In 2012, Russian environmental activists Evgeny Vitishko and Suren Gazaryan removed a section of fence near Sochi in order to gain entry to a public forest. The fence had been erected as part of the massive construction efforts taking place in preparation for the Olympics, and activists claimed 5,000 acres of trees had been illegally destroyed in the process. Before they left, Vitishko and Gazaryan also painted slogans on the fence. One of them: “This is our forest.”
The men, who are both members of the group Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC), were subsequently convicted and given three-year conditional sentences. They had to follow a strict nighttime curfew and report any changes to their place of residence, which made it extremely difficult to do their jobs – both men are scientists – or continue their environmental activism.
This past December, Vitishko was charged with violating the terms of his sentence, and was told he had to serve three years in a labour camp. (Gazaryan had already fled Russia to avoid potential imprisonment.) Vitishko is now awaiting a hearing to appeal the sentence, scheduled for February 22. “Right now we are trying to help Evgeny with the appeal, as well as publicise his case as much as possible and draw the attention of human rights organisations,” an EWNC spokesman told VICE News.
We got in touch with Vitishko, who said he has been under constant surveillance by the Russian government for the past year and a half, while being followed by police and often harassed for dubious reasons.
“If they condemn me to imprisonment and the district court upholds the conviction, it would mean that for the government and entire system created in Russia today, there is no chance of turning back to a dialogue with society and civilian activists,” Vitishko told us. He believes that his case is only one of many to come, since the Russian government won’t stop persecuting environmental activists. “They will continue with criminal proceedings against the defenders of the Khopyer River, of the forest around Moscow, and in general all ecological activists who call the attention of the global community to the destruction of the environment.”
Vitishko said that in order to prepare for the Sochi Olympics, changes were made to Russian laws in 2006, 2011, and 2013 that had protected nature conservation areas. The changes made it possible to build sports facilities, social infrastructure and just about anything else in national parks. Though most of the construction was done in the name of the Olympics, Vitishko said much of it was actually beneficial only to tourism businesses that wanted to build on previously protected parks land.
The Olympics are projected to cost $51 billion, or more than every other Winter Olympics combined. The high price tag is being blamed on Sochi being extremely ill-suited to host an Olympics and rampant corruption.
Vitishko said the preparations for the Olympics have also had adverse effects on the UNESCO World Heritage site in the Western Caucasus and on some nearby rivers. For instance, while several companies engaged in construction signed off on the "Restoration of the Mzymta River Ecosystem" plan to return it to its original state, the many roads built around the river for construction projects won't be removed. And that is to say nothing of contaminants that have been dumped in the water.
“Despite official claims of adhering to a principle of zero waste, vast amounts of untreated waste are being exported from Sochi to the TBO landfill in Belorechensk, as well as the officially closed Loo landfill,” Vitishko said. “Millions of tons of construction waste is disposed of in dumps lacking any protective engineering, and so it then contaminates the territory of the Sochi National Park, as well as populated areas.”
Despite demonstrations held in his honour and help with his legal defense, it's quite likely that Vitishko will be sent to a penal colony following an unsuccessful appeal. That said, he didn't express concern with his potential imprisonment. Vitishko, who originally offered to pay for the fence he vandalized back in 2012, simply wants justice.
“The government is still not prepared to live according to the laws of the Russian Federation," he said. "No one has the right to violate the law – not the governor, not the president, not Vitishko."