The stifling of Sochi Olympic critics
SOCHI, Russia – They are fearless, stubborn and increasingly under siege. Environmentalists, activists and journalists in Sochi have spent years exposing the dark side of Vladimir Putin’s showcase Winter Games – and now they’re paying the price.
In recent months, these campaigners have been detained, put on trial and even barred from going to the beach.
With the Olympics less than two months away, authorities are stepping up the pressure as these men and women refuse to back down in their fight to shed light on what they insist has been the destruction of the environment and a way of life.
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch called local authorities directly responsible for the campaign of harassment against activists in the Krasnodar region, which includes Sochi. Rights groups have lamented Russia’s human rights record for years, but critics say the tactics in Sochi are extreme even by this country’s notoriously overbearing standards.
“Authorities in the Krasnodar region are harassing the environmentalists and activists who dare to speak critically of them in the context of the preparations for the Olympics in Sochi,” said Yulia Gorbunova, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. As the games approach, she said, “the pressure is increasing.”
Anna Minkova, a spokeswoman for the Krasnodar government, said that authorities were “not aware of the instances of the harassment of civil activists” that the AP brought forward. She added that the activities of law enforcement agencies are not under the regional administration’s authority. Local law enforcement agencies, which report to federal security bodies, declined repeated requests from AP to comment both on the overall alleged clampdown and specific claims of harassment.
Here are some of the local activists and journalists at the front lines of a struggle to reveal corruption and environmental damage in the run-up to Russia’s $51 billion Winter Olympics:
SVETLANA KRAVCHENKO, JOURNALIST:
When Kravchenko visited the water company to demand answers about a supply cut in Sochi, she suddenly found herself surrounded by security guards.
The veteran reporter pushed her way out of the office and into the street, as the guards clutched at her clothes and tore off a sleeve. The next day, Kravchenko was charged with beating up one of the guards who had towered over her. A medical examination documented a 0.3 millimeter (microscopic) scratch on his ear. Six months later Kravchenko was found guilty and fined 10,000 rubles ($300).
Over the years, Kravchenko has documented environmental travesties in Sochi and the heavy-handed tactics of local officials as a reporter for the Caucasian Knot, a major Russian web publication that covers the region. She’s been insulted and threatened before. But nothing prepared her for the shock of being put on trial for purportedly beating up a security guard. Kravchenko said the water supply episode was merely a pretext for authorities to “take revenge against a difficult journalist.” The water company and Sochi judicial authorities did not return requests for comment.
“Any sane person would ask: How can you beat up a person using your hands and feet … and he would only get a scratch inside his ear?” Kravchenko said. “It’s a blatant lie.”
SUREN GAZARYAN, ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST:
For Gazaryan, a zoologist, it all started with a fence.
Gazaryan had been mobilizing his fellow activists to call attention to what he said was the property of Gov. Alexander Tkachev – popularly known by his nickname “Sanya” – situated in a national forest where construction is forbidden. Last year, he was found guilty of “deliberate destruction of property” and handed a three-year suspended prison sentence. The crime: spray-painting “Sanya is a thief” on the fence.
Gazaryan said it didn’t matter that it was not him but his friends who had spray-painted the words. Prosecutors went after him and his comrade-in-arms Yevgeny Vitishko, another fierce critic of the games’ environmental record. “They had to punish us,” Gazaryan said.
After another outing to inspect what was rumored to be a secret mansion belonging to Putin, Gazazyan, already on probation, found himself facing charges of making death threats against a security guard. Two other guards were listed as witnesses. “There were those three bulky guys with truncheons,” said Gazaryan, “and now they were saying I was threatening him.”
Gazaryan feared that his suspended sentence would be converted into real prison time, and fled. He was granted political asylum in Estonia this year.
His friend Vitishko still lives in the Sochi area. His probation officer recently petitioned the court to replace his suspended sentence with a prison term. The hearing is on Thursday.
NATALYA KALINOVSKAYA, CIVIC ACTIVIST AND HEAD OF PSOU VILLAGE:
Kalinovskaya became an activist when she realized that Olympic construction was going to go ahead without any discussion with residents.
“Nobody showed us the bid book, we had no idea what was going to happen to us,” she said. “The first projects we saw were brought by foreign media because there was no other place to find out about it. We saw that our cemetery, which is now surrounded by the Olympic venues, was not on the map. I’m sorry but my grandfather lies there, and it’s a lie to say that this area is just an open field.”
Kalinovskaya and her neighbors have written dozens of petitions and organized rallies to protest what they say was illegal construction on their local beach.
The activist, who already has a degree in economics, is now getting one in environment studies. She has been repeatedly detained at protest rallies.
In February, a local court upheld a complaint against Kalinovskaya by state contractor Olympstroi – and barred her as an “obstacle” to construction works on the beach. Olympstroi told the AP that it sued Kalinovskaya because it had information that she and other activists were “hampering construction.”
Judge Alexander Yakimenko said in the ruling that “the presence of the defendants” on the beach and “their actions to prevent construction machinery from operating are presenting a threat to the schedule of Olympic venues construction.”
Kalinovskay dismisses that.
“We never tried to stop the construction of Olympic venues,” Kalinovskay said. “We were only trying to stop the destruction of the beach. How come Putin isn’t ashamed of destroying the pristine beach here, in this unique place?”
ANDREI RUDOMAKHA, ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST:
Rudomakha leads the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, the key force behind exposing illegal landfills, the destruction of landscapes and endangered trees, and the contamination of the key waterway in Sochi.
Rudomakha has repeatedly landed in trouble with authorities: He has been detained at protest rallies, vilified in state-controlled media, and his office has been raided by the Federal Security Service.
Now he is being investigated on suspicion of slandering a judge he claims of convicting an activist over an unsanctioned protest on officials’ orders.
“Authorities are sending a message,” Rudomakha said: “Don’t go too far, or things will get worse.”
DMITRY SHEVCHENKO, ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST:
Rudomakha’s deputy Shevchenko, who has extensively reported on the environmental disaster in Sochi, was held at the airport in the regional capital of Krasnodar for four hours last month after he flew in from a business trip.
First, the environmentalist was searched by Federal Security Services officials. Then he was taken to a police station where officers would not let him go or explain why they had to hold him. Policemen told Shevchenko that he was stopped because he fit the description of a terrorist on a wanted list. He was also told that his detention was part of security drills that Russian special services were conducting in the region. He was released from the police station four hours later without any explanation.
“As I see it, they are holding drills to subdue troublesome people ahead of the games,” Shevchenko said. “They know perfectly well what can damage the games’ image: These are political activists, journalists, bloggers and environmentalists.”