The Kremlin vowed that the Winter Olympics in Sochi would be the most eco-friendly ever. But locals say that instead, the games have spoiled the area's most prized asset: its unique environment.
Rita Kravchenko once loved to swim in the Black Sea — but hasn't done so for quite a while. After taking a dip three years ago, red blotches broke out on her body.
Kravchenko is a native of Uch-Dere, a village 18 kilometers north of Sochi. And she is convinced that the skin reaction she endured was caused by pollution flowing into the sea from a nearby garbage dump that activists say was due to be closed six years ago.
But instead, with the construction boom that ensued as Sochi prepared to host the Winter Olympics this year, it grew vertiginously.
Self-combusting waste smolders on the heap. Village residents worry about long-term health consequences. Families have abandoned homes. The frothing water in the nearby Bytkha River, which flows into the Black Sea, is the color of cola.
This reality contrasts sharply with the Kremlin's rosy promises that the Winter Olympics in Sochi would be the most environmentally friendly in history. This promise has been repeated like a mantra by officials and dutifully repeated in Russian state-controlled media.
Yulia Naberezhnaya, an activist with North Caucasus Environmental Watch, which has been monitoring the ecological degradation in and around Sochi for years, says the government's promises have proved empty.
“It's simply PR. It's pretty bookkeeping prepared for the international community that shows a nice facade. But it's just a slogan," Naberezhnaya says.
But pointing out the environmental damage wrought by President Vladimir Putin's prestige project is a risky undertaking, as local green activists know all too well. Many report constant harassment. One has fled the country. And another has been jailed.
But nevertheless, they persist. For these activists, the Kremlin's drive to use the Olympics to resurrect this fading resort town and turn it into a winter ski destination comes at the cost of the area's most prize asset: its unique environment.
Sochi came into its own as a resort town in the 1930s under Josef Stalin's rule. It cemented its reputation as the pristine vacation spot where the Soviet everyman holidayed and convalesced in its sanatoriums. Wild boar scampered in the highlands; dolphins swam in the sea.
A Soviet promotional video for Sochi, produced in 1979
Mikhail Plotnikov of Sochi’s Russian Geographical Society believes those times are gone for good.
“I think we can forget about this city as a resort. Who will travel to relax in such a noisy, bustling city clogged up with cars where you have to sit in a two-hour traffic jam to get to the sea? Of course, many sanatoriums remain, but millions [of people] used to travel here to Sochi on holiday without it having an impact on the environment,” Plotnikov says. “Now, we don’t have millions [of people] and at the same time the environment has been very seriously damaged."
Speaking to RFE/RL at the Krasnaya Polyana ski resort in a valley flanked by snowcapped mountains, North Caucasus Environmental Watch's Naberezhnaya points to a new 48-kilometer road, ski lifts scarring the mountainside, and sprawling hotel complexes as evidence of failed commitments to preserve biodiversity and conduct construction with minimum impact on the environment.
Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Locals tell stories about bears — confused without their habitat — wandering into nearby villages. Feliks Ivanenko, chairman of the Sochi branch of the Russian Geographical Society, says the environment has sustained “pretty significant” damage and that approximately 10,000 hectares of Sochi’s National Park have been affected.
Russia's "zero waste" program has come in for particular criticism. While Sochi 2014 has trumpeted this far-reaching pledge to minimize waste and introduce recycling, there have been numerous documented cases of illegal dumping in several spots across the area.
These include places like the garbage dump in Uch-Dere, which continued taking trash well into 2013, even though the site was officially closed in June 2012. In the village of Akhshtyr, environmentalists in November filed official complaints about dumped industrial waste in a water protection zone.
Waste is currently transported out of Sochi to a landfill 250 kilometers to the north in Belorechensk — a costly, temporary solution that environmentalists fear will be abandoned as unsustainable as soon as the games wind up.
These tales, which deviate starkly from the official narrative, would never have come to light without local activists.
They all tell stories of harassment ranging from phone-lines that mysteriously go dead in mid-conversation to police searches to prosecutions.
Local environmentalist Vladimir Kimayev says he was searched at his home by police in the spring. On October 31, Andrei Rudomakha, of North Caucasus Environmental Watch was briefly detained for purportedly slandering a judge, in what he called a pressure tactic.
Days later, another activist, Dmitry Shevchenko, was detained by Federal Security Service officers for four hours after flying back from St. Petersburg to the regional capital of Krasnodar, purportedly for matching the description of a terrorist.
The harassment has forced the environmentalists to stick together.
Before sunrise in late November, Naberezhnaya and another Sochi-based activist, Olga Noskovets, caught an early morning train up the coast to the city of Tuapse to attend the trial of environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko, who was accused of violating the terms of his parole.
Vitishko, a prominent critic of the Olympic preparations and a leading member of North Caucasus Environmental Watch, had received a suspended three-year jail term for vandalism in 2012. The wall of the Krasnodar governor’s residence was defaced during a protest he helped organize, although he says he was not responsible for the spraying.
Photo by Andrei Korolev, RFE/RL
Suren Gazaryan, another ecologist who faced the same charges, earlier fled the country — first to Estonia and then to Georgia. Vitishko stayed and was accused of violating the terms of his probation. And on December 21, a judge sentenced him to a three-year prison term.
Speaking to RFE/RL during his trial, Vitishko exuded optimism but had no doubt that the legal action against him was an attempt to silence him ahead of the games.
“You can link the activity that I have systematically carried out with the fact that the authorities here want to show that they are in charge and to silence me,” Vitishko says.
Meanwhile, dejected residents of the region like Kravchenko are left to contemplate life next to a garbage dump.
“The only hope is that they won’t bring any more [rubbish] here and leave this dump. But if it falls to one side, then it will cover the river and then it’ll all end up in the sea. And there can be no hope at all,” Kravchenko says.
Source: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty