Статья английского репортёра Марка Бенетса об антиникелевом протесте на Хопре за период 2012-2015 годов.
Cossacks on the run to protect nature
In Russia's fertile Black Earth region, eco-activists struggle to protect their communities from a state-backed nickel-mining project.
By MARC BENNETTS 5/7/15 | Перевод статьи на русский язык (translate.google.ru).
NOVOHOPYORSK, Russia — It’s almost midnight when I arrive in the town of Novokhopyorsk, located deep in the bucolic heart of central Russia’s Black Earth region, so-called for its famously fertile soil. The curtains in a nearby home twitch as I step out of the car — late-night visitors are a rare sight in the rural community. Surrounded by lush countryside and rolling fields, Novokhopyorsk, population 6,380, has become the unlikely setting of what is arguably modern Russia’s most stubborn protest movement.
The Kremlin may have quashed the mainly middle-class political demonstrations that rocked Moscow in 2011 and 2012, but environmental issues are stirring dissent in Russia’s heartland, creating new problems for the authorities as the war in Ukraine rumbles on and economic instability rises. If Moscow’s relatively wealthy protesters were fighting for what opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny has called “abstract ideas, like freedom and a sense of worthiness,” then the environmental protesters in the Black Earth region, and elsewhere in Russia, are battling for something far more tangible. Their potential has the authorities spooked.
For the past three years, residents of Novokhopyorsk have been one of the driving forces behind a passionate effort to halt a dangerous Kremlin-sponsored nickel-mining project. “No to Nickel,” read the ubiquitous stickers, plastered across windscreens and fences. But these are hazardous times in Russia for any form of dissent. Two environmental activists involved in the case are already behind bars, facing long stretches in jail. More may follow them.
Yevgeny Yesin, a Cossack eco-activist, stands in front of a barbed-wire fence at a proposed nickel extraction site in Russia’s Black Earth region | Viktoriya Zaganova
“There were so many people at the first anti-nickel protests, that it seemed the authorities couldn’t ignore us. We thought victory would be quick and easy, and that the project would soon be scrapped,” Oksana Lebedeva, 44, tells me over the kitchen table in the two-story house she shares with her husband, Yury, a fellow activist and local shop owner. She laughs, bitterly. “We were so naïve back then. We simply had no idea what forces we would be up against.” Significantly, Lebedeva’s experiences over the past three years have resulted in a shift in her politics. “I’ve always voted for Putin,” she says. “But I don’t think I would vote for him again, if there was a real alternative.”
Putin’s decision to open up the deposits, thought to be the largest un-mined nickel reserves in Europe, sparked a series of protests in towns and villages across the region.
The Black Earth region contains some 400,000 tons of nickel, as well as thousands of tons of copper and cobalt. Locals have always believed the region’s agricultural significance, and the presence of the nearby Khopyor nature reserve meant its valuable deposits would remain untapped. They were mistaken. In December 2011, Russian President Vladimir Putin, then prime minister, signed a decree calling for the development of the region’s Yelanskoye and Yelinskoye nickel deposits, first discovered by Soviet geologists in the 1960s, and worth an estimated $5 billion at current market prices. In 1977, the Soviet authorities abandoned plans to extract the metals, citing environmental and agricultural concerns, and placed them on the country’s list of strategic reserves.
Putin’s decision to open up the deposits, thought to be the largest un-mined nickel reserves in Europe, sparked a series of protests in towns and villages across the region, which has a rural population of almost one million people. Protests also took place in the nearest big city, Voronezh, not exactly notable as a hotbed of anti-government sentiment.
Nickel ore smelting has been responsible for mass environmental devastation across Russia, most notably in and around the northern Siberian city of Norilsk, which has been transformed into one of the most polluted places on Earth. That grim fate is not one the people of the Black Earth region have any desire to share.
Residents of Yelan-Koleno | Viktoriya Zagonova
Opinion polls from spring 2012 indicate that 98 percent of locals were against the planned nickel extraction project, which they feared would wreak havoc on their lives. Their fears were further compounded that May, when the Kremlin’s tender was won by the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company (UMMC), owned by the Uzbek tycoon Iskander Makhmudov. Forbes describes Makhmudov, 51, as “one of the most mysterious Russian businessmen.” Spanish authorities have named Makhmudov — reported to be close to Putin’s inner circle — as a suspect in a €4 million money-laundering case. A Spanish court handed the case over to Russia’s interior ministry in 2012, and it appears to have remained in legal limbo ever since.
“People really didn’t understand why they and their land should have to suffer to make yet more money for some super-wealthy businessman, who doesn’t live anywhere near the region,” says Lebedeva, our late-night discussion fueled by cups of tea brewed from locally-grown herbs. “It’s not Makhmudov’s family who will have to deal with the consequences of the project, after all.”
A diverse protest movement quickly took shape from early 2012 onwards, bringing together seemingly incompatible groups of veteran environmentalists and longtime Putin supporters, anti-Kremlin activists and Cossacks, descendants of the fiery Tsarist-era horsemen who once guarded Russia’s southern borders. “The internet played a massive role in bringing us all together,” says Yevgeny Yesin, a middle-aged Cossack, who accompanies me to the nickel extraction site the next morning. “Without the internet, we would never have met one another. We would have been isolated.”
This is a result of the almost total absence in Russia of any kind of civil society.
Drilling machinery juts out incongruously from the pastoral landscape, while camouflaged security guards patrol a barbed-wire fence designed to keep protesters like Yesin out. Shortly before my arrival, Yesin’s home was raided by anti-extremist officers ostensibly searching for illegally-stored weapons. “The raid took place two days after we’d been to Moscow to hand over a petition against the nickel project to Putin,” he tells me. “Draw your own conclusions.” For leading members of the anti-nickel movement, raids on their homes have become an unpleasant fact of life. “This is just their way of keeping the pressure on us,” Yesin shrugs. As we speak, a security guard openly points a handheld video camera in our direction. (After I left the Black Earth region, I was informed that Federal Security Service (FSB) officers had subsequently questioned almost everyone I interviewed for this article.)
Makhmudov’s company, UMMC, says it considers it a “sacred duty” to care for the environment, and denies that the project will cause any harm. The company insists the project will follow all the necessary safety procedures, and that nickel mining will create much-needed employment opportunities for the economically depressed region, where average monthly salaries hover around $425.
Critics counter that most of the 2,500 jobs the project will create are likely to go to specialists from outside the region, and that any economic benefits will pale in comparison to the expected damage to the local agricultural industry. Activists say UMMC has a patchy safety record at its zinc processing factory near the North Caucasus city of Vladikavkaz, where negligence has reportedly led to a rise in pollution. Environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, Bellona, and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature share protestors’ concerns, especially given that reliable information about the Black Earth nickel project has been hard to come by.
“There has been no serious, public discussion of the possible consequences of the project,” says Viktor Khlebostroi, a member of Yabloko, Russia’s oldest opposition party, which supports the protests. “This is a result of the almost total absence in Russia of any kind of civil society.”
A cross erected in Yelan-Koleno to protect the region against the “curse” of the nickel-mining project | Viktoriya Zaganova
Despite clear local opposition to UMMC’s plans, authorities have consistently refused to hold a referendum on the project, a decision that goes against the advice of both Russia’s Public Chamber, which counsels the government, and the Kremlin’s own human rights council. This intransigence, activists have repeatedly warned, plays straight into the hands of the more radical members of the eco-movement.
“People have been on protest after protest, but they can see that these rallies aren’t having any effect, whatsoever,” Yesin says as we drive through the verdant Black Earth countryside, its calming landscape unchanged for centuries. We pass a three-meter-high cross erected by Cossacks in 2012 to protect the land from the “curse” of nickel. “It’s not been so effective,” Yesin sighs. Local Russian Orthodox Christian priests refused to bless the cross, acting on orders from the church hierarchy, anti-nickel activists allege.
The violence recalled the last time discontent had boiled over in the Black Earth region, in 1962, when the Soviets sent in Red Army soldiers to shoot over 20 striking miners and demonstrators.
Almost 18 months after the tender was announced, organized resistance to the project erupted into violence. In May 2013, security guards at the planned nickel extraction site attacked Igor Zhitenyov, a regional Cossack leader, breaking several of his ribs and injuring his head and jaw. Zhitenyov lost consciousness and was hospitalized for several weeks. That was just the beginning. After a demonstration in the center of Novokhopyorsk the following month, around 1,500 protesters, headed by Cossacks bearing religious icons, made the long trek to UMMC’s nascent nickel extraction site. Once there, they simply tore down fences and set fire to expensive drilling equipment.
The violence recalled the last time discontent had boiled over in the Black Earth region, in 1962, when the Soviets sent in Red Army soldiers to shoot over 20 striking miners and demonstrators who had taken to the streets of the town of Novocherkassk to protest worsening living and working conditions.
This time around, authorities deployed spin doctors instead of guns to punish the protestors, resulting in a no-holds-barred media smear campaign to justify trumped-up criminal charges against the activists. “Two organizers of foreign-backed protests against nickel extraction have turned out to be racketeers,” a presenter announced on the state-controlled NTV channel in November 2013. Notorious for its hatchet jobs on the anti-Putin opposition, NTV then aired video footage of former anti-nickel activist Mikhail Bezmensky confessing that the entire protest movement was nothing more than a scheme to blackmail UMMC and foment unrest. Bezmensky also incriminated the Cossack leader, Zhitenyov, and named Konstantin Rubakhin, an unpaid assistant to opposition MP Ilya Ponamaryov who had taken on a leading role in the anti-nickel protests, as the ringleader of the “crime gang.”
For anyone familiar with NTV, which the well-known Russian journalist Sergei Parkhomenko once called “an extension of the Russian security services,” Bezmensky’s “confession” immediately set off alarms. In a letter later smuggled out of the grimy pre-detention center where he was being held, Bezmensky alleged that investigators, acting in cahoots with officials from UMMC, had threatened to kill him and his wife if he did not follow their orders and read the prepared statement in front of the cameras. Both Bezmensky and Zhitenyov have now spent some 18 months in over-crowded detention facilities. The lead investigator in the case, activists point out, was Oleg Silchenko, a senior police officer who has been accused of involvement in the death of Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky while he was being held in pre-trial custody in 2009. Silchenko denies all charges of wrongdoing.
Bezmensky and Zhitenyov’s trial is due to begin on July 5. Copies of case documents obtained by eco-activists suggest that both men were initially offered financial rewards by UMMC in return for halting the anti-nickel protests, then hit with criminal charges after they were unable or unwilling to do so.
“This was a real people’s protest,” said Yevgenia Chirikova, Russia’s best-known eco-activist, who gained national attention for her efforts to halt the destruction of ancient woodland near Moscow. “Locals understood that they didn’t need this nickel, and battled for their rights.” Chirikova, who has lent her support to environmental protests across Russia, recently fled the country out of fear that the authorities would take her children away from her as punishment for her outspoken criticism.
The Khoper river | Viktoriya Zaganova
News of Zhitenyoy’s arrest spread quickly to Rubakhin, the eco-activist Bezmensky had named on NTV as the ringleader of the alleged extortion plot, in Moscow.
“Misha [Bezmensky] called me the day before the NTV program aired, and asked to meet up,” Rubakhin recalled. “I didn’t know at that point about the arrests. But while I was waiting for him in a café in Moscow, activists called and told me that he and Zhitenyov had been arrested the day before. I fled the scene immediately. I didn’t even return home. The next day, police broke into my apartment. I later found out from Bezmensky’s letter that investigators had given him €7 million in a bag that he was supposed to hand over to me. This was to be the grounds for my arrest.”
Rubakhin laid low for months, before resurfacing briefly in France and Morocco in 2014. He is currently in an undisclosed location, and spoke to me via a secure voice communication program for this article. “Our land is being used for the enrichment of mafia members at the cost of the lives and well-being of the local population,” he said. “In Russia, everything is done to deprive the people of the right to influence important decisions. Any attempt at self-defense is met by beatings and imprisonment.” Rubakhin has spent the last year investigating what he alleges is a money-laundering scheme involving UMMC and several well-known European companies engaged in non-ferrous metals production. Swiss prosecutors are reportedly looking into his allegations.
In the picturesque village of Yelan-Koleno, a short drive from where exploratory drilling for nickel is currently taking place, ecologists recently detected a high level of uranium in a local well.
“We wish no harm to anyone involved in this case,” said Yury Nemchinov, the only member of UMMC’s top management who agreed to speak to me. “But it is up to the courts to decide now what to do with the suspects.” Nemchinov, a former police officer who specialized in combating economic crimes, also denied allegations that UMMC worked with investigators to destroy the anti-nickel movement, accusing the “so-called ecologists of running around and frightening everyone with horror stories about nickel.”
Anti-nickel activists believe that the horror has already begun. In the picturesque village of Yelan-Koleno, a short drive from where exploratory drilling for nickel is currently taking place, ecologists recently detected a high level of uranium in a local well, the primary source of drinking water for many residents. While no direct connection between the drilling and the high uranium level has so far been established, activists suspect that the work being carried out by UMMC is causing dangerous heavy metals deep in the Black Earth to surface. Last year, a similar analysis of the region’s water had indicated it was safe to drink.
Despite the worrying report, locals continue to drink from the well as usual. “Leave us in peace!” said one elderly woman in a headscarf, as eco-activists visited the village. “We’ve been drinking this water for years, and nothing has happened to us.” Curious about her reaction, I ran up to the woman, who refused to give her name, to ask if she is really so unconcerned that her children and grandchildren are drinking what is, in effect, poison. “So what? We don’t decide anything here,” she tells me, her tone weary now. “Everything is resolved there, in Moscow. What can we do?”
Back in Novokhopyorsk, I relate the story to Lebedeva. “There are a lot of people who think like this,” she sighs. “But you have to understand them, in a way. When the protests began, we were all so euphoric. But now …” her voice tails off. “Hope dies last, I suppose.”
Marc Bennetts is a Moscow-based British journalist. He is the author of Kicking the Kremlin: Russia’s New Dissidents and the Battle to Topple Putin.