The world may already have forgotten about Sochi, the site of Russia's disastrous attempt to create a world-class ski resort, but Suren Gazaryan hasn't. After the Winter Olympics ended, and very soon before Vladimir Putin, in an act of military aggression, shifted the media's attention to Crimea, Gazaryan, working with Russian NGO Environmental Watch of the Northern Caucasus, released a damning report detailing the environmental destruction and government corruption that made the games possible -- and that caused untold amounts of damage to the region. "We are convinced," it read, "that sooner or later, someone will answer for it all -- the sinkholes in wetlands, useless concrete giants, empty ski slopes, fatal design flaws and violated laws and human fates."
The group's quest to hold Russia's government accountable for the environmental havoc it's wreaking on its country, however, is a formidable undertaking. Just as it's dangerous to advocate for gay rights, or to be a member of Pussy Riot, the country is not a safe place for environmentalists. Salon wrote about Gazaryan's crusade during the Olympic games, when he had already been forced to flee Russia. In June 2012, he and geologist Yevgeny Vitishko were arrested spray-painting a fence constructed around a governor's summer home, and which illegally surrounded a large area of protected public forest. Both received three-year suspended sentences. That August, however, Gazaryan was again arrested and accused of threatening to kill a security guard at a Black Sea resort he said was illegally constructed, and which allegedly belonged to Putin. Gazaryan, who denies the charges, sought and received asylum in Estonia; Vitishko, charged with breaking the terms of his parole, is currently serving three years in a penal colony.
Gazaryan, who holds a Ph.D. in biology, was recently awarded the Goldman Prize, a major honor (that comes with a hefty check) bestowed upon grass-roots environmentalists. He spoke with Salon, through a translator, about how the government is silencing activists across all spheres -- and about why true change will only come once Russians come together and demand it. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Do you describe yourself as an environmentalist?
I see myself as an academic involved in environmental activism, but for me the science comes first.
What does the environmental movement, or just environmental consciousness in general, look like in Russia?
It’s hard to say because there hasn’t been any public polling about people's sentiment toward environmental protections, but I would guess maybe 10 to 15 percent of the adult population [support environmental protections]. There’s no environmental education; in elementary schools and high schools it’s just not a part of public education, so there’s not a lot of awareness.
What helped you become aware of these issues? Did you have a specific wake-up call?
I was always interested in nature. and it became my topic of study in university. I didn’t really become an activist until taking on the study of bats. I witnessed the negative impact of development in the Western Caucasus region on the bats that I was studying. So I started working to stop the negative impact on bats.
What are some of the biggest factors contributing to Russia’s environmental problems? Is it mostly this ignorance about what's going on? Is it the government corruption?
It’s both. There isn’t a lot of interest among the people and also the government is not functioning the way it should. This creates a feedback loop between the two and it’s becoming quite a crisis now.
Let's talk more about your experience with the government: What was the deciding factor that made you flee the country instead of staying and perhaps fighting your sentence?
It was absolutely clear that they were going to put me in jail. I had only one chance to leave and it was a last chance.
Do you see any possibility of your ever being able to go back?
If I return, I will be put in jail. I’ll be the same situation as Vitishko.
So with that in mind, what's your next move?
First we have to free Evgeny. He’s like a hostage. It limits our ability to be activists because anything that we do could have a negative impact on his conditions in jail. They could make his life quite foul. They could just kill him. There’s no oversight, there’s no monitoring of his condition.
Have you had any contact with him?
Indirect contact through our activists who visit him regularly.
How is he doing?
He’s somehow surviving in the penal colony. But there are very bad conditions there. He’s in barracks that house 160 people. They are forced to work all day, outdoors. They are not allowed to go back to barracks during the day. You can only move throughout the colony in groups, with a guard. You can’t go out by yourself. And you’re not allowed to go off the territory. Although technically, you’re supposed to be allowed to leave, it’s just not permitted in actual fact. He has two graduate degrees, so with those two degrees in the penal colony he’s working as a janitor.
Your report about the Olympics' impact on Sochi came out after the games were over, and now Russia is in the news for very different reasons. Do you have much hope that people are going to continue to pay attention to the issues in Sochi and what happened there?
Media is probably not going to return to Sochi any time soon. The Russian media has left there because there is nothing good happening. The Russian media only reports on good things now and nothing negative. The foreign media are concentrated on Ukraine. Looking at the example of the Olympics in China, I don’t expect the foreign media to return to Sochi any time soon.
To what extent do you think that pressure from the West and foreign media could help drive action on some of these environmental issues?
After what we’ve seen in Sochi and in the Ukraine, the influence of the foreign media on internal affairs in Russia is limited. The majority of Russians don’t speak English. The majority of Russians aren’t using the Internet for their news. Any Western, or non-Russian, or independent perspective is not reaching the Russian people. Situations in Russia will change with the actions of the people in Russia, not as a result of the outside acting. The people are not asking for change, so nothing will change.
Do you have plans to continue to fight and try to change that from where you are?
I plan to continue, nothing is stopping me from publishing, say, on social networks or promoting the campaign. However, the government influence that sources information is so powerful that a campaign carried out over social networks has little influence. And now the government is investing money in using the social networks to distribute their own propaganda.
Do you see your own activism as interacting with international environmental or climate movements?
Russian non-governmental organizations are not that well connected with international movements. Mostly NGOs in Russia are focused on Russian issues. There are some Russian organizations, like Sakhalin Environment Watch, that work with foreign NGOs especially. But there is a language barrier and other kinds of barriers between Russian NGOs and foreign NGOs, and these barriers are becoming bigger.
Last year, 30 members of Greenpeace, including some Russian citizens, were arrested after boarding a Russian drilling platform in the Arctic. I assume you were following that effort closely?
Of course. I know some of the people that were there in jail. I have a lot of friends in Greenpeace Russia and that was a focus of their work. It was a very serious situation. It was difficult for them and for many. That was a very clear signal to Russian organizations: If Russian organizations start fighting against drilling in the Arctic then they’ll be treated much worse.
What about the other social and human rights movements happening in Russia right now, like gay rights? Do you share any affinity with what’s going on in those spheres?
All of the civil society movements are connected; you can’t separate one out from the other, the gay rights activists or human rights activists or the environmental activists. The government is trying to control all of civil society, so everyone is affected. And the government is specifically trying to keep these movements from uniting and organizing together. If they united they would have a much bigger influence on policy. If leaders got together, they could really influence the Russian people’s opinions. Historically, the Russian people focus on the leaders of movements, and so the government has been focusing on neutralizing the leaders of movements and to prevent the appearance of any new leaders.