Russian group that highlighted Olympic environmental graft cleared from ‘foreign agent’ list

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

A Russian environmental non-profit that made its name revealing luxury vacation homes and corrupt construction deals connected to Kremlin insiders and other cronies of Russian President Vladimir Putin near the Black Sea said Wednesday it had been removed from the Justice Ministry’s list of “foreign agent” NGOs.

The apparent exclusion of Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus from the blacklist of civil society groups receiving foreign funding comes just days after its leader, Andrei Rudomakha, was savagely beaten by unknown assailants after exposing a mansion built illegally on the Black Sea coast for one of Putin’s friends.

In a release, the group said that as of Tuesday, the time allotted by an earlier court decision to officially scrub the group off the foreign agent list had lapsed, and that a review of the list at the Justice Ministry’s portal late that day had showed its name was no longer there.

Rudomakha Andrei Rudomakha of the Environmental Watch on the Northern Caucasus. (Photo: Facebook)

The group added that no officials had gotten in touch with them regarding its removal from the register. But as with the handful of other groups that have fallen off the list without being closed officially, notification that a group is no longer a foreign agent is not greeted with the same official zeal as notification that a group is a foreign agent.

“The organization was not informed of this by anyone and no information about it was publicized,” read the group’s release. “It is interesting that information about its inclusion on the register was publicized by the Justice Ministry the very same day.”

The group, based in Krasnodar, southern Russia, rose to international prominence by exposing the breadth of environmental abuse and official corruption brought about by Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi on its protected Black Sea coast.

In a report compiled during the seven-year lead up to the Games’ opening, the group catalogued illegal land grabs, shady business deals and legislative manipulations orchestrated by the government during Moscow’s drive for the most expensive Olympics in history, which weighed in at  $52 billion.

Railroad and highway construction around Sochi led to a plague of toxic and illegal landfills spread throughout the area’s protected forests, and landslides and construction waste from building Alpine ski resorts owned by Kremlin connected businessmen fouled drinking water for more than 100,000 people.

Olympic funding was further diverted build lavish mansions for Putin and cooperative politicians in his circle, including his prime minister, Krasnodar’s then governor, and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In return for exposing these details, one of the group’s activists, Yevgeny Vitishko, was sent to a labor camp for two years and another, named Suren Gazaryan, was forced out of Russia. Official rancor over the group’s revelations became so corrosive that several activists who gathering in Sochi to protest during the games were horsewhipped by apoplectic police.

It surprised no one that the group was eventually named a foreign agent in 2016. What was surprising is that it took the Justice Ministry so long after the Olympics to get around to it, and that it seemed to require so many machinations to land the group on the list.

In order to allege the group was caught red handed with foreign funding  the local division of the Federal Security Service had to fabricate an international wire transfer into one of its activists’ bank accounts – which only occurred after the group had successfully beaten  back a flurry of other lower level offenses in court.

The problems the group brought to light surrounding the Olympics have only gotten worse with time. Last summer the World Wildlife Fund concluded that continued expansion of the original Olympic ski resorts owned by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs were again threatening the drinking water supply for Sochi.

Several other activists with the group continue to be subject to surveillance and police harassment and detentions on a routine basis.

Charles Digges