The Sochi scandal no one's talking about: How Russia is silencing its environmentalists

Olympic construction is destroying Sochi. And the government is cracking down on the people who dare to speak out

Published February 9, 2014 11:59AM (EST)

  (Reuters/Laszlo Balogh)
(Reuters/Laszlo Balogh)

As athletes and fans from around the world descend upon Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics, they are (according to some) sitting atop a site of immeasurable loss and irreversible damage to what was once a unique and pristine ecosystem. They're unlikely, however, to be aware of it, and authorities will be on their guard to prevent anyone with a megaphone or a picket sign from bringing it to their attention. Those would-be protesters are yet another group being silenced in Russia -- where, along with everything else, it’s also a crime to defend the environment.

In the rush to complete what ended up being $51 billion in construction in just five years, Russian's Olympic Committee has played fast and loose with the environmental standards it once promised to uphold. To take just one example of many, Olympic organizers make much of the fact that Russia’s first green construction standards were implemented for the Games. But at the same time, authorities have also reversed legislation protecting national parks in order to allow for those green buildings to go up. As a result, construction of the Olympic village ended up affecting over 8,000 acres of Sochi National Park, a strictly protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As the global news agency AFP recently reported, the area’s sensitive wetlands, home to 65 species of birds, were buried under six and a half feet of crushed rock, while reptiles and brown bears have reportedly gone missing from surrounding mountain areas. Water pollution in the Mzymta River, once a major spawning site, threatens a fifth of Russia’s Black Sea salmon. And while Olympic organizers boast that they’ve planted 1.5 million new trees -- three for every one that was cut down -- Suren Gazaryan, a zoologist and environmental activist who was forced to flee the country, said that the scattered planting can in no way make up for what was lost.

“The Mzymta Valley had the most diverse ecosystem in the region. It was a beautiful place,” Gazaryan told Al Jazeera America. “Of course we can put some trees. We can breed some animals. But we can’t restore an ecosystem. We lost a territory for the future.”

In response to such charges, Deputy Environment Minister Rinat Gizatulin advised environmentalists to “stop tying themselves to every tree.” As Gazaryan and others have seen, his snarky comment veiled a much deeper threat.

Yevgeny Vitishko, a geologist and prominent environmentalist with the group Environmental Watch on the Northern Caucasus, has become the most vocal critic of the construction and destruction taking place at Sochi. He's also become the most visible example of what happens to people who question the Olympics' impact.

The campaign against Vitishko began in 2012, when he and Gazaryan were first found guilty of “deliberate destruction of property” for spray-painting a fence constructed around the summer home of a Krasnodar governor. The activists say the fence was illegally surrounding a large area of protected public forest. Both men originally received a three-year suspended sentence with two years’ probation. Facing more charges, Gazaryan was granted political asylum in Estonia. Vitishko’s sentence, meanwhile, was bumped up to three years in a penal colony last December, after he allegedly failed to honor the conditions of his parole.

Vitishko denies all of the charges being leveled against him. His appeal won’t be heard until Feb. 12, but he will be unable to appear in court to defend himself. That’s because en route to Sochi at the beginning of this week, he was arrested and ordered jailed for 15 days, for, of all things, swearing in public -- an offense that falls under Russia's hooliganism laws.

Aside from denying him his day in court, the sentence will conveniently prevent Vitishko from being able to speak out about the environmental damage occurring in Sochi while the Olympic Games are going on.

The International Olympic Committee contends that his arrest was not directly related to the Olympics. "The information provided by Sochi 2014 throughout the last months indicated that the case of Mr Vitishko was not related to the preparation of the Olympic Games," a spokesperson said in a statement to Salon. "The letters we received from different NGOs on this matter did not contain any evidence that this specific case was Games related, either."

In Vitishko's absence, foreign journalists are beginning to see for themselves just how bad things are. The Chicago Tribune's Stacy St. Clair became Twitter-famous after she circulated a picture of her hotel's "dangerous face water"; the photo went viral as an example of one of the many oddities that have so far greeted visitors. But yellow water only scratches the surface of Sochi's problems, activists say. Allegations of water problems go all the way back to 2009 when, according to Human Rights Watch, a road installed as part of the infrastructure for the Olympics paved over four of the five wells supplying drinking water to Akhshtyr, a mountain village just north of Sochi. Pollution and runoff from the road made the fifth unsafe to use.

This past October, the Associated Press visited Akhshtyr, where reporters discovered that, in a flagrant violation of Russia’s much-touted “Zero Waste” program, which helped the country win its Olympic bid, the country’s state-owned rail monopoly was illegally dumping tons of construction waste. Activists expressed concern that moisture from the landfill would seep into the nearby river, contaminating half of Sochi’s supply of drinking water.

The day after the AP report was published, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gave a statement asserting that construction for the Olympic Games strictly adhered to ecological demands. Around the same time, members of EWNC say that pressure on environmental activists began to increase. It reached a head this week, when the Olympic torch arrived in Krasnodar, the region in which Sochi is located. Igor Kharchenko, a member of the group, was arrested and jailed late Wednesday night on charges of refusing to cooperate with the police. In violation of Russian law, he was not allowed to consult a lawyer. 

EWNC member Olga Soldatova posted this picture of fellow activist Olga Zazulya picketing outside of the facility where Kharchenko was detained:

[embedtweet id="431088357855465472"]

The sign translates to: “Shame on Kuban (region) Prostitutes in Judges’ Robes! Free Igor Kharchenko!” Both women say they were hauled in by police and strongly warned to discontinue their protest.

“When it comes to activists, no one cares any more,” Alexander Popkov, EWNC’s lawyer, told the international nonprofit organization Bellona.

Members of EWNC are far from the only people being treated like terrorists. The Associated Press reported in December of a journalist who was roughly handled by security guards for daring to inquire about a water company’s supply cut -- she was later charged and convicted for having beat up one of the guards  -- and of a local resident sued by the state contractor for protesting what she said was illegal beach construction. A controversial law passed last year requires NGOs in Russia to register as "foreign agents," a means of repressing political or social dissenters.

In response to complaints about environmental destruction brought forward by the international community, the IOC contends that the local context of the games must be appreciated, explaining that "the Sochi 2014 Games are believed to be the first global sports event in Russia to have taken environmental concerns and the principles of sustainability into consideration."

Yet others argue that the games never should have been held in Sochi to begin with. “If you look at the environmental footprint of hosting a Games – including things like travel, construction and hospitality – doing that halfway up a mountain in what is often a delicate and pristine environmental habitat is going to be difficult,” Simon Lewis, who runs a U.K.-based consultancy on sustainability in sport, told Time. “Sochi should never have happened in that location. It was a poor decision by IOC members based on poor information."

EWNC was hoping to release a report detailing the full extent of the environmental damage in Sochi ahead of the opening ceremony; now they're aiming for later this month. Aside from the loss of the wetlands, it will highlight the havoc wreaked by the major road and railroad linking Sochi’s airport to its mountain venues, where downhill will be held, and by those mountain venues themselves. The problems are expected to continue well after the games are over, in the form of landslides and floods, and from increased tourist traffic to what officials hope will become an international skiing destination. Until they can make that all public, they’ll just need to try to stay out of jail.

By Lindsay Abrams

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