SOCHI, Russia — The environmentalists who have been struggling to protect forests, rivers and wildlife from harm during Olympic construction planned to speak out about their battle Sunday in an out-of-the-way official protest zone. With thousands of journalists in town for the Winter Games, here was the moment to get the world’s attention.
It’s not going to happen.
For years, local authorities have tried to silence complaints about construction for these Olympics, harassing activists and ignoring their arguments. Finally, they came up with a deal the environmentalists could not refuse. On Thursday, they offered to talk with the protesters, but only if they withdrew their request for a rally permit.
“We agreed,” said Vladimir Kimayev, a board member of Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus. “It’s a big achievement. Now, for the first time, we will meet.”
City officials proposed a series of roundtable discussions, which began Friday and continued Saturday. “We asked for certain people to attend,” Kimayev said, “and they agreed. These people would never come to a rally.”
Environmentalists have been under enormous pressure for years as they have attempted to make their voices heard. In 2010, a geologist named Sergei Volkov fled the country, fearing arrest, after he criticized the Olympic planning process. A little over a year ago another scientist, Suren Gazaryan, escaped Russia, expecting imminent imprisonment after he accused the regional governor of harming a protected forest.
This week, a third scientist was ordered to a labor colony for three years. Geologist Evgeny Vitishko had been given a suspended sentence after he, along with Gazaryan, was convicted of vandalizing a fence, which he said was concealing the forest damage. Vitishko was about to publicize a report on the environmental impact of the Olympics when he was accused of violating the curfew terms of his parole.
“They had no evidence to convict him,” Kimayev said. “This is a political act against him. We, of course, expected it.”
Vitishko also belongs to Environmental Watch, which put out an 84-page report this week called “Sochi 2014: 10 years Without Respect for Law.” The report lists a range of criticisms: lack of a thorough geological study in the mountains, a gas pipeline that destroyed 2,000 rare trees, destruction of coastal feeding grounds for migrant birds, along with the home of an unusual marsh tortoise.
“Contaminants were dumped into rivers and the habitats of bears and birds were destroyed to clear the way for ski runs,” the report said.
The coastal marshland has been turned into acres and acres of asphalt, planted with Olympic arenas. Olga Noskovets, another Environmental Watch activist, looked over that vast expanse Thursday, gladdened by the cheerful crowds bustling off to hockey games and skating events. Like others who protested the construction, she had succumbed, at least momentarily, to Olympic euphoria. Still, she mourned.
“We are feeling the spirit of the Olympic Games, and that’s great,” she said. “But on the other hand, I can feel the shells beneath my feet of the marsh turtles who lived here.”
Noskovets, 37, was a guide who used to take tourists to marvel at wild spots in the mountains and along the rivers. As Olympic construction encroached, she grew active — and well-known to police. On Dec. 25, criminal investigators called her in for interrogation. They asked for her passport, driver’s license and other documents. They wanted to know the organizations she belonged to. And they insisted she fill out a registration card identifying herself as someone suspected of extremist activity.
“I’m definitely an environmentalist,” she told them. “I’m not an extremist.”
She was allowed to leave after signing a document promising she would follow the law in expressing her opinion during the Olympics. Like other activists, she is upset about Vitishko’s sentence. Human rights defenders have asserted that there is no evidence to prove that Vitishko damaged the fence, as charged, or that he violated parole. The fence, however, was around a country house that activists said belongs to the regional governor, Alexander Tkachev. Tkachev denies owning it. Vitishko — and Gazaryan, who was involved in the same case — made a powerful enemy in the governor.
“I think the courts were ordered to put him in jail,” Noskovets said. “They did it to frighten everyone else. They’re delivering a message to all of us.”
Originally, all protest was banned in Sochi during the Olympic Games. In January, President Vladimir Putin ordered local officials to provide a designated area for rallies, which drew approval from the International Olympic Committee. It looks as if the area — at a park more than seven miles from the closest Olympic site — will go unused now that the environmentalists have withdrawn their application. Few others dare ask for a permit.
Noskovets understands that talks with local officials might not reach a satisfactory conclusion and that they might grow even less conciliatory after the Olympics. But she remains committed and unafraid. Now, she said, activists have to enter a new phase. She plans to run for the 50-member city council in September, to make policy rather than protest it.
“My aim for the next five years is to oppose future construction,” she said. “They will try to put more concrete on nature. Pretty soon we might be showing tourists shopping malls instead of nature. Our aim is to protect what’s left.”