Vladimir Slivyak

Awarded 2021

Russia

For his defence of the environment and for helping to ignite grassroots opposition to the coal and nuclear industries in Russia.

Vladimir Slivyak is one of Russia’s most committed and knowledgeable environmentalists, who has been spearheading important grassroots campaigns against environmentally damaging practices for decades. He has stopped projects related to the exploitation of fossil fuels, the use of nuclear power and coal, and the shipment of radioactive waste from abroad.

As co-chairman and co-founder of Ecodefense, one of Russia’s leading environmental organisations for decades, Slivyak has worked extensively on reducing environmental risks, mitigating the climate crisis and promoting renewable energy in Russia.

Led by Slivyak, Ecodefense was the first environmental group in Russia to start an anti-coal campaign in 2013, which helped to empower local communities suffering from the impacts of coal mining and transportation. Connecting local communities around the country and information sharing led to a rapid growth of anti-coal protests in various parts of Russia.

Slivyak has also opposed Russia’s promotion of nuclear energy both at home and abroad. These enormous successes have proven that even in authoritarian Russia, grassroots activities can effectively challenge government-backed projects.

In recent years, Slivyak and Ecodefense have been targeted by Russian authorities for their work. However, Slivyak has stayed the course heartened by the growing influence of young climate activists. Standing with them, he is committed to ushering in a cleaner and more sustainable future for Russia and the world.

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Vladimir Slivyak, 2021 Laureate

Biography

Vladimir Slivyak has spearheaded grassroots campaigns against environmentally damaging practices in Russia for decades. With some of the world’s largest oil, gas and coal reserves, Russia is among the world’s top exporters of fossil fuels. Slivyak has stopped projects related to the exploitation of fossil fuels, the use of nuclear energy and the shipment of radioactive waste from abroad, showing that it is possible to challenge powerful governments to protect the environment.

2021 Right Livelihood Laureate Vladimir Slivyak.

Environmental protection in Russia lags in many respects, partly due to the legacy of Soviet policies on fossil fuel exploitation and the use of nuclear energy with little consideration for environmental impact. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, environmental protection has been neglected at the expense of an over reliance on fossil fuels for economic gain. With some of the world’s largest oil, gas and coal reserves, Russia has routinely undermined international negotiations to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Worryingly, Russia has strategically sought to export and expand its nuclear energy technology as a supposedly clean form of energy. With systematic oppression of civil society activism, environmental issues are often politicised, and activists are silenced.

Slivyak co-founded Ecodefense in late 1989 in the city of Kaliningrad, near the Baltic Sea coast of Russia. With the Soviet era coming to an end, Slivyak emerged as a leading voice for environmental protection and sustainability in Russia. Today, Ecodefense is a unique source of reliable information on Russia’s nuclear and coal industries, with a long track record of successful campaigns.

Slivyak’s activism has also gone beyond campaigning: he has continuously focused on involving and engaging with young people in environmental causes. Since 1995, over 10,000 students and about 1,000 teachers have taken part in educational programmes conducted by Ecodefense. Slivyak himself was, between 2012-2015, a senior lecturer on environmental policy at a leading Russian university, the Higher School of Economics (HSE), in Moscow. He was the first to introduce the theme of energy transition to a course at Russia’s leading university.

Civil society campaigning in Russia

Slivyak has shown that grassroots activism can produce results even in major fossil-fuel-producing and reliant countries, such as Russia. One example is Ecodefense’s sustained campaign in the early 2000s against planned oil drilling in the Baltic Sea near Kaliningrad. This campaign forced the Russian oil giant Lukoil to accept an agreement with Lithuanian authorities on cross-border cooperation in case of oil spills and also resulted in the introduction of new technology to monitor oil spills from space. Despite the success, Ecodefense had to endure a smear campaign orchestrated by the oil industry, calling environmental groups “natural enemies” of the state.

In recent years, the Russian government has also been increasingly hostile to Ecodefense, as the space for civil society is continuously shrinking in the country. Since 2014, Slivyak has been labelled a “foreign agent” for protesting the construction of nuclear reactors. This has meant additional inspections, fines and obstacles for environmental activity. The Russian government has also unleashed an intense campaign of judicial harassment against Ecodefense and its members.

Sparking opposition to coal mining

Slivyak and Ecodefense have centred their opposition to Russia’s coal mining industry on the strategically important regions of Kuzbass in Siberia and Russia’s Far East region, which have provided large amounts of coal to Asian countries. Kuzbass accounts for some 60 per cent of Russia’s coal output, which has an enormous negative impact on the region’s population.

Led by Slivyak, Ecodefense was the first environmental group in Russia to start an anti-coal campaign in 2013, which helped to empower local communities suffering from the impacts of coal mining and transportation. Connecting local communities around the country and information sharing led to a rapid growth of anti-coal protests in various parts of Russia.

After many years of campaigning, Slivyak has begun to see change at the highest levels of the Russian government. ​​In October 2020, Ecodefense published a historic report linking coal production to public health problems and environmental pollution. The report got unprecedented coverage in non-government-controlled Russian media. The report’s recommendations were eventually also included in a special report by a presidential commission on Russia’s energy transition.

In early 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the diversification of local economies in coal regions, acknowledging–for the first time in Russian history–that demands for coal would drop in the future. In June 2021, the government announced plans for its energy transition, which would include bringing down the share of coal in the energy sector from 15 to 7 per cent and increasing the share of renewables from 1 to 10 per cent by 2040. While these targets are far from adequate to achieve the needed climate targets, the announcement signals a historic policy shift that Slivyak and Ecodefense have tirelessly worked towards.

Protesting nuclear power and waste

Slivyak has also been an outspoken critic of the use of nuclear power, calling attention also to the risks connected with the unsafe storage of radioactive waste. While some governments, including Russia, promote nuclear energy as a viable alternative to fossil fuels, Slivyak has consistently shown that it is not the way to combat the climate crisis.

In his book From Hiroshima to Fukushima, Slivyak chronicled the 2011 nuclear catastrophe at the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and described the Russian nuclear industry’s lack of preparedness for potential nuclear accidents. It has been one of the most significant books criticising the nuclear power industry in post-Soviet Russia.

One of Ecodefense’s major campaigns has been against a proposed Kaliningrad nuclear power plant, the construction of which began in 2010. Slivyak decided to focus on cutting international investment for the project, lobbying energy companies in Italy and Germany to refrain from providing financing. After sustained public protests throughout Kaliningrad, European energy companies and banks withdrew their support for the plant. By 2014, the Russian government dropped nuclear power from its list of energy technologies in Kaliningrad. This campaign was an enormous success, demonstrating the effectiveness of sustained grassroots action.

Another significant achievement of Slivyak’s anti-nuclear activities has been an ongoing campaign since 1998 to end foreign governments’ export of nuclear waste into Russia. In 1998-2000, the campaign resulted in halting the transportation of Bulgarian spent nuclear fuel to Russia. In 2009, a contract between Russian and German nuclear companies, which were sending uranium waste to Russian facilities, was terminated after a 5-year campaign by Ecodefense, and another attempt was prevented in 2010. While there have been other attempts to restart radioactive waste shipments since, Ecodefense has been able to react quickly to halt these activities, often working in cooperation with German anti-nuclear groups.

On an international level, the Russian government has sought to push the argument that building reactors would help combat climate change, a claim disputed by Slivyak. When Russia proposed to build a nuclear power plant in South Africa, Ecodefense was instrumental in working on a campaign that prevented the construction in cooperation with local South African activists.

In the face of overwhelming state and corporate influence, Slivyak and Ecodefense have shown that sparking change through grassroots opposition is possible.

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