An internationally recognized bat expert and zoologist, Suren Gazaryan led multiple campaigns exposing government corruption and illegal exploitation of federally protected forestland along Russia’s Black Sea coast.
The Western Caucasus, a wilderness area along the Black Sea shores in Russia’s Krasnodar region includes a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most unique and diverse ecosystems in Europe. Ranging from sub-tropical zones along the coast to 10,000-foot mountain peaks in the interior, it houses thousands of species of plants, birds and mammals, some of which are globally threatened. It is also a popular summer vacation spot for Russians. This wilderness area allows everyone, regardless of wealth or social status, to access and enjoy nature.
Despite the area’s environmental importance, an elite group of Russian officials are seizing tracts of land, forests and shorelines to build luxury private residences near the Black Sea coast. The 2007 announcement of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, located in the heart of the Western Caucasus, spurred even more development projects, further eliminating access to public lands and threatening wildlife.
Meanwhile, recently passed legislation has placed enormous pressure on Russian environmental activists. The law targets NGOs that receive overseas funds and deemed to be politically active, requiring them to register as foreign agents or face heavy fines, suspension, closure, and criminal charges.
One of these environmental activists is Suren Gazaryan, who grew up in Russia with a deep love of the outdoors. He was born in Krasnodar, where he studied biology in university and took up caving as a hobby while hiking in the local wilderness. Hobby turned to profession when his fascination with bats in the Krasnodar caves led to graduate studies and a career as a zoologist.
While conducting field research in the 1990s, Gazaryan came across evidence of illegal logging and construction that was destroying the bats’ habitat. He realized then that it was not enough to just study bats—he had a responsibility to protect them. Gazaryan set out to stop the dangerous activity, and began collaborating with Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC), an NGO working to protect the environment in Northern Caucasus.
Their first joint campaign resulted in success when illegal logging in the Chernogorye Wildlife Refuge was halted. However, Gazaryan continued to discover new construction sites in Krasnodar, including one for a lavish residential palace on federally protected land in the Utrish Wildlife Refuge intended for then-president Dmitry Medvedev.
As a volunteer activist with EWNC, Gazaryan organized protestors to physically block bulldozers from illegal road building and collected tens of thousands of signatures petitioning Medvedev to stop the presidential palace’s construction. He joined forces with fellow Russian environmental activists from Khimki Forest and Lake Baikal in demonstrations across the country to defend the people’s right to a healthy environment and free access to public lands.
Gazaryan used social media, which was rapidly becoming an important news source for Russians skeptical about government-controlled media. He authored hundreds of blog posts under his real name—an incredibly brave act given the current political environment—and shared video footage on YouTube that he filmed during his inspections of illegally seized land.
In 2010, after two years of intensive campaigning by Gazaryan and EWNC, the Utrish Nature Preserve was created with the highest level of protection available under Russian law. The 25,000-acre parcel of wilderness, located along the northwest coast of the Black Sea, is home to dozens of endangered plant and animal species. Later that year, the Department of Presidential Affairs announced that it was dropping construction plans for the controversial presidential palace inside the Nature Preserve.
This work came at a great personal cost and risk for Gazaryan, yet he refused to abandon his environmental activism. In June 2012, he was sentenced to a three-year probation for a public rally against the illegal seizure of protected forestland around the regional governor’s mansion. In August 2012, the Russian authorities charged him with a second criminal case for allegedly threatening to kill security guards at an illegal construction site. Facing a harsh prison sentence in a corrupt justice system, Gazaryan was forced to flee to Estonia where he received political asylum.