Power Vertical Lost in Krasnodar Woods

MTActivists and policemen from Anapa looking on as a bulldozer pulls away from a disputed construction site in the Krasnodar region to return to its base.��
BOLSHOI UTRISH, Krasnodar Region — Construction in a pristine reserve on the Black Sea has come to an uneasy halt after picketing environmentalists forced police to intervene, but the firm doing the work says it can restart any time, even after federal authorities ordered a criminal investigation.

The logging in the Bolshoi Utrish nature reserve came to light last month, sparking protests and a petition drive to halt work on an access road that environmentalists say will open the coast for development of an elite resort. The ensuing dispute has pitted powerful interests behind the project against federal authorities, leaving even the local police unsure of who is calling the shots.

The case also highlights the increasingly frequent practice of using complicated ownership structures and contract arrangements to mask who is behind development projects. Commercial pressure to develop the tourism industry often takes precedence over regional and federal environmental protections, not to mention locals' concerns.

Earlier this month, the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry ordered the Prosecutor General's Office to open a criminal investigation into the logging by Krasnodar-based builder Glavpromstroi, ministry spokesman Nikolai Gudkov said. Last week, Minister Yury Trutnev personally criticized the project and regional authorities for allowing it to proceed, and he ordered the Krasnodar branch of his ministry's watchdog to make sure that the destruction stops.

The regional watchdog, in turn, fined Glavpromstroi 2 million rubles ($60,000) on Monday for logging in a federally protected area and destroying endangered plant species. The local environmental prosecutor has also called the construction illegal and opened a case in an Anapa municipal court, but no date has been set for a hearing.

The company, however, says it has appealed the administrative penalty and that there is nothing preventing it from proceeding.

"Only a court decision can stop the work, and so far we haven't received any documents about a court hearing," Yelena Yegorkina, a lawyer for Glavpromstroi, said Wednesday by phone. "We're just a subcontractor, and we were assured that the construction is legal," she said, adding that the logging had been approved by the -regional branch of the Federal Forestry Agency.

Alexander Byuller, deputy head of the local forestry department, told The Moscow Times last month that the logging was for a legal, fire-safety road. And just before New Year's, the project received the blessing of Krasnodar Governor Alexander Tkachyov, who ordered the forestry agency to make sure the road — already well under way — was completed.

New Year's Resolution



Seeing that the logging, which violates at least three federal conservation laws, was continuing despite their appeals, a group of activists decided to brave the cold and camp out at the site to physically block construction during the 10-day New Year's break.

"Otherwise, there would have been nothing to protect once the holidays were over," said Andrei Rudomakha, coordinator of North Caucasus Environmental Watch, the main organizer of the blockade.

Rudomakha wrote dozens of letters in December to regional authorities and the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry drawing attention to the clear cutting to no apparent affect. Only 1 kilometer of forest remains before the road reaches the coast.


Maria Antonova / MT
Environmental activists have been blocking the road since the beginning of the year to prevent construction work.
A group of as many as 20 activists camped out near the construction site, interfering with the work and facing threats from Glavpromstroi workers. The tensions boiled over on Jan. 3, when Glavpromstroi deputy director Yevgeny Yemelin arrived and began threatening activists and reporters. He refused to answer questions regarding the work, while his employees attacked reporters who were taking pictures.

The next day, some 30 police officers arrived in nine cars and began checking activists' documents and belongings as part of what they said was an anti-terrorism operation. When the search yielded nothing suspicious, police chief Alexander Belostotsky unexpectedly voiced support for the protesters.

"It wasn't us, and it wasn't you who allowed the work to go ahead," Belostotsky told the activists. He said Glavpromstroi had failed to present documents proving that the work was legal and assured the protesters that he would prevent it from continuing.

But when the activists said they would continue to guard the site despite the assurances, Belostotsky hesitated.

"Would you go against the government and the president?" he asked.

He declined to clarify his remarks.

Sending Mixed Signals



The multitude of orders, accusations and legal challenges over Bolshoi Utrish has made it easier for government officials to pass around blame for a project that no public figure wants to be associated with anymore.

The situation is further complicated by overlapping regional and federal oversight of the land. Yegorkina, the lawyer for Glavpromstroi, said the area was protected both as a "regional reserve" and as "part of the Anapa Federal Resort."

"Government agencies cannot agree who is responsible, and we are being blamed in the process," she said.

The nontransparent nature of the companies and organizations involved in the work has also clouded the dispute. For example, the project includes separate agreements for the logging work — ordered by the forestry department — and the road, which happens to pass through the cleared space.

The road, originally supposed to be 8 meters wide, is now more than three times that in some spots, presumably so that construction materials can be brought in to develop a prime, 120-hectare lot along the coast.

A Property Fire Sale



The site in question was rented for 49 years by a Moscow-based organization called Foundation for Regional Noncommercial Projects, "Dar," according to an agreement signed by Dar and the forestry department. A copy of the document was obtained by The Moscow Times.

Dar pays just over 14 million rubles ($400,000) per year in rent to the federal and regional budgets, which figures to roughly $300 per hectare per month for the secluded seafront property. In return, Dar has agreed to take on forestry duties, including extinguishing fires and creating "fire-safety infrastructure" that would include helicopter pads, fuel storage and construction of more roads.

Environmentalists who inspected the past year of land-use archives found no record of a public auction for the right to rent the plot. And the infrastructure clauses, they say, are merely to hide the real purpose of the work.

The forest has little of the undergrowth that tends to fuel forest fires, and "there has never been a serious one in the reserve," said Mikhail Kreindlin, an expert with Greenpeace.

Utrish visitors who have seen construction plans say the project would entail a large-scale complex of 18 structures. Among them are a five-story building, a health complex, a house for "servants" and two roads with checkpoints, said Muscovite Andrei Pavlov, who was shown the design by surveyors taking soil samples last month.

A Familiar Structure



The contractor for the road is construction company Harvinter, which has worked with the Office of Presidential Affairs on past projects and received an official thank you from then-President Vladimir Putin in 2006 for organizing a Russia-EU meeting in Sochi in May of that year.

The Office of Presidential Affairs "organizes and carries out the logistical support" for the president, government and legislature, according to its web site.

Harvinter could not be reached for comment.

A receptionist at Dar's Moscow office requested that questions about the project be faxed to the "foundation's management," although she declined to say to whom the request should be addressed. The foundation has not responded to questions sent Tuesday.

According to registry records, Dar was founded in 2006 by Levit, which is majority owned by Leonid Mikhelson, chairman of Russia's second-largest gas producer, Novatek. He is also a major shareholder in Novatek, including through Levit.

Neither Levit nor Mikhelson could be reached for comment. A spokesman for Mikhelson at Novatek said he could not comment on anything pertaining to Mikhelson's other assets.

Using an obscure organization to covertly develop prime land into elite resorts is typical in the region, environmentalists said.

"This project is characteristic of others on the coast that are developed secretly as private residences," said Rudomakha, of North Caucasus Environmental Watch. As the only place in Russia with access to the Black Sea and a vast untouched mountain reserve area, the region has seen its share of such projects.

Glavpromstroi, the subcontractor, was previously involved in road construction for one such resort built for the Office of Presidential Affairs near Gelendzhik, Rudomakha said. The project was presented as a children's sanatorium, but the secrecy surrounding the project — including fences and barbed wire — suggests the presence of more serious visitors.

Authority in the Regions



The scandal puts Tkachyov, governor of Krasnodar since 2000, in an awkward position. Despite the rebuke from the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, Tkachyov has not retracted his order demanding that the road through Bolshoi Utrish be completed.

Calls to the Krasnodar administration press office went unanswered Thursday.

Regional leaders have been quick to heed censure from the federal government, which actively strengthened its control over the regions during Putin's two terms as president. Direct gubernatorial elections were eliminated in 2003 in favor of a system where presidential nominees are approved by local lawmakers. More recently, many new governors have been tapped from outside the regions they are to lead, presumably to keep them more dependent on support from Moscow.

But Tkachyov, who was born in Krasnodar and first elected with more than 80 percent of the vote, appears to have the full confidence of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, as his region will host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Oleg Mitvol, a deputy head of the federal environmental watchdog, said local prosecutors were responsible for failing to act. The investigation ordered by Trutnev, he said, had been "passed off" to the regional prosecutor, who has shown little interest in the case.

"The regional watchdog is not doing everything in its power to stop the work, but the law enforcement agencies that have proof of criminal activities are not taking action," he said.

"If the regional prosecutor wanted to stop the illegal construction, he would do it, and the problem would resolve itself as soon as people start getting arrested."