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In Russia’s South, Ecologists, Cossacks Team Up To Protect Nature Reserve

Activists say they were savagely beaten by guards at their camp near the proposed mining site.
Ten activists were savagely beaten by private security guards this week, with three of them hospitalized, as confrontation ramped up over contentious plans to mine nickel in Russia’s southern Voronezh Oblast.

It was the latest confrontation in a local grassroots struggle that has united environmental activists and local Cossacks in a movement to protect a nature reserve near the Khopyor River in the fertile region.

Konstantin Rubakhin, head of the In Defense of Khopyor movement, said the activists had pitched a camp near the proposed mining site to monitor activity after security guards started fencing off areas.

On May 13, Rubakhin said that the guards, unprovoked, began pushing the activists and grabbed one by the neck. When Igor Zhitenev, a Cossack activist, intervened on her behalf, he says he and others were savagely beaten and hospitalized.

"He took an extremely strong blow to the jaw. The left side of his jaw is being examined for fractures," Rubakhin says. "He has a serious concussion. Igor had a minor heart attack only two weeks ago and so he is now in a very serious situation and is in hospital.

"Ten people were injured in total. No security guards were injured whatsoever. They didn't appeal for [medical aid]. It's obvious why that is because we were not being aggressive and were just trying to ward off their aggression."

Campaign Of Pressure

An Interior Ministry spokesman told Interfax that a criminal investigation has been opened against the security guards for “hooliganism” and “premeditated” violence causing bodily harm.

The Interior Ministry says a criminal investigation has been opened against the security guards.
The Interior Ministry says a criminal investigation has been opened against the security guards.
But it is unclear how the activists will fare in the case. For two years they have claimed to be the target of a campaign of pressure that has featured fabricated criminal investigations.

Earlier this week, Aleksandr Dolgopyatov, a Cossack activist, declared a hunger strike to garner attention for the protests. Rubakhin said he would be joined by several others.

In nearby villages like Novokhopyorsk, thousands of people -- nearly the entire population -- have congregated on local squares in protest.

Starting To Gain Traction

Activists have won the backing of international NGOs -- including Greenpeace and the WWF -- but the movement is only just beginning to win national attention. Locals have petitioned the regional authorities to put the issue to a public referendum.

The Norilsk Nickel plant
The Norilsk Nickel plant
Large nickel deposits were located in Voronezh in the 1970s, but they were not accessed. In late 2011, President Vladimir Putin – then prime minister – approved a tender to mine Voronezh’s nickel deposits. The Urals Mining and Metallurgical Company won the right to tap the nickel in May 2012.

Activists say the mine could ruin the Khopyor nature reserve, located 20 kilometers away. They say pollution could decimate local species and the ecology in the heart of the fertile Black Earth region and contaminate groundwater that could slip into the Don River. Activists point to Norilsk, the town in Russia’s north that hosts Norilsk Nickel -- the world’s largest nickel producer -- which is known for contributing to pollution in the area, including acid rain and smog.

RFE/RL’s Russian Service contributed to this report