SOCHI, Russia – Yevgeny Vitishko, a prominent environmentalist whose trenchant criticism of ecological damages inflicted by Russia’s massive Olympic build out for the Sochi Winter Games has already earned him prison time to begin later this month, was earlier today jailed for 15 days for allegedly swearing at a bus stop, his lawyer said.
Alexander Popkov, Vitishko’s lawyer, told me earlier today via telephone that Vitishko had been hauled in by police in the Black Sea coastal town of Tuapse, 72 kilometers northwest up the beach from Sochi, for what they said was a charge of “petty hooliganism” for supposedly cussing in public.
Vitishko had had planned on travelling to Sochi to present an environmental report, said Popkov, and had formally filed for permission to travel to the Olympic host city
The exact charges, as released by Popkov, read more like a note from an angry teacher to an errant student’s parents than they do a matter of law.
They assert that Vitishko “while at a public transport stop expressed himself in rude, obscene, abusive language in in front of citizens who were present.”
Since Vitishko either drives or walks, I was surprised to hear he was at a “public transport stop” in the first place and tried to ring him, and got a recorded voice saying that “the owner of this mobile telephone is temporarily unavailable. “
“The charges are completely trumped up and the witnesses were obviously put up by authorities to signing the allegations,” Popkov told me in an overwhelmed and exhausted voice. “They are just trying to get Yevgeny out of the way during the Olympics.”
Popkov also said that authorities had attempted to force Vitishko to accept a state appointed attorney for the hastily arranged hearing in the Tuapse courthouse that took place at 5 pm local time. Vitishko refused the attorney.
Popkov said he was going to file an appeal on Vitishko’s behalf, but added, “that will largely be a useless formality – there is really nothing that can save him.”
Popkov added that authorities were afraid that Vitishko and other members of the environmental group Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (EWNC) – which has worked to expose ecological devastation and corruption emerging from Russia’s $51 billion Olympic drive – would attempt to disrupt the route of the Olympic torch, which has now enterted the Krasnodar Region where Sochi is located.
EWNC activists a week ago told me in Krasnodar that they might picket the torch’s passage through Krasnodar with placards but would not disrupt its actual progress to Fisht Stadium, the main Olympic venue in Sochi. All of the activists are under round the clock surveillance and many of them are facing various nickel and dime legal proceedings.
But Yevgeny, who I met last Monday in Tuapse, has become the authorities’ lightning rod among environmental activists who have strong opinions about the Olympics and the naked environmental violations it has brought to the once quiet summer resort region of Russia.
In my years of covering environmental activists under the gun, I have never met anyone as hospitable, as well spoken or as polite as Vitishko. Given environmental circumstances in Russia, the activist community is exhausted, pissed, and wear the burden of their Sysiphean task in their haggard expressions. Not Yevgeny, whose spritely athletic figure and keen eyes are constantly in joyous motion.
He has already resigned himself to the fact that as of the date of his appeal, he will begin serving a three-year sentence in a prison colony for supposed probation violations and destruction of property. On that day, he was supposed to be given an opportunity to appeal the sentence, and he was free on his own recognizance until the court date. But the plans now seem to have changed. According to EWNC’s Facebook page, Vitishko’s appeal hearing, originally scheduled for February 22, will now take place on February 12.
Vitishko’s sentence stems from a rally of some 12 people he and his EWNC colleague Suren Gazaryan staged near a fence surrounding a mansion built for Kransodar Regional Governor and Putin ally Alexander Tkachev. It is one of several mansions President Vladimir Putin and his cronies have built in the Western Caucasus National Park to entertain guests and give themselves a front row seat to the Olympics that Putin has declared will showcase “the modern Russia.”
During the rally, according to both Vitishko and Gazaryan –– who I interviewed in December in Tallinn, Estonia, where he is seeking political asylum – neither one of them were responsible to the “destruction of property,” which amounted to one of the tag-alongs at the rally spray-painting “Tkachev is a Thief” and “This is our forest” on the fence.
Vitishko and Gazaryan were given suspended 3-year sentences for what came to be known as the “fence incident” and both had to report to probation officers.
Russia’s supreme court ruled the suspended sentences should be reviewed, but the Tuapse court, which reheard the case on December 21, tacked on two charges that Vitishko has skipped two visits with his probation officers, something he doesn’t deny. Skipping four or more visits to a probation officer is something Russian officialdom considers “systematic,” and hence punishable by jail time.
But Vitishko knows the whole drill is a part of railroading him, and painting him out to be the demon that opposes Russia’s development as a world-class tourist destination.
During our conversation about his circumstances, he said quite frankly that he did not oppose that notion and hoped the Olympics, which he planned to attend, would be a roaring success.
It’s the way in which the Olympic process has proceeded that has raised his cockles: massive stadium builds on unstable geological areas; enormous illegal trash dumps in national parks; a complete lack of public consultation on where and how Olympic structures would be built; the government’s initial solicitation of, and then disregard for, input from environmental groups on how to preserve hundreds of precious animal and plant species; the interruption of migratory patterns, and the complete shredding of Russian environmental law that has allowed Olympic construction and sweetheart summer homes for Moscow’s political elite to be built on federally protected lands.
In the course of enumerating this laundry list to me in a pizza joint in Tuapse last Monday night, two drunken dopes who seem to have been put up to the job for a couple of bottles of hooch, boxed Yevgeny and me into our booth, shoving us and crowding us up against the wall.
Stinking of vodka and body odor, the two unleashed a string of mat, the Russian word for offensive language so unrepeatable that it is reserved only for provoking fights to the death.
The gist of these drunks’ position was that Yevgeny was an unpatriotic schnook who was drawing unwanted attention to what was essentially a good thing, and that I was yet another foreign spy intent on ruining Russia’s image abroad.
They would not leave us alone and kept tugging at us to follow them onto the street so they could beat and pummel us. The only way they wanted this conversation to end was in blood.
Without using a single offensive word, Yevgeny talked these bellowing street alcoholics down. It was like watching some kind of Jedi mind meld. Yevgeny is the kind of guy who is so persuasive, he could have distracted Bill Cliton from feeling up White House interns.
The barrage of wretched language unleashed by the boozy FSB emissaries when they had initially accosted us had drawn the café proprietor’s attention and he had phoned the police.
By the time the cops had arrived, the droop-lidded drunks were starting to come around. They understood where Yevgeny was coming from and were surprised to hear what he had to say. They were no bigger fans of their tax dollars being used to rip up land where they drank their beer and roasted shish-kebab than anyone else.
They were converts by the time they were in cuffs for expressing themselves “in rude, obscene, abusive language in front of citizens who were present.”
“I get a real buzz out of that,” Yevgeny told me as the encounter ended. “It’s exciting when you are confronted by absolute and obscenely illogical statements and guys who want to smash your face and, without resorting to swearing or emotion or violence, you confront them with reason, and watch them calm down.”
Yevgeny spent the rest of the evening showing me around Tuapse – both places where Rosneft was encroaching on the local environment, but also places of beauty and tranquility. He knew the history of the town, it’s architecture, which Soviet premiers had preferred Tuapse’s beaches to Sochi’s, what writers had found inspiration in its valleys.
Yevgeny was to me an unmet friend, someone who taught me a little bit more about the country I both love and fear – and showed me how to love it more, even in the face of the excruciating campaign it had launched to damn him.
The next morning I left for Sochi and Yevgeny, who must talk to at least 30 journalists a day, called me on my cell as I was pulling into the vast shiny halls of the new Olympic train station.
My first thought was that something must be wrong. Quite the contrary. All he wanted to know is if my journey had gone safely and comfortably. We bid each other thanks for the previous evening, laughed about our experience with the drunks and made plans to meet again – plans that are now impossible thanks to his new, Orwellian incarceration.
Whoever his cellmates are, they are in for an eye-opening and provocative education that only he could give them.
This is the eighth in a series of stories Bellona is producing on the Sochi Olympics.