2014 Goldman Prize winner Suren Gazaryan, an internationally recognized bat expert and zoologist, answers our questions about the multiple campaigns he led to expose government corruption and illegal exploitation of federally protected forestland along Russia’s Black Sea coast.
What motivated you to campaign against the illegal palaces and land grabs in the Krasnodarregion?
While I was studying bats and nature, I would re-visit caves I had studied and find that they’d been destroyed. It gradually became clear that it wasn’t adequate to just research bats — I had to protect them. So I began working with Environmental Watch on North Caucasus to protect the caves and forest. I started to learn about instances where residences were being constructed illegally along the coastline. It turned out there were a lot of them, and all of them were associated in some way or another with the government. We decided to focus our attention on the most important and visible leaders, such as Putin, Medvedev and governor Tkachev so that it would impact everyone trying to build illegally on protected land.
How did you stop the construction on former president Medvedev’s palace?
We physically went out to the site and blocked the bulldozers and excavators. We did this for about two weeks, until the construction company realized they weren’t going to be able to move forward. When the construction company left, we set up an observation post to monitor the site and make sure no illegal building resumed. We then embarked on a campaign to increase the protected status of the area as a nature reserve, which included rallies and demonstrations throughout Russia, and generating support through social media. We put enough public pressure on the government that they finally gave the Utrish federal protection.
How important was the use of social media to the success of your campaign?
We used Facebook and VKontakte (a Russian social network) to share information, including photos and videos of the palaces that we inspected. We set up a group called “Save the Utrish” within VKontakte (which has 10,000 followers) and used it to publicize our campaign. In the last three years, people in Russia have been using social media a lot more, and many are starting to use it as a primary source of information. Maybe this is specific to Russia, but when you have a media system that is very highly regulated and controlled, people — including journalists — are using social network sites as a way to get more reliable information. That is why people started to talk about the land issue, and about their outrage that their leaders were violating the law.
What led to your decision to flee Russia and seek asylum in Estonia?
There was a criminal case against me in 2012 for damaging the fence on the property of the governor of the Krasnodar region, and I was given three years of probation together with a friend of mine Evgeny Vitishko. Then in August 2012, there was a situation at Putin’s palace, where security guards falsely accused me of threatening them with murder. My lawyers advised me that because I was already on probation and now had another charge leveled against me, it would automatically put me in prison. I didn’t want to lose three years of my life in jail, so I left. In November 2013, Vitishko was charged for violating a curfew, and his probation was changed to real time in a penal colony. Currently, he is in a penal colony.
Are you continuing your environmental work from Estonia?
Yes. My colleagues send me information from Krasnodar and I help them analyze the information and write letters to generate support for our campaigns. We are currently working on six major issues, the most pressing of which was the Sochi Olympics and its impacts for the environment of Krasnodar Region. In February 2014, we published a final report on the environmental impact of the Games. The report describes the destructive impact to unique natural protected areas, degradation of habitats for rare animal and plant species, air and water pollution, and the loss of Sochi’s potential as a health resort.