Sochi Liveblog: Hot Environment and Jailed Environmentalists

February 12, 2014
Russia's Sergei Volkov crashes during the men's moguls qualifying at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Welcome to The Interpreter’s Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics Liveblog. Here, we will be covering the news away from the ski jumps and ice rinks, where activists are being arrested, corruption looms large, and the terrorist threat is very real. See all of our Sochi coverage here, and read Tuesday’s Sochi Liveblog: The Winter Olympics Are Warmer Than Texas. Updates are below:

1919 GMT: The Press Secretary of the Russian Embassy to the United Kingdom has issued a press release condemning British press coverage of the Sochi games. They single out an article in The Daily Mail for comparing the Sochi Games with the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Although these reports may be regarded as a natural way of attracting the readers – by scandalous headlines, exaggerations and twisted facts, we would like to remind you that there is a red line any newspaper and journalist who care about their credibility, should not cross.

In one of your recent articles the author drew parallels between the Sochi Olympics and the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, comparing the Russian President with Hitler.

This indeed is extremely offending to the people of the country which had fought Nazism and where in every family there is a relative who had died in WW2.

This is disrespectful to all the people who got involved in the 2014 Olympics, the Russians who have worked for 7 years to make the Sochi games possible, to the athletes for whom the participation in these games means a lot, to the fans who enjoy the big event, to the world leaders who attend the Olympics.

It also undermines the efforts aimed at bringing the people of Russia and Britain together, fostering the spirit of mutual understanding, interest and respect. Articles like this are based on the cold war paranoia and are aimed at cultivating hatred and bigotry. They smack of propaganda of the worst type, which, as history shows, usually mislead both nations’ public and elites and brings about foreign policy blunders, if not disasters.

We would like to underscore that Russian media do not cover what is going on in Britain in the same deliberately provocative and hostile way. You wouldn’t find that type of ill will, which borders on chauvinism. We hope to see more responsibility and professionalism in British press in the future.

While The Daily Mail is infamous for it’s tabloid hyperbole and jingoistic politics, the piece in question is in fact perfectly in line with how many other news outlets have portrayed the Sochi Games, providing a concise history of some of the worst abuses of power under Vladimir Putin. The reference to Adolf Hitler, upon which the embassy’s Press Secretary has built his pyre of indignation, occurs only once:

Sad to say, the Olympics have a long and inglorious history as window-dressing for wicked regimes, from Hitler’s Games in Berlin in 1936 to the communist-era Moscow Games in 1980.

Making parallels between the uses of Olympic Games by repressive regimes is not the same as equating those regimes themselves. The headline, an example of typical Daily Mail hysterical style, performs the same role, though perhaps more sober sub-editing would have helped. The Embassy has used this as a straw man to attack wider Western criticism of the Olympics and Putin’s government.

1817 GMT: Kommersant reports that United Russia plans to “stir up patriotic sentiment” during the Olympics with the use of:

flash mobs, local sporting events and promotion from United Russia athletes. The events are aimed at “nurturing citizens’ patriotic sentiments”.

The use of athletes to promote United Russia was exemplified by the presence of several party members amongst those carrying the Olympic torch during the opening ceremony. Irina Rodnina, Vladislav Tretiak and Alina Kabaeva (rumoured to be Putin’s girlfriend) are all members of United Russia.

1728 GMT: Somewhat late on this, but it’s worth adding that the Russian minister for sport, Vitaly Mutko (who has been criticised for corruption), has announced that Russia will support China’s bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou. From Vesti:

“The sports official stressed that the PRC has a good chance of hosting the Olympiad thanks to the country’s influence and experience of organising the Games.”

1709 GMT: Reporters Without Borders have published their World Press Freedom Index for 2014. Russia fares poorly, being ranked 148 out of 180, with the clampdown on dissent at the time of the Olympics featuring heavily in their report:

Behind Sochi Olympic showcase – Kremlin war on civil society
More than two decades after the Soviet Union’s implosion, the entire region still looks to Moscow, to which it is bound by strong cultural, economic and political ties. All the pomp of the inauguration of the Sochi Winter Olympics in February 2014 must not divert attention from the reality in Russia of a trial of strength between an increasingly determined civil society and an increasingly repressive state.

Criticism of the regime is common since the major demonstrations of 2011 and 2012 but media self-censorship is far from disappearing. The federal TV stations continue to be controlled and, in response to the “return of politics in Russia,” the authorities have chose repression. Ever since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin in May 2012, more and more draconian laws have been adopted. Activists, news media and bloggers have all been targeted. Defamation has been criminalized again, websites are being blacklisted and the range of activities that can be construed as “high treason” is now much broader. “Traditional values” are used to justify new restrictions on freedom of information, including the criminalization of “homosexual propaganda” and “insulting the feelings of believers.”

Journalists are being detained in connection with their work. In Sochi, freelance reporter Nikolai Yarst spent six months under house arrest and continues to face a trumped-up charge of drug possession. In Rostov-on-Don, the blogger Sergei Reznik and the journalist Alexander Tolmachev are being held on questionable charges. The Russian photographer Denis Sinyakov and the British videographer Kieron Bryan spent two months in provisional detention on charges of piracy and hooliganism for covering Greenpeace protests in the Arctic. Continuing impunity sustains a climate of violence, especially in the Caucasus. At least 33 journalists have been murdered in connection with their work in Russia since 2000.


140212 - press freedom

1658 GMT: For more insight into the scale of the conflict going on to the south of the Games, here are statistics on casualties last year from Caucasian Knot:

1656 GMT: Will there be a terrorist attack? Did Russian security agencies adequately prepare for the threat? Will holding the Olympics near the conflict in the North Caucasus make Russia, the United States, and other participating countries even more susceptible to terrorist attacks in the future? Or is all this just runaway Russophobia?

Our new podcast asks all these questions and more. This week, The Interpreter’s managing editor James Miller is joined by Boston College Professor Dr. Matt Sienkiewicz and a Northeastern University professor Max Abrahms, a terrorism expert, to discuss the state of security at the Olympics.

Click here to hear our previous podcasts.

1639 GMT: Georgia has called on foreign visitors to Sochi not to travel to the nearby breakaway republic of Abkhazia. Abkhazia, which declared independence following the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, is unrecognised as an independent state by almost all states bar Russia and a handful of allies. Georgia’s protests have been met however, with a dismissal from the IOC.

Asked the IOC’s view on Olympics visitors going to Abkhazia, IOC spokesman Mark Adams said “why not.”

“The talks and exchanges between the two governments, that is entirely been to the two governments,” he said. “In terms of going to Abkhazia … well if it is safe, people will go there.”

1553 GMT: Caucasian Knot reports on legal issues in today’s sentencing of environmental activist, Yevgeni Vitishko. It appears that the Krasnodar regional court dismissed a complaint against his arrest on February 3rd as far back as the 6th. The decision was made without the involvement, or even notification of Vitishko or his lawyers, who only found this out today, on the day of his sentencing.

“Krasnodar regional court had already dismissed on February 6 a complaint by Yevgeny Vitishko, from Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus, against his administrative arrest for 15 days. According to them, neither Vitishko himself nor his lawyer found out about this decision until today…

The court upheld the decision to arrest as valid. Information on this only appeared on the court’s website today, and was announced at the session of the regional court on Vitishko’s appeal against the replacement of his punishment with a penal colony sentence.”

1517 GMT: Thomas de Waal, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment and an expert on the conflicts of the Caucasus, points out the dissonance between the presentation of the Olympics as a celebration of Russia, and the horrific history of ethnic cleansing in the area. While attention has been drawn to the protests by the Circassian community to the location of the Games (one protest in Nalchik, to the south, was shut down by authorities), de Waal reminds readers that the date of the closing ceremony coincides with the anniversary of Stalin’s mass deportation of Chechens and Ingush in 1944:

The Closing Ceremony will strike this note even more discordantly. It is scheduled for February 23. To most Russians, that is the quintessentially male holiday, “Defender of the Fatherland” day. For Chechens and Ingush it will also be the 70th anniversary of Stalin’s mass deportations in 1944, a day which sent tens of thousands of their kin to their deaths. So a date, which could easily have been avoided, will end up emphasizing the divide between Russia and the North Caucasus, rather than national togetherness.

1513 GMT:Here’s a good demonstration of how warm it has been in Sochi today:


Photo: @APkrawczynski

Photo: @APkrawczynski

1420 GMT: In the run-up to the Olympics, all the stories about Russia in Western outlets were about human rights issues, rampant corruption, and the threat of terrorism. Then the journalists arrived and found their hotel rooms in shambles and the city not prepared for the Games.

Then came the pushback. First, the grandeur of the opening ceremonies mesmerized many watchers and championed the intended spirit of the Olympics – international peace and solidarity. Then NBC, which is broadcasting the Olympics, and many sports outlets were quick to change the headlines, trying to focus on the sports and ensuring that some of these other headlines fell to the wayside. The Russian media said that the Western journalists were biased and the country was misunderstood. Even some of those Western journalists suggested that we all hate on Russia too much. As with every other Olympic games, once the sports start, the other stories are pushed to the margins.

But maybe not this time. One of the key criticisms of these games is that their location, Sochi, had more to do with corruption and kickbacks than winter sports, since Sochi is in the subtropics, with average temperatures above freezing. Now, those criticisms have proven prescient, as temperatures have raced into the 50s and 60s, and Sochi’s snow is melting. And this time this is not just a non-sports story, because the warm weather is actually changing the outcome of the games.

Dozens of athletes have crashed, some have been injured, and skis have even been broken, because of the poor conditions. Athletes who were favored to win medals have fallen victim. The Baltimore Sun has posted an entire picture gallery showing some of the wipe-outs:

Two-time gold medalist Shaun White was just out of medal’s reach in fourth place amid more than 30 crashes by contestants in the men’s halfpipe qualifying round. One snowboarder crashed so hard her helmet cracked, raising concerns once again about safety during the Sochi Olympics. A number of tumbles on the slopes have led to changes to the courses. Here are a few of the most wince-inducing images from the slopes of Sochi as some of the world’s best athletes compete for the gold. And sometimes, the opposing team’s coach comes to the rescue.

The environment is also making other headlines. During the construction of the Sochi Olympic facilities, a large amount of environmental damage was done. Environmentalists who spoke up about these problems were arrested, and now a high profile environmentalist has been sentenced to 3 years in prison. Yevgeny Vitishko was arrested for vandalism, and Wednesday the court ordered him to be jailed.

Vitishko and a fellow activist, Suren Gazaryan, were originally given suspended sentences for writing “thief” on a fence believed to surround a property belonging to Krasnodar territory governor in a town outside Sochi in 2011 and for damaging one of its sections. The pair claimed the gesture was in protest at what they said was illegal construction on protected territory that was not directly linked to the Games.

Gazaryan fled Russia in 2012 over fears of further prosecution and received political asylum in Estonia.

His charges were actually upgraded after he was arrested in December for swearing in public, which is why his suspended sentence was overturned and his prison sentence was handed down.

In other words, the environment, and the environmentalists, may be stealing the headlines back once again today.