Vladimir Putin is working very hard to maintain a squeaky clean image of the upcoming 2014 Olympic Games to take place near Sochi in the Caucasus region of Russia. Organizers are vowing it will be carbon neutral, the “greenest” Olympic games ever (after a high bar was set in Bejing), and respectful of the nearby nature reserves. The wild areas in question include the Western Caucasus reserve and Sochi National Park. What has complicated matters for the Russian government is (1) the status of the Western Caucasus reserve as a UNESCO World Heritage site (2) the Sport and Environment Commission within the Olympic Games structure which promises oversight in holding the games to sustainability standards (3) the persistence and good organization of at least five environmental NGOs who are using all the public relations, ethics, and legal tools they can to shed light on inconsistency between what the Putin-Medvedev government promises on nature protection and what it might actually deliver.
Since I wrote an essay published in the July 12, 2007 Seattle Times about nature protection and the Sochi Olympic , the back and forth battle between the environmental groups and the Russian and local Adygean government (Adygea is an internal republic of the Russian Federation) has taken some interesting turns.
Pressure came especially from the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus with A. Rudomakha and D. Kaptsov in leadership. A monitoring team from UNESCO visited in April of 2008 and reported concerns about facilities too close to the buffer zones and other boundaries of the reserves. Yuri Trutnev, the Russian Minister of Natural Resources, minimized the potential for disruption, but then Putin himself indicated by October that a plan would be drawn up to find new sites for some of the facilities, further away from the buffer zones of sensitive areas. It seemed that the NGO pressure had paid off.
But then in December, Rudomakha’s organization was joined by Greenpeace Russia, NABU, the Russian Geographical Society, and the International Socioecological Union and a formal letter was sent to the World Heritage Commission of UNESCO to express concern about the threat to the nature reserves still posed by plans for the Sochi games. They acknowledged some re-siting plans, but other protected territory, such as Grusheviy Ridge, was still under threat from road access and sports facilities development.
This tug of war between the NGOs and the Putin government will inevitably continue as final comprehensive plans are created for the entire Olympic facilities. UNESCO recognizes that the Western Caucasus reserve is one of the last wild alpine areas at the eastern edge of Europe, with many unique plant and animal species. I suggested in my 2007 newspaper essay that the attention of the outside world on the Olympic games may pay off in opening up Russia to scrutiny. As the environmental NGOs in the region point out, even without the spotlight of the Olympics, there has been much destruction of pristine areas in the Caucasus due to development, port construction, road access, and logging.
It is an opportune moment for a campaign to keep the pressure on the Russian Olympic Committee, support the work of NGO activists in the Caucasus, and publicize the fact that the Russian government is allowing the whole once-excellent network of nature reserves to flounder from the Black Sea to the Pacific coast.