Sochi Olympic critics get terrorist treatment
They are fearless, stubborn and increasingly under siege.
Environmentalists, activists and journalists in Sochi have spent
years exposing the dark side of Vladimir Putin’s showcase Winter
Games – and now they’re paying the price.
In recent months, these campaigners have been detained, put on
trial and even barred from going to the beach.
With the Olympics less than two months away, authorities are
stepping up the pressure as these men and women refuse to back down
in their fight to shed light on what they insist has been the
destruction of the environment and a way of life.
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch called local authorities
directly responsible for the campaign of harassment against
activists in the Krasnodar region, which includes Sochi. Rights
groups have lamented Russia’s human rights record for years, but
critics say the tactics in Sochi are extreme even by this country’s
notoriously overbearing standards.
”Authorities in the Krasnodar region are harassing the
environmentalists and activists who dare to speak critically of
them in the context of the preparations for the Olympics in
Sochi,” said Yulia Gorbunova, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
As the games approach, she said, ”the pressure is
Anna Minkova, a spokeswoman for the Krasnodar government, said
that authorities were ”not aware of the instances of the
harassment of civil activists” that the AP brought forward. She
added that the activities of law enforcement agencies are not under
the regional administration’s authority. Local law enforcement
agencies, which report to federal security bodies, declined
repeated requests from AP to comment both on the overall alleged
clampdown and specific claims of harassment.
Here are some of the local activists and journalists at the
front lines of a struggle to reveal corruption and environmental
damage in the run-up to Russia’s $51 billion Winter Olympics:
SVETLANA KRAVCHENKO, JOURNALIST:
When Kravchenko visited the water company to demand answers
about a supply cut in Sochi, she suddenly found herself surrounded
by security guards.
The veteran reporter pushed her way out of the office and into
the street, as the guards clutched at her clothes and tore off a
sleeve. The next day, Kravchenko was charged with beating up one of
the guards who had towered over her. A medical examination
documented a 0.3 millimeter (microscopic) scratch on his ear. Six
months later Kravchenko was found guilty and fined 10,000 rubles
Over the years, Kravchenko has documented environmental
travesties in Sochi and the heavy-handed tactics of local officials
as a reporter for the Caucasian Knot, a major Russian web
publication that covers the region. She’s been insulted and
threatened before. But nothing prepared her for the shock of being
put on trial for purportedly beating up a security guard.
Kravchenko said the water supply episode was merely a pretext for
authorities to ”take revenge against a difficult journalist.” The
water company and Sochi judicial authorities did not return
requests for comment.
”Any sane person would ask: How can you beat up a person using
your hands and feet … and he would only get a scratch inside his
ear?” Kravchenko said. ”It’s a blatant lie.”
SUREN GAZARYAN, ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST:
For Gazaryan, a zoologist, it all started with a fence.
Gazaryan had been mobilizing his fellow activists to call
attention to what he said was the property of Gov. Alexander
Tkachev – popularly known by his nickname ”Sanya” – situated in a
national forest where construction is forbidden. Last year, he was
found guilty of ”deliberate destruction of property” and handed a
three-year suspended prison sentence. The crime: spray-painting
”Sanya is a thief” on the fence.
Gazaryan said it didn’t matter that it was not him but his
friends who had spray-painted the words. Prosecutors went after him
and his comrade-in-arms Yevgeny Vitishko, another fierce critic of
the games’ environmental record. ”They had to punish us,”
After another outing to inspect what was rumored to be a secret
mansion belonging to Putin, Gazazyan, already on probation, found
himself facing charges of making death threats against a security
guard. Two other guards were listed as witnesses. ”There were
those three bulky guys with truncheons,” said Gazaryan, ”and now
they were saying I was threatening him.”
Gazaryan feared that his suspended sentence would be converted
into real prison time, and fled. He was granted political asylum in
Estonia this year.
His friend Vitishko still lives in the Sochi area. His probation
officer recently petitioned the court to replace his suspended
sentence with a prison term. The hearing is on Thursday.
NATALYA KALINOVSKAYA, CIVIC ACTIVIST AND HEAD OF PSOU
Kalinovskaya became an activist when she realized that Olympic
construction was going to go ahead without any discussion with
”Nobody showed us the bid book, we had no idea what was going
to happen to us,” she said. ”The first projects we saw were
brought by foreign media because there was no other place to find
out about it. We saw that our cemetery, which is now surrounded by
the Olympic venues, was not on the map. I’m sorry but my
grandfather lies there, and it’s a lie to say that this area is
just an open field.”
Kalinovskaya and her neighbors have written dozens of petitions
and organized rallies to protest what they say was illegal
construction on their local beach.
The activist, who already has a degree in economics, is now
getting one in environment studies. She has been repeatedly
detained at protest rallies.
In February, a local court upheld a complaint against
Kalinovskaya by state contractor Olympstroi – and barred her as an
”obstacle” to construction works on the beach. Olympstroi told
the AP that it sued Kalinovskaya because it had information that
she and other activists were ”hampering construction.”
Judge Alexander Yakimenko said in the ruling that ”the presence
of the defendants” on the beach and ”their actions to prevent
construction machinery from operating are presenting a threat to
the schedule of Olympic venues construction.”
Kalinovskay dismisses that.
”We never tried to stop the construction of Olympic venues,”
Kalinovskay said. ”We were only trying to stop the destruction of
the beach. How come Putin isn’t ashamed of destroying the pristine
beach here, in this unique place?”
ANDREI RUDOMAKHA, ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST:
Rudomakha leads the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus,
the key force behind exposing illegal landfills, the destruction of
landscapes and endangered trees, and the contamination of the key
waterway in Sochi.
Rudomakha has repeatedly landed in trouble with authorities: He
has been detained at protest rallies, vilified in state-controlled
media, and his office has been raided by the Federal Security
Now he is being investigated on suspicion of slandering a judge
he claims of convicting an activist over an unsanctioned protest on
”Authorities are sending a message,” Rudomakha said: ”Don’t
go too far, or things will get worse.”
DMITRY SHEVCHENKO, ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST:
Rudomakha’s deputy Shevchenko, who has extensively reported on
the environmental disaster in Sochi, was held at the airport in the
regional capital of Krasnodar for four hours last month after he
flew in from a business trip.
First, the environmentalist was searched by Federal Security
Services officials. Then he was taken to a police station where
officers would not let him go or explain why they had to hold him.
Policemen told Shevchenko that he was stopped because he fit the
description of a terrorist on a wanted list. He was also told that
his detention was part of security drills that Russian special
services were conducting in the region. He was released from the
police station four hours later without any explanation.
”As I see it, they are holding drills to subdue troublesome
people ahead of the games,” Shevchenko said. ”They know perfectly
well what can damage the games’ image: These are political
activists, journalists, bloggers and environmentalists.”