In the 18 months since the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russian entrepreneurs and Russian officials have taken advantage of the lack of international attention to increase their destruction of the natural environment in and around Sochi, to further weaken the housing and infrastructure of residents there, and to repress anyone who objects to what they are doing. In the last few weeks alone, they have been illegally building a highway through a protected nature reserve, overseeing the collapse of houses and other buildings in Sochi because of their failure to obey Russian laws on construction, and stepping up their repression of Yevgeny Vitishko, the man who remains in prison for exposing their crimes in the run up to the 2014 Olympiad. In each case, Russian officials have resorted to misrepresentations and lies about their actions and made new promises that—quite clearly—they have no intention of keeping.
On the environmental front, Russian entrepreneurs and officials have acted in a particularly egregious way. The ecological monitoring group, Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (EWNC), reports that Russian businesses and officials have begun constructing a road through the protected Sochi National Park in order to open the way for the construction of more upscale housing for elites. The businesses and officials involved have denied the allegations and claimed instead that they are building the road only to allow firefighters to enter the park and protect it. But as EWNC activists have shown, the road’s route and the appearance of expensive houses along it strongly suggests that the businesses and officials are simply lying in order to buy time for them to create facts on the ground that Russian courts will then be unwilling to do anything about (Ewnc.org, June 2).
What makes this latest Russian action particularly galling, the activists say, is that the road is traversing exactly the same route that businesses tried to develop a year ago but were prevented by a court order. Last year’s order was almost certainly part of President Vladimir Putin’s feel-good campaign in advance of the Winter Games. But now the Sochi Olympics are over; international attention has shifted; and relations between Moscow and the West have soured as a result of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Thus, these same businesses are back at work in the obvious expectation that no one will block them this time around.
And the EWNC activists note that the road now appears to enjoy particular protection from the Russian authorities because it is being presented elsewhere but not to them or the courts as part of the ski industry “infrastructure” that Putin has pushed so hard in the North Caucasus. In many respects, the activists say, what is happening now in this park near Sochi corresponds in every detail to what Russian oligarchs and officials did in 2008–2009 when they built a road through a protected area in order to provide access to a dacha owned by then-president Dmitry Medvedev. At that time, they also claimed they were building a fire lane road, only to have it turn out that what they were constructing was a path to the Russian leader’s villa.
In Sochi itself, the attack by businesses and the government on ordinary residents continues as well. Last weekend (June 20), Blogsochi.ru posted online a dozen pictures showing how houses are collapsing because of poor construction methods, how luxury housing is displacing ordinary residents, and how much of the 2014 Winter Olympiad construction now sits vacant with little prospect that it will ever be used, despite the hype of two years ago. As peoples’ houses slide down cliffs and their water and sewage lines break down, Sochi officials—again as in advance of the Olympiad—are making promises that everything will be taken care of and that everyone will have a home. But as the blog makes clear, everyone has heard such promises before; and few Sochi residents, especially now that they lack allies in the Western media, believe them (Blogsochi.ru, June 20).
But the most immediate crisis is the human one of Yevgeny Vitishko, who attracted international attention two years ago for his role in exposing the destruction of much of Sochi in advance of the Games and who was sent to a Russian prison camp for three years because of his work. While incarcerated, he has taken the lead in speaking out against the illegal actions of officials against prisoners; but now, it appears that he is increasingly becoming the target of such abuses himself. After Russian officials blocked environmentalists from visiting him at the end of May, Vitishko managed to send out word that his situation is truly dire and that he “will not be able to hold out for another six months of confinement” (Ewnc.org, May 27).
Vitishko’s plight, like the destruction of the national park and of Sochi itself over the last 18 months, is a reminder that in Russia today, the only allies many people have in their efforts to defend themselves and their rights are those foreigners, journalists, diplomats and analysts who pay attention to them. When such attention wanes, for whatever reason, the risks these people face rise in disturbing ways.