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Last December, as the world celebrated Russia’s widely publicized release of dissident tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, two members of the punk band Pussy Riot and 29 Greenpeace activists, a court in the southern region of Krasnodar — where the Sochi Winter Olympics open next month — sentenced environmentalist Evgeny Vitishko to three years in a penal colony.
A geologist and member of the Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus, Vitishko is an outspoken critic of construction for Sochi, a massive development project that comes not only with the heftiest Olympic price tag to date — a staggering $51 billion — but also, according to some critics, the unflattering label of most damaging to the environment.
Vitishko, who denies all charges and remains free pending an appeal, was accused of violating a curfew imposed on him after he was sentenced to probation in 2012 on charges that human-rights advocates have called spurious and politically motivated. Another member of the group sentenced with him, zoologist Suren Gazaryan, fled to Estonia and was granted asylum.
“The very same day that Khodorkovsky was released, a judge handed down a real prison sentence for this environmental activist,” said Rachel Denber, a Human Rights Watch deputy director.
She said that the release of high-profile opposition figures was a “low-cost move by the Kremlin” to boost its reputation ahead of the games but that the repression of lesser-known critics continued.
“It seems that every other day, police in Sochi are detaining and stopping people who are political and environmental activists,” Denber said. “It has been a steady stream of harassment.”
The intimidation of environmentalists and the abuses they denounced have attracted less attention than the political and social debates surrounding the games. But the two-week event comes at a high cost for Sochi, a Black Sea city close to the Caucasus Mountains. The region’s subtropical climate makes the resort town a highly desirable venue for those looking to invest in tourism beyond the Winter Games, but environmentalists say the construction of roads, railroads and sports venues threatens to irreparably harm the region’s unique environment to levels U.N. experts have called unprecedented for an Olympic host.
‘It was a beautiful place’
Damage was particularly severe in the Mzymta River Valley, where activists say some 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of formerly pristine forest — home to rare species like Caucasian wingnut trees and Black Sea salmon — have been lost.
“The Mzymta Valley had the most diverse ecosystem in the region. It was a beautiful place,” Gazaryan said from Tallinn, Estonia. He dismissed official promises of reforestation for the area. “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 preparation for the games, Russian authorities reversed legislation that limited construction in national parks, including the one near Sochi where most competitions will take place. Environmentalists fear the Olympics have set a dangerous precedent in Russia.
“Before, it was impossible to build something like Olympic facilities or hotels and roads in national parks,” said Andrey Petrov, a geographer and member of Greenpeace Russia. “That became possible.”
Environmentalists have scored a handful of victories. A bobsled ramp was moved outside the reserve, a project for a second cargo port was abandoned and plans to build a contested power plant in the seashore resort of Kudepsta were called off. But large-scale damage extended from the mountains to the shore, where a wetlands area that is home to migrating birds was destroyed to make room for stadiums and a controversial road. Mining, construction-related landslides and waste dumping are also contentious issues, despite claims by people in charge of Olympic construction that they adhere to zero-waste policies.
The environmental impact has already affected the lives of local residents. The village of Akhshtyr, between the coastal and alpine venues, was left without water and cut off from transportation for more than five years as a 48-kilometer (30-mile) railway and road were built nearby. Area residents who were forced to relocate or lost their livelihoods did not receive fair compensation, human-rights advocates documented.
Projecting a green image
There is official push-back against this criticism.
A representative for Olympstroy, the state-owned corporation in charge of most Olympic construction, said the company “follows strict regulations when it comes to environmental issues.”
“Issues of environmental protection have become a priority in the design and construction of Olympic infrastructure,” the representative added. “The principle of observing green standards is a contract obligation for Olympstroy investors and contractors.”
Sochi organizers are keen on projecting that green image in official reports, and they detail a long list of conservation achievements and attempts to limit environmental damage. Official documents show that more than 2,000 plants on an endangered-species list were replanted and some 400 animals relocated during preparations for the games. In Sochi, for every tree felled for new construction, up to five saplings have been planted, and hundreds of thousands of young fish were released into local rivers to help populate them. New sewage-treatment facilities are being built.
But not everyone is impressed.
Herve Lethier, an independent consultant to the United Nations Environment Programme and UNESCO, has visited Sochi almost 20 times since 2007, advising organizers on what actions to take on environmental issues. He said — despite boasts of ecological standards, innovative technology and recycling — that no measure to stop environmental impact was fully implemented.
“The first step is to prevent damage,” he said. “This prevention has not been done, and now we have to discuss mitigation.”
Experts say the level of construction will leave a lasting legacy on the region. Many argue that development far exceeded needs for the event and that the Olympics gave authorities and their business partners an “instrument” to pursue their own economic interests in the area.
“The main goal was to construct ski resorts in the national park,” Gazaryan said.
But responsibility for environmental damage at Sochi does not lie with the Russian government alone, critics say.
Lethier accused the International Olympic Committee of failing to uphold the commitment to environmentalism sanctioned by the Olympic charter. Environmental and human-rights groups also called on the IOC to do more.
“The responsibility certainly falls on the shoulders of the Russian government because they did what they wanted to do,” Lethier said. “But it’s also on the shoulders of this international organization, which is responsible to preserve Olympic values.”
A spokeswoman for the IOC issued a statement saying the organization is aware of concerns and has worked with Sochi organizers “by proposing more sustainable alternatives to their original plans.” She added that critics should consider the “local context.”
“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,” she said. “Green building standards have been created for the first time in Russia, and these are expected to be in use nationwide following the games.”
Organizers have promised to add national park land to compensate for areas lost to construction and have committed to mitigating their carbon footprint and those of athletes, spectators and media representatives.
But nongovernmental organizations and environmentalists — some of whom had been involved with Olympic planning but left the process disillusioned — remained skeptical.
“We have words,” Petrov said, “but as for the results, we see nothing.”
What they have seen instead, they say, is a severe escalation in the intimidation against them.
The Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EWNC) was particularly targeted and was ordered to suspend its activities under Russia’s controversial foreign-agents law. The group now spends most of its resources fighting Vitishko’s conviction, while other activists deal with daily intimidation and detentions.
Vladimir Kimaev, a member of the group who remains in Sochi, said the repression against environmentalists — many of whom are scientists — include bugged phone calls, “preventive talks” with federal authorities, home visits by police and threats.
“Virtually all members of EWNC have been harassed in various degrees by the government and its law machinery,” Kimaev said. “Policemen come to activists’ apartments and ask their parents to tell them not to come to Sochi during the Olympics.”