About 2,000 residents of a small town near Sochi rallied against environmental pollution Sunday evening despite colossal efforts to prevent the gathering after a previous protest drew 4,000 and left the top local official without a job.
The protesters gathered on the periphery of the central square of Tuapse, a Black Sea town of 60,000 popular with tourists, ignoring rain and the campaign to prevent the rally, which included closing the square for construction, distributing flyers with false information, closing down the town's web site, and printing a special issue of a local newspaper with appeals not to attend, residents said.
"It's the height of the summer season, and no person in their right mind would make a decision to do construction work now on the central square when Tuapse is filled with tourists," said Anna Tesheva, an activist involved with the protest.
The events in Tuapse illustrate the lengths that local authorities are willing to go to prevent any sign of unrest after President Dmitry Medvedev last year threatened to fire lax governors following the Pikalyovo protests that shut down a major highway and forced Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to intercede.
Krasnodar Governor Alexander Tkachyov visited Tuapse after the last rally in May brought 4,000 people to the same square to protest poor environmental conditions and demand a referendum on a fertilizer terminal being built by EuroChem for a grand opening this year.
Residents say a test loading of fertilizer by EuroChem polluted the atmosphere, and they are not mollified by company denials of wrongdoing.
Rally participants also called for the dismissal of local officials and a ban on the construction of new dangerous facilities in the town's center.
Tesheva said organizers of Sunday's rally had problems printing banners in local print shops, and the local television station refused to accept a paid announcement about the rally, instead running a message that the rally had been canceled. Flyers posted by activists were removed or covered with new flyers announcing the cancellation of the rally, she said.
Residents also received a special issue of the local Tuapsinskiye Vesti on Saturday "for the first time in 10 years," Tesheva said.
The special "environmental" issue has a front-page article in which Vladimir Lybanev, the new head of the Tuapse district, which includes the town, tells residents: "Protesting is easier than coming to terms with the matter, than cleaning the sea and rivers, than planting trees and flowers. … We will not be disrupted by somebody's desire to muckrake, to rouse attitudes and blow things out of proportion."
Lybanev is a newcomer to Tuapse from an area in the Krasnodar region located 200 kilometers north of Tuapse. He was appointed by the governor two weeks after the rally in May, when the previous district head lost his job.
Tkachyov visited Tuapse on May 31 and held a meeting with local authorities. During the meeting, former district head Leonid Koshel announced that he was quitting.
"The weakness of authority is evident. The mayor is not communicating with the people but is sitting locked in his office," Tkachyov said at the time, Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported.
The head of the Tuapse Bulk Terminal, Valery Khatyanov, resigned two days later and was replaced by Nikolai Snytkin.
Snytkin addressed residents on Saturday from the pages of another local paper, Tuapsinskiye Novosti.
"We address those troublemakers and environmental racketeers and those who sponsor them: Stop causing a nightmare for our terminal! … Think about where your children and grandchildren will work, and whether life be sufficient for all of us," he wrote.
Protest organizers asked for permission on July 5 to hold the event on the square Sunday but were told that the square would be closed for renovation. The municipal decree closing the square was signed on July 5, and no alternative sites for the protest were offered, organizers said. Last Thursday, local authorities fenced off a large part of the square and sent workers to remove tiles.
The popular city web site, Tuapse.ru, whose forum was used by people to discuss and plan for the rally, was suddenly "closed for reconstruction" on Friday night, with no further explanation.
Although rumors permeated Tuapse about an OMON riot police squad being dispatched from the regional capital, Krasnodar, with water cannons, the rally was held peacefully, said Andrei Rudomakha of the Environmental Watch on North Caucasus, who acted as a rally organizer.
His group's web site has been down for the past three days because of a virus attack that Rudomakha linked to its involvement with the rally.
Rudomakha spent three hours earlier Sunday talking with the local police, who pressed him not to hold the rally, he said.
"But in the end, they were afraid to use force against such a large crowd," he said. "People were sure that they would be dispersed, and there was pouring rain. But they came anyway."
19 July 2010, The Moscow Times
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