BY KARENA AVEDISSIAN
From Transitions Online
KRASNODAR, Russia—On the afternoon of November 13, environmental activists Suren Gazaryan and Evgenii Vitishko crept through a forest preserve on the Black Sea coast, past security guards and toward a fence surrounding a villa. Their mission was part protest – in spray paint on the fence, they called the provincial governor a thief and declared, “This is our forest” – and part reconnaissance, to see what was happening on the other side.
When they cut through the fence, they found trees had been illegally felled, among them endangered Pitsunda pines. A whole complex was under construction, including a swimming pool and tennis court, despite a ban on such development in forest preserves.
The activists say the protected land was seized illegally to build the villa, which records show is owned by Alexander Tkachev, governor of Russia’s Krasnodar region. The fence surrounding it and a much wider area of about 7 hectares (17 acres) of forest along the shore also prevents public access to the land and beach, in violation of Russian law.
Instead of hearing the activists’ complaints, however, prosecutors charged Gazaryan and Vitishko with vandalism. Three months later, the charge was upgraded to “willful damage of property with motives of hooliganism,” increasing the potential penalty to five years in prison.
The case has become a cause not just for environmental activists in the southern region of Krasnodar but across the country. And it comes at a time when voices for the environment have become a significant part of Russia’s growing protest movement.
Last month, Evgenia Chirikova, leader of a group fighting to protect the Khimki forest northwest of Moscow from a major highway project, received the $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize, widely known as the “Green Nobel.” Other activists in the Khimki forest fight have been attacked, including one journalist who was left brain damaged after a beating and had to have three fingers and his right leg amputated.
In Krasnodar, the activists often run afoul not only of local bureaucrats and businessmen, but also of some of Russia’s most powerful figures. The region, which sits on the Black Sea just north of the Caucasus region, is a major tourist destination, and a popular site for the second homes of Russia’s elite. It is also home to a delicate ecosystem that includes the country’s last remaining Mediterranean pine forests and pistachio trees.
A road under construction through a UNESCO World Heritage forest to a ski resort built by state oil company Rosneft; a residence for the head of the Russian Orthodox Church on the Black Sea coast near the city of Gelendzhik; Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s villa in the Utrish nature reserve – all occupy public land in Krasnodar and are patrolled by private security guards.
The activists of Environmental Watch, to which Gazaryan and Vitishko belong, say corruption is one of the greatest obstacles to stopping such projects in the region.
“Environmental violations are often allowed by the state structures. If it’s a private business, then it turns out that the state knows about it and to condemn it is pointless, because [government officials] are benefiting,” activist Dmitri Shestochenko said.
“The governmental structures for environmental protection just don’t work,” Anna Mitrenko, another activist, said. “When we inform the authorities about an environmental problem, they just say, ‘There is no problem here.’ Everything is infected with corruption. It’s the system – it’s a web that the Russian people are caught in.”
Activists say preparations for the 2014 Olympics, which will take place in the Krasnodar city of Sochi, have made matters worse, with projects allowed to take priority over environmental regulations. Last year a toxic spill into the Mzymta river related to drilling for a road and rail line near the town of Adler polluted drinking water for residents nearby. No state agencies or companies tied to the spill were held accountable.
In other cases, when activists have managed to draw attention to questionable projects, environmental laws are watered down ad hoc.
“Environmental legislation is getting weaker and weaker,” Gazaryan said. “Previously it was illegal to cut down endangered species of trees. When they did that in preparation for the Sochi Olympics, we went and interfered. Then a month later, the authorities made amendments to the legislation that allowed it specifically for the Olympics,” he said.
In the matter of the Tkachev villa, local officials initially denied any link between the governor and the territory within the controversial fence. However, Tkachev said earlier this year that about 70 percent of the fenced-off land is leased to a private company called Agrokompleks, of which his father is a shareholder. Activists contend the tie goes deeper, saying the regional real estate register lists Tkachev himself as the owner.
Russian law allows forest preserve land to be leased as long as it remains publicly accessible. It also allows development of the property, but only with temporary structures made of light materials such as wood – not with the concrete, brick, and iron that went into the construction of the villa.
“Anyone familiar with the case knows that the reaction of the authorities is political,” said Natalia Dorohina, a journalist with the Caucasian Knot website who has followed the matter.
The Krasnodar regional administration did not answer repeated requests for comment on the case, or on Environmental Watch’s claims about the villa’s ownership.
Like the Khimki forest activists, those in Krasnodar have faced physical intimidation.
In March, Gazaryan and his lawyer, Viktor Dutlov, were inspecting the area surrounding Tkachev’s villa when private security guards handcuffed them, seized Gazaryan’s camera and cell phone, and detained the men for five hours. When police arrived, they arrested Gazaryan and Dutlov, who were sentenced the following morning to 10 days in jail for “resisting police orders.”
News of their arrests spread through Russian Internet forums and social networks. Within days, a wave of protests swept across dozens of Russian cities in support of the activists.
Greenpeace Russia has collected more than 22,000 signatures on a petition demanding that the charges against Gazaryan and Vitishko be dropped. The campaign was brought to the attention of then-president Medvedev, who promised to review the cases but did not act. Newly inaugurated President Vladimir Putin is not expected to take up the issue.
The activists continue to conduct inspections of Tkachev’s fence and post information about their findings on Twitter, in blogs, and on the Vkontakte and Facebook social networking sites, where they also post news of any new detentions.
“The only way to protect the environment is to increase activism,” Shestochenko of Environmental Watch said. Since Putin’s United Russia party came to power in 2007, he added, “it was clear … that the authorities were counting on our silence – because no one knew about [their projects] yet. They wanted to do it quietly, but that didn’t happen.”
In the meantime, crackdowns on protesters continue. Yaroslav Nikolski, a member of Environmental Watch and the reformist Yabloko Party, was arrested April 13 after protesting another Tkachev project – construction of a gubernatorial residence on land that recently belonged to a kindergarten.
Gazaryan and Vitishko have had two court hearings so far, with most of their attorney’s motions rejected by the judge. Many observers are predicting a guilty verdict. The next hearing was set for June 6.
Karena Avedissian is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham studying social movements in southern Russia.