Former eco-prisoner Vitishko takes on illegal build outs at Olympic ski venues

vitishko prison Yevgeny Vitishko during one of his numerous appellate hearings. (Photo: EWNC)

Undeterred by the conditions of his recent parole, a new ankle monitoring device, and nearly constant surveillance, Russia’s former eco-prisoner Yevgeny Vitishko has mounted an offensive against expansions of Sochi Olympic ski resorts into the Black Sea’s protected lands.

The resort expansions are another example of Russian environmental law getting trampled under the boots of well-heeled developers – and how corruption allegations over illegal land grabs are still swirling even two years after the 2014 Sochi Winter Game ended.

Vitishko’s group, the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (EWNC), has long warned that the well-funded alpine venues constructed for the Kremlin’s $51 billion Games would eventually encroach on national parks, reserves, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

“My task is not to allow this,” said Vitishko in an interview. “What mechanisms will be used for this – attempts to appeal to UNESCO or international organizations – I just don’t know yet.”

2014_Sotsji_NB-l490 Mountains in the the Caucasus State Biosphere Reserve. (Photo: Nils Bøhmer)

In a separate interview with the regional Sochinsky Novosti newspaper, Vitishko said he remained abreast of the cause of preserving protected lands around Olympic sites even while imprisoned.

“While I was in the prison colony, a huge number of people tried to draw attention to this problem,” he told the paper. “This is the whole world’s heritage, not just ours. We have to save it by any means.”

In other words, his position since he spoke with Bellona while still incarcerated at the Sadovaya Prison Colony in the Tambov Region has undergone some modification.

During his prison interview, he was more retiring about his future position in Russian environmentalism, saying then he might consider consulting, but would probably make a return to his career as a geologist.

It’s now clear, a little over a month after his release, that he’s hit the streets swinging.

A slippery slope of legal erosion

EWNC’s Yulia Naberezhnaya showed Bellona how the Laura Ski Resort – owned by the mega-state gas corporation Gazprom – had only eight months after the Olympics rolled in bulldozers to shove ski slopes into the Caucasus State Biosphere Reserve.

Those, and several other bowers of heavy machinery, have by now begun to erode more reserves – a reserve being the highest distinction Russia can give an area of natural preservation, and protecting it with reams of laws.

One of these reserves, said Vitishko in recent interviews, lies around the Sochi Olympic Ski resort of Roza Khutor, which is planning to expand its sprawling mountaintop complex.

This development, he said, would be in “the direction of an ice cap, and that is harmful for everyone,” he said.

sochi sign Sochi signs. (Photo: Charles Digges/Bellona)

The icecap, he said, is “a potential source of water, and there are things that could influence the climate of [local region of] Kransnaya Polyana [where Roza Khtor is located] and post-Olympic Sochi.”

The possible infringements on protected territories around Roza Khutor after the Olympics, Vitishko said, have been made possible by collusion between oligarch billionaire Vladimir Potanin and Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister in charge of regional development.

Legal legerdemain between oligarch and Kremlin?

EWNC alleged late last month that Potanin, who owns Roza Khutor, influenced Kozak to issue a December order to the Caucasian Natural Reserve. The order told the reserve to relinquish its right to perpetually oversee land located in the Sochi State Natural Sanctuary near the Mzymta riverhead and the ski resorts.

The purpose of this move, said EWNC, was to facilitate “uncontrolled expansions” of the ski resorts into federally protected areas – something they said exceeded Kozak’s authority.

Vitishko and his colleagues at EWNC have said Kozak’s order is illegal, as lands surrounding the Mzymta riverhead fall under the Ministry of Natural Resources’ purview.

Protective legislation for the area should have been adopted in 2014, EWNC coordinator Andrei Rudomakha said, but those efforts have been repeatedly thwarted by Kozak.

Kozak’s press service said it would only take written requests for comment, which were not returned by this writing. His office, by law, has 30 days to respond.

construction along Mzymta near Krasnaya poyana The beginnings of the Mzymta River in Krasnaya Polyana. (Photo: Charles Digges/Bellona)

Potential construction at the source of the Mzymta River, said Vitiskhko, could lead to further contamination of one of Sochi’s already painfully contaminated water sources.

Insult and injury for Sochi’s water

The Mzymta River suffered hard under the lash of Olympic construction, and was heavily polluted by pre-Olympic industrial trash dumped into the Akhshtyr quarry north of Sochi.

The construction waste was toxic cast-off from the giant state corporation Russian Railroads, which built a rail line connecting the seaside Olympic venues to the mountain resorts.

Leakage from the quarry made much of the Mzymta’s water impotable. Come opening of the Olympics on February 7, 2014, all that came from many Sochi faucets was grimy swill.

Gazprom sharpening its saws

Meanwhile, said Vitishko, clear-cutting at the Gazprom ski resort had progressed since Bellona’s last visit. Tree-felling has already reached the buffer zone between the resort and the surrounding national park and the Caucasus State Biosphere Reserve.

“At a later stage, [clear-cutting] could cross into the reserve,” he said. “The clear cutting has already begun, and foundations have been poured for a few future ski lifts and cable car stanchions.”

krasaya polyana Skier at Krasnaya Polyana. (Photo: Courtesy of RBK news wire).

Vitishko has said that he is trying to recruit the help of the Krasnodar Regional government to stop the chainsaws – but he’s unsure if the authorities are willing to work with environmentalists.

“I think there should be conduction a dialogue here,” he said.

One saving grace, noted Vitishko in an interview with the independent RBK Russian newswire, could be the horrible – and expensive – service guests of the new Caucasus Mountains ski resorts are subject to. An RBK survey of skiers on the slopes of places like Roza Khutor and other resorts in Krasnaya Polyana revealed something bordering on rage.

This could be good.

“The predatory relationship to nature corresponds to the self-serving relationship to customers,” Vitishko told RBK. “Among the visitors to Krasnaya Polyana are not just dissatisfied people, but those who are happy with anything – on one hand, this is a person whose willing to burn money, or someone who has very low standards.”

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no