Argument

Thin Ice

Thin Ice

Many of the controversies surrounding Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi have been roundly covered by the foreign press and on social media: from the estimated $51 billion Russia spent to host the games, to journalists finding themselves in unfinished hotels (or without hotel rooms at all), to warm temperatures compromising snow quality and competitors’ performances. Many of these issues have often been framed with humor and wonder — and with plenty of "Oh well, it’s Russia" commentary.  

But there are concerns that shouldn’t be laughed off or taken in stride, namely the campaign of intimidation and harassment against Russians who have criticized the government’s preparations for the Olympics or other policies and decisions linked to the games. On Feb. 18, the detention in Sochi of two members of the punk group Pussy Riot — together with several activists and journalists — grabbed global headlines, thanks to the women’s previous, high-profile conviction and amnesty. But this is just one incident in a multiyear campaign targeting activists and critics of the games. The entire list of people under fire, starting way back in 2008 — when few outside of Russia even knew where Sochi was — has become too long to feature in one article. But the details of even a handful of cases cast a disturbing shadow over the Olympic glow.

In one of the most vindictive, politically motivated cases, on Feb. 12, a court about 100 miles from Sochi sentenced environmental activist Evgeny Vitishko, a geologist, to three years in a penal colony. Vitishko’s story dates back to June 2012, when he was convicted on wildly disproportionate criminal charges for allegedly spray-painting a construction fence around a dacha, or summer home, in the Sochi area. The dacha supposedly belonged to the regional governor — built illegally, according to environmental activists, in a national park. Vitishko, a father of three, was given a suspended sentence with probation.

Undeterred, Vitishko, together with colleagues from the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (EWNC), a prominent NGO, continued to document and publicize what they allege are serious, negative environmental impacts of the government’s preparations for the Olympics. Late last year, local authorities claimed that Vitishko had violated the conditions of his parole and called for him to serve time.

Just days before the Feb. 7 opening ceremonies, Vitishko informed his parole officer of his   intention to visit Sochi. Local authorities quickly detained him on bogus charges of "swearing in public" and conveniently locked him up for 15 days of administrative detention. So not only did they silence Vitishko for the duration of the Olympics, they also ensured that he couldn’t fully defend himself at the hearing where a court determined he should be sent to a penal colony. Vitishko was only able to appear via a shoddy video link, barely audible in the courtroom.

More than a few of Vitishko’s EWNC colleagues have also been targets of harassment. In March 2013, authorities descended upon EWNC’s headquarters during the Russian government’s nationwide NGO inspection campaign, aimed at identifying "foreign agents." Officials were particularly interested in the EWNC’s activities related to the Olympics and urged the group not to publish a report on the topic in order "not to harm the country." When the group’s leadership refused, inspectors proceeded to examine the group’s computers for unlicensed software and to probe its email accounts. They threatened the EWNC with fines if it did not comply. The organization has since had its bank accounts frozen.

Last May, investigative teams arrived simultaneously at the apartment and the dacha of Vladimir Kimaev, an activist with both EWNC and an opposition political party. They claimed they were searching for weapons and explosive materials in a criminal case to which Kimaev had no affiliation whatsoever. Later, in October, EWNC chair Andrei Rudomakha was detained on charges that he had committed libel in criticizing the government’s moves against environmental activists like himself. The investigation was used as a pretext to restrict Rudomakha’s travel. More recently, Igor Kharchenko, another EWNC activist, was detained in early February for reasons that are still murky. Kharchenko’s car was vandalized, and when the police responded to the scene, they seized Kharchenko roughly and sentenced him to five days of administrative detention for supposedly refusing to follow police orders. During the closed court hearing in the case, a judge denied Kharchenko’s requests for his own lawyer to be present and to show video footage of the police detaining him.

Numerous other EWNC activists have also been detained in recent months, with an array of justifications from the government: for holding one-person pickets (which do not require official permission under Russian law); for attempting to visit the same dacha at the center of Vitishko’s case (activists were stopped before crossing into private property or over no-trespassing designations); or in conjunction with spurious legal cases.

Plenty of other Sochi critics have also been besieged by authorities. One environmental activist, who refused to be named due to safety concerns, has been receiving regular calls for the last year from a security service "minder," who often checks in after the activist’s meetings with foreign journalists and issues "friendly" warnings not to speak too critically about Sochi preparations — Russia’s image is at stake, after all. More broadly, a wave of police activity began in late 2013, just as the world was starting to discuss the who’s who of Olympic medal contenders; it continues today.

On Dec. 25, for instance, Sochi police and security officials called in environmental activist Olga Noskovets and questioned her about her plans for activities "during the Olympics," claiming they were checking all "people under suspicion for tendencies toward extremist activities." Police released her after she agreed to not undertake any "illegal activities" during the games. That same day, police visited the home of Alexander Popkov, a human rights lawyer who has represented numerous journalists, activists, and others in Sochi. Not finding Popkov at home, a police official called him on the phone and invited him to the police station to "calmly have a discussion about the Olympics." Popkov declined, requesting an official summons — but it never came, likely because authorities had no legal reason to issue one.

Just a few days prior, three police officers went looking for Natalia Kalinovskaya, an activist, at her parents’ house. They entered without a warrant and told Kalinovskaya, an early and passionate critic of the government’s evictions of Sochi residents and its overtaking of public spaces to make way for Olympic developments, that they wanted to speak to her because she was on a list of "organizers of meetings and civic disturbances." Kalinovskaya refused to go to the police station without an official summons. Police left her alone only after she told them she was planning to leave Sochi for the period of the Olympic Games.  

A few weeks later, on Feb. 7, police in Nalchik, the capital of the Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, detained almost 27 Circassian minority-rights activists and gave six of them administrative jail terms for holding a protest ahead of the Olympic opening ceremonies that night. (Many Circassian people and other ethnic minorities claim Sochi is part of their historical homeland from which they were expelled during tsarist Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century.) Some of those detained alleged that police used force and threats; three men were reportedly made to sit for 30 minutes with plastic bags over their heads that left just enough of an opening for them to take shallow breaths.

This wasn’t the first targeting of Circassian activists: Just two months ago, on Dec. 13 and 14, authorities detained and questioned at least eight activists, partly about their open criticism of the Sochi Olympics. All were released without charge, but the authorities searched several of their homes and confiscated computers, telephones, and publications.

Some journalists, including foreign ones, have faced similar treatment for trying to shine a spotlight on the underbelly of the Sochi Games. A crew for Norway’s TV2, an Olympic broadcaster, was subjected to surveillance, repeated detentions, and threats of criminal charges and imprisonment over the course of three days in early November, as they sought to report on Circassian criticism of Sochi and other concerns pertaining to the games. A month later, security services confronted a crew for the BBC’s Panorama program as it attempted to document Olympics-related damage to a mountain village en route to some of Sochi’s venues. Local Sochi journalists have fared no better, some facing trumped-up charges designed to intimidate and silence, others learning the hard way about "taboo" subjects, including public protests, environmental concerns, and corruption.

Through it all, International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials, most recently in a statement on the sentencing of Vitishko, have maintained that these and other cases have nothing to do with the Olympics. As with most human rights concerns related to the games, the IOC has taken the Russian government’s explanations and justifications at face value and failed to give equal weight to civil-society concerns. In fact, when the government announced that it would handle public criticism in Sochi during the games by setting up a so-called protest zone in a small village approximately 15 kilometers from the Olympic Park — which would require permission from three government agencies, including the Federal Security Service, to use — the IOC breezily praised the move. It claimed that the protest zone would allow people in Russia "to express themselves freely."

Yet on Feb. 17, activist David Khakim was detained for holding a poster in support of Evgeny Vitishko in Sochi’s city center, not in the protest zone. He was sentenced to 30 hours of compulsory labor, a Russian version of community service. 

If the IOC can blithely compliment the Russian authorities’ supposed efforts to protect free speech, then the IOC clearly hasn’t been paying attention to what’s been happening in Sochi for the past several years.

As these Olympics enter their home stretch, we can surely allow ourselves to celebrate the thrilling athletic achievements, triumphs, and defeats that go with any successful games. But we should also not forget the price paid by those who’ve worked tirelessly to hold the Russian government accountable for the corruption, human rights abuses, environmental damage, and other problems associated with the world’s greatest sporting event.