This week the city of Sochi and the International Olympic Committee hosted the “World Conference on Sport and the Environment,” which was intended to put a positive spotlight on the environmental legacy of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Thanks to actions by regional authorities, the story instead is of closing space for civil society and hassling environmentalists.  

A leading regional environmental watchdog group, the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, was not invited to the Conference.  That is likely because the group has persistently sought to draw attention to the negative environmental consequences of Olympics-related construction in Sochi.

On October 31, the day before the conference ended, Sochi police detained the group’s coordinator, environmental expert Andrei Rudomahka, in connection with a criminal libel case against him. The case was brought more than a year ago, when Rudomakha was quoted in a press release accusing a local judge of acting in an outrageously arbitrary way when she sentenced a fellow environmental advocate to 15 days of administrative detention for protesting local parliamentary election results.

The written request from investigative authorities for Rudomakha’s detention contained specific information on his whereabouts—making him wonder whether he has been placed under police surveillance.

Rudomakha was released three hours later with a request to appear for questioning in the coming days. Having seen many other other activists in Sochi and in Russia more broadly face sustained government intimidation, I worry things are about get much worse for him.

In recent years, the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus has been under increasing pressure from the authorities. In 2012, several of the organization’s activists were the targets of trumped-up criminal and misdemeanor charges. In March 2013, the group became one of many Russian NGOs inspected by the authorities under the so-called “foreign agents” law. After an intrusive inspection, which included examination of office computers and the group’s email account, the inspection team urged the group not to publish its report on environmental consequences of the Olympic preparations in Sochi in order “not to harm the country.”

The authorities have also harassed through legal suits, inspections, and threats other activists and journalists who have exposed environment, property, and workers’ rights abuses ahead of the Sochi Olympics.

The theme of this week’s Conference, organized by the International Olympic Committee and the Russian government, authorities, is ‘Changing today for a better tomorrow’. Perhaps both should consider whether intimidating activists ahead of the Games in Sochi and cracking down on civil society is the right way to get them there.