Maverick Russian ecologist unafraid of Olympic jailing, and rooting for his team

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TUAPSE, Russia – Yevgeny Vitishko and his wife Lena, surrounded by the soaring hills abutting the water in this Black Sea resort town, look as though they have just stepped off a yacht when they meet me at the train station.

They whisk me away in a French car, distinct from other cars in Russia because it is buffed to a shine.

Both Yevgeny and Lena radiate the kind of calm and probity one associates with a well-to-do European couple who has just returned from a vacation. Their two sons, a teenager and a toddler, are waiting for them at home. Their brand name clothes, smile-wrinkled eyes and unshakable air of intelligence and dry humor would suggest they are a couple of professors on sabbatical writing books.

Instead, they are waiting for a last ditch appeal in the town’s squalid little courtroom to keep Vitishko out of a prison colony for three years for allegedly spray-painting on a fence and a supposed probation violation.

To pile this disconnect on a little thicker, the fence that was destroyed to such a degree that a man will sit in jail over it for three years does not even exist, according to Krasnodar Regional forestry officials

It is a case as strange as anything that would tumble from a Samizdat account of Joseph Brodsky’s trial, and feeds via twitter – the Samizdat of a new generation – from Vitishko’s previous court hearing late last month heckled the proto-Soviet irrelevancies pursued in microscopic detail by prosecutors and the judge.

It is apparent from Vitishko’s elegant and welcoming words of introduction that he is above it all, that he has been caught up in it through sheer rotten luck – though not even he himself would assign it such gravity.

The first thing he and his wife do is take me on a zippy drive up winding roads, Lena nimbly sashaying through the hair pin turns, to the highest point in town to show me two things: The breathtaking plunge of the mountain range into the sea – and the enormous, ugly, build-out by Russian state oil company Rosneft’s petroleum storage facilities for shipping. What began as two or three tanks has now cut an industrial hatchet wound along the valleys of the city.

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Rosneft petroleum storage tanks proliferating in Tuapse’s mountain valley. (Photo: Charles Digges/Bellona)

“This was one of my first lost environmental battles,” said Vitishko with a wistful, self-deprecating snicker. The next, he explained, was a push against coal mining on the other side of the peaks. The smell of anthracite in the gusty coastal day somewhat diminishes the awe inspired by the view.

Writing on the wall

I had been warned by other of Vitishko’s associates within the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (EWNC) – the eco organization that’s spent the last seven years cataloging the ecological devastation ripping through picturesque North Caucasus with the Sochi Winter Olympic march  – that he was under constant surveillance.

He immediately noticed my habit of craning my neck to scrutinize passers-by and told me to chill. “I’ve already been convicted and am off to jail,” he said. “Tailing me anymore is useless for their case.”

Uselessness of the case

The case is this: In 2012, as part of a campaign to illuminate illegal construction of enormous, gaudy summer homes in the Sochi area for Russia’s political elite, Vitishko and his friend and EWNC colleague Suren Gazaryan, held a 12-person demonstration near a construction fence in the protected territory of the Western Caucasus National Park.

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The illegal, non-existent fence surrounding Krasnodar Regional Governor Alexander Tkachev’s mansion in protected forest lands.(Suren Gazaryan/EWNC)

The fence, which is still there, surrounds the mansion of Krasnodar Regional Governor Alexander Tkachev, a best-friend-for-life (until he falls out of favor) of President Vladimir Putin. Tkachev’s meretricious crony summer residence is one of several handed out by the Kremlin to other BFFLs of Putin in the Olympic drive.  In the Krasnodar Region, Tkachev, with his penchant for Ralph Lauren-style turtlenecks, blazers and Wall Street haircuts, is known by his nickname “Sanya.”

During the 2012 demonstration in question – which was one of six EWNC had held to draw attention to the violation of Russian environmental law that the construction constitutes – two girls who had joined the small group spray-painted “Sanya is a thief” on the fence.

Sanya took it really personally.

Vitishko and Gazaryan were hauled to court for destruction of property. Cleaning the fence of the offending words apparently caused more destruction to the fence than the spray paint, Dmitry Shevchenko, another activist with EWNC told me.

The court in Tuapse gave both Vitishko and Gazaryan three-year suspended sentences, allowing them freedom, but also forcing them to live under curfew, report to a probation officer and be the subjects of nearly constant surveillance.

Vitishko, Gazaryan – who has since fled Russia – and EWNC successfully wrote Russia’s Supreme Court over the Tuapse sentence, which Human Rights Watch said was riddled with procedural violations.  The high court indicated the case should be examined with an eye to reducing the sentences handed Gazaryan and Vitishko.

Things didn’t go as planned. On December 20, last month, the Tuapse court reheard Vitisko’s case from the ground up. But a couple of new things got tacked on. Vitishko had missed two of three meetings with his probation officer. According to legal experts this is forgivable, if not somewhat expected. But prosecutors railed at him for “systematically abusing the conditions of his suspended sentence.”

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Tkachev, at blurry left, with Vladimir Putin during a January 2013 visit to the Krasnaya Polyana ski resort, were Sochi’s skiing competitions will take place.

Vitishko’s neighbors ratted on him, testifying about times he was seen being tardy for his probation meetings and other things they could not possibly have known about, and offered their petty testimony. Prosecutors are still searching out another neighbor to come forward.

After an overnight recess at the December hearing, the court ruled that Vitishko should be sent to jail, a day that coincided with the cynical amnesties handed down by Putin for Pussy Riot, long-jailed ex-Yukos chief Mikhail khodorkovsky, and 30 Greenpeace activists who were awaiting trial for hooliganism after an Arctic oil protest. To the outside world, it appeared as if Putin’s heart had thawed against these political prisoners, while Vitishko was getting sent to the slammer, far away from Moscow’s limelight.

Vitishko is free until his appeal, which takes place in the same court with the same judge, on February 22 – a day before the close of the Olympics, when it is sure to get lost in the news cycle.

‘I am not afraid to go to jail’

“We’ve tried everything we can, given it all we have got, and I really doubt I am going to succeed with this appeal. I will be going to jail,” Vitishko told me when we talked about his case last night in a café in Tuapse.

But he says that the roster of environmental abuses that he and his colleagues have documented  as lashing  the Krasnodar Region – the closest kin Russia has to the Riviera – make it all worth it.

“I’m not afraid of going to jail at all. I don’t believe this system, such as it is in Russia, is capable of judging me,” he said without the slightest hint of martyrdom, and as impassively as if he were describing any other unpleasant natural process, such as the slimy progression of a snail.

“If going to a prison colony helps show the international community, or at least the International Olympic Committee, that they should give the Olympics to countries that can actually handle them responsibly, then I have succeeded in sending part of the message I want to send,” he told me.

What his incarceration will shed light on from the darkness of jail is the absolute degradation of Russian environmental law. In his recounting, Russian environmental legislation and norms were rewritten three times to accommodate numerous evils necessary for the creation of Putin’s Games.

Russian environmental law in tatters

Among them, of course, are the building of Tkachev’s woodsy palace, which was only possible because Putin had long been building a palace of his own, and doling out the same privilege to his cronies.

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Vitishko leads a rally against Sanay’s fence in February 2011. His placard reads “The cynicism of the authorities has exceeded all limits.” (Photos: EWNC)

In total, the estates that Putin and his pals have constructed on ill gotten cash from a phony medical charity Putin in 2000 blackmailed several Russian businessmen into creating occupy 70 hectares forestland in the national park.

Where once there were trees and wildlife, the forest has been razed to make room for the palatial structures with helipads, private roads, electrical infrastructure and yacht piers along the protected waters of the Black Sea. As a result, the Western Caucasus National Park is no longer considered a UNESCO world heritage site, a status the UN organization had hinted at ripping as far back as 2005.

“If the ruling class can disregard and rewrite to their own convenience environmental law here, they can do it anywhere,” said Vitishko.

Environmental impact studies a thing of the past

Vitishko also documented that none of the Olympic structures underwent environmental impact studies. Nor was the public consulted about their construction, or even if they wanted them.

As a result of building on the curiously variegated geology of the North Caucuses region, which has a high degree of seismic instability as well as swamp land, Vitishko predicts that the vast majority of stadiums and skating rinks will be absolute junk within the next few years as their foundations wobble and tilt.

“None of this, none of these billion dollar structures are going to be of any use in, say, three years – it’s a total waste that could have been prevented with environmental impact studies, had anyone bothered to ask,” he said.

Indeed, EWNC, along with Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Russia, had been along for the ride in the early days in 2007, when Russia had won its bid for the Sochi Olympics – its third shot trying to secure them.

The group participated with the other environmental movements in identifying some of the problems they foresaw for the local environment – and presented ways to forestall them. It was part of the Russian government’s first effort in assessing the scene in Sochi, and an attempt to actually build an Olympics that would leave behind a sustainable community.

EWNC left to twist in the wind

But somewhere amid the gargantuan construction contracts, the frenzy of government kick-backs, the naked price gouging and shakedowns over building materials, the hurried plans, the rushed decisions, and the predominance of Soviet-style hubris, the environmental suggestions got lost.

“What the government and the Russian Olympic Organizing Committee began with got changed completely,” said Vitishko. “They were left with engineering things as they went along, trying to juggle the money and the crooks and completely ignoring any advice that would have saved them billions.”

What also changed was the number of environmental groups claiming a stake in preserving the Black Sea environment. In 2010, Greenpeace and the WWF met with EWNC to discuss a campaign to pressure the government into holding public hearings over Olympic construction projects.

Somewhere shortly thereafter, however, Greenpeace and the WWF withdrew. Greenpeace said the battle was pointless.

“Whether there was an element of corruption in this or pressure from the government is hard to say,” said Vitishko. Whatever the case, Greenpeace has had precious little to say about Olympic environmental evisceration aside from a handful of hasty press conferences.

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The bizarre, slightly erotic, but ultimately confusing Olympic slogan greets arrivals at Sochi’s train station: “Hot. Wintery. Yours.” (Photo: Charles Digges/Bellona)

For its part, the WWF took out advertisements in Krasnodar Regional newspapers in support of the Olympic drive, Olga Beskova, editor of Sochinsky Novosti, Sochi’s only privately-owned newspaper, which fiercely covers difficulties associated with the Olympics, told me in an interview in Oslo in November. The WWF has had nothing negative to say about environmental malaise in the North Caucasus since the disintegration of the 2010 coalition.

Ever since, the EWNC has been left to face down Olympic environmental problems basically all by itself.

With the organization savaged by Russian’s law on NGOs and its members slung into various gears of the dysfunctional judicial system, Vitishko has been a lone voice predicting landslides – one of which closed a tunnel to the Olympic ski area, and many other of that have destroyed homes in Sochi, seismic anomalies affecting Olympic venues, and pointing out bad technological solutions to problems that could easily have been remedied.  Even the ski jump at the Krasnaya Polyana skiing area has had to be rebuilt three times due to faulty geological surveys and shoddy engineering.

Gazprom to turn off the gas

Vitishko’s prognosis for the region is bleak.

“The territory is ruined,” he said. A big part of the problem is that Gazprom, Russia’s giant state-within-a-state gas monopoly has such a huge sponsorship stake in the Olympics, meaning much of what has been built will be theirs when the Games are done. He further pointed out that if oil and gas prices fall, which in light of the US shale gas and oil revolutions, they are bound to, Gazprom will have less incentive to spend money on general upkeep of the facilities under its control.

With the woes of Sochi residents an open secret among the Russian population, Vistishko doesn’t even see a company as deft at making money as Gazprom cashing in on a new Sochi bound tourist bonanza.

“They will see the unprofitability of what’s here and move on, leave it behind, and it will fall into disrepair, creating more problems for the area” he said.

‘Russia is my team’

That won’t prevent Russians from coming to the Olympics, however, and even Vitishko himself hopes for a good turn out.

“I’ve never supported a boycott of the Olympics,” he said. “It’s unfair to the athletes who have been training to compete at a world class level – this is what the Olympics actually stand for, even if the Kremlin has missed the point.”

He also said that these particular Olympics should go forward because they could be an unfortunate lesson to the international community – and hence a vehicle for change.

Nonetheless, he is not hoping for the negative, and looks forward to attending before his incarceration begins.

“Hey, I am a fan, and I will buy tickets and root for Russia,” he said, his own springy athleticism showing in his stride as we walked the late night streets of Tuapse. “Of course we will probably come in fourth or fifth after the US, Norway, Austria, but Russia is my team and I will support them. What can I do? I’m Russian.”

This is the fifth in a series of articles Bellona is writing on the Sochi Olympics.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no