a statement released by Vladimir Markin, a spokesman of the investigative committee, it was said that the intentions of people who try to take a drilling platform by storm are very doubtful, and their vessel being full of electronic technical equipment aroused suspicious. Liliya Moroz, the spokesperson of coastguards, noted that an electronic item that was on board the inflatables looked like an explosive to the coast guards.
Today, President Putin added some colorful comments about the accident saying that the guards couldn’t be certain that people storming the oil platform were not terrorists. He used the Kenyan shopping mall as an example of the worst case scenario Russian guards should have taken into account.
Yesterday the Arctic Sunrise was anchored in the port of Murmansk. Greenpeace activists were transferred to the local headquarters of the Russian Investigative Committee where they have been interrogated.
While on board of the Arctic Sunrise, activists were allowed to meet diplomats from their countries. Though the ship was under the Netherlands flag, activists on board, as reported, were from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Check Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, and the USA. However, today Wojciech Cholewinski, Polish Vice-Consul in St. Petersburgh complained that Polish diplomats were not allowed to see an activist from Poland after he was detained on the land. He also noted that the procedure of obtaining any information from the Russian authorities is very slow and unproductive.
The “pirating” charges leveled against the Greenpeace activists include a potential prison sentence of up to 15 years and $15,500 fines. However, today, according to the ITAR-TASS agency, investigators were discussing changing the charges and dropping the word “piracy.” It is expected that the charges will be changed especially since Putin’s remark about the activists not being pirates was made during the Arctic–Territory of Dialog Forum.
The influence of Russian president over the judicial system is very noticeable, as many experts agree. A popular opinion of trials of the past years, such as those involving charges against Russian oligarch Michael Khodorkovsky, members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, Moscow opposition leader Alexsey Navalny and others, reflects a direct link between the court decision and the wish of leading officials. There is a special term invented to illustrate this link – “Basmannoe pravosudie” – Basman justice. Most of the notorious trials were held in the Basman court of Moscow.
Greenpeace activists are not there yet. Their future is definitely going to be not only judicially, but politically debated. Gazprom whose oil platform Greenpeace ecologists tried to attack is the largest extractor of natural gas in Russia. Prirazlomnaya is supposed to be the first Russian platform in the cold Arctic waters producing oil. It should have been opened in 2011, but for technical reasons the start was delayed. Gazprom expects it to start pumping gas this year.
According to Greenpeace, oil drilling might cause an ecological catastrophe in the Arctic area in the case of an accident and danger local wildlife including polar bears and walruses. The members are convinced that even without the accident it will speed up the melting of Arctic ice, and they are suspicious about safety guarantees Russians can provide in the region. While mocking technical equipment operated by Russians in the Arctic on their website, Greenpeace is also trying to stop the drilling by direct actions. Last year their activists already climbed Prirazlomnaya platform to place a banner there “Don’t Kill the Arctic.” They also tried to block a ship that carries workers to Prirazlomnaya by attaching themselves to the anchor chain.
Greenpeace’s attempts to block the oil rig might interfere with the financial interests of Gazprom – the largest exporter of Russian natural gas. The volume of gas it exported in 2012 was equal to 138.8 billion cubic meters. And interfering with Gazprom’s interests Greenpeace affects Russian budget revenue as well which is largely filled by Gazprom.
Guaranteeing the oil rig’s safety is not only the business matter of Gazprom, but must be done since the government is trying to protect its oil and gas dependent economy. That is why the Russian president has to deal with it personally. He is not going to call activists pirates, but going to insist on charges according to the Russian law.
By Alsu Salakhutdinov