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Russian champion of Siberia's Lake Baikal has tough fight

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There are days when renowned Russian ecological crusader Marina Rikhvanova feels like an endangered species.

She has gotten used to a certain amount of ambient harassment -- the intelligence agents rifling through her files, the bank accounts abruptly blocked, the phone she believes is bugged. It comes with the territory.

As Russian President- turned-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has rolled back democracy and downsized civil rights, activists of all stripes have struggled to operate. But with the Kremlin and big business so intertwined that they've become virtually indistinguishable, the Russian elite appears to reserve a special brand of venom for those who tend to clash most directly with business: environmental advocates.

"We are preventing them from doing very quietly what they want to do very quietly," says Rikhvanova, 47, seated in the office of her Baikal Ecological Wave organization in this Siberian city.

Russia's efforts to reclaim lost superpower status are staked on the exploitation of vast natural resources, from oil and natural gas to timber and diamonds. Against this backdrop of runaway capitalism, independent ecologists such as Rikhvanova are voices in the wilderness.

Short, stolid, frowning skeptically through tinted eyeglasses, Rikhvanova seems an unlikely foil to Putin. She came to her love of nature early in life, and still recalls the smell of spring in the Siberian village where her parents taught school. Her father took her to explore forests and to gaze over the vast stretches of Lake Baikal.

The world's deepest and oldest freshwater reserve is treasured by evolutionary biologists as a liquid cornucopia of rare species. The lake holds an estimated 20% of the world's fresh water and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but has repeatedly been put at risk by the march of Russian industry.

"It's huge, tremendous, mysterious, beautiful," Rikhvanova says, watching tiny winter birds peck at the feeder dangling outside her window.

"It's 25 million years old, and every organism, every being, in Lake Baikal is a witness to this history."

Rikhvanova's first major clash with Putin erupted in 2005 when a pipeline to transport oil from the Siberian fields to the Pacific coast was slated to skim within half a mile of Lake Baikal. Scientists, including Rikhvanova, warned that the area is prone to earthquakes, and that an oil spill could prove catastrophic for the lake.

Transneft, the state pipeline company, did not respond to the warnings, and the government's own environmental experts backed the pipeline company. Only after Rikhvanova's organization and other environmental groups drummed up street protests in Siberia and Moscow did the government blink: Putin produced a red pen during a televised meeting, gestured at a map and ordered the pipeline rerouted.

But for Rikhvanova, it was a wan victory.

"It demonstrated the uselessness of the legislation and legal system in Russia, the management of ecological issues, that the whole thing was corrupt," she says. "It should have been based on assessments and expert opinions. Instead, the president took a crayon and drew a line on a map."

Her next battle was already on the horizon. In January 2006, Putin announced Russian plans to create an international uranium enrichment center, a factory that would provide enriched uranium to any country within international law. Putin described the center as a nondiscriminatory way to spread nuclear energy without divulging nuclear secrets.

Soon, state nuclear giant Rosatom had unveiled plans to open the center on the grounds of a former chemical plant in Angarsk, just a few hours from Lake Baikal. The project has steamed ahead, despite vehement protests from Rikhvanova and other local ecologists.

Rosatom spokesman Fyodor Dragunov insists that the plant management has dealt openly with the community, inviting women's groups and youth organizations to take guided tours of the plant; meeting with the public; and releasing safety information.

"Experts and specialists have concluded that the plant does not pose any danger," he says.

"You need to exclude these fanatics who are not satisfied with conclusions and results. It's practically useless to explain anything to them."

Rikhvanova and other environmentalists accuse Rosatom of hiding behind a screen of carefully packaged excursions and scientists who are paid to downplay the plant's risks.

"Rosatom kept deceiving everybody," Rikhvanova says.

"They promised to hold public hearings on the project, but nothing was done. They promised to assess possible consequences of accidents at the plant, but nothing was done."

Alarmed that the uranium enrichment center would soon be operating, Rikhvanova began plans to step up her protests. In the summer of 2007, she helped set up a protest camp of dozens of radical anti-nuclear protesters in Angarsk.

Before dawn one day in July 2007, young men armed with rods and knives attacked the camp and beat the protesters. One of the ecologists died; others were hospitalized. The government described the attackers as ultranationalist skinheads.

They also announced that Rikhvanova's son, Pavel, then 19, was among them.

This is where Rikhvanova's story gets murky, and where the winner of the prestigious 2008 Goldman Prize for grass-roots environmentalism found herself tangled in controversy.

She and her husband, Yevgeny Rikhvanov, forbid Pavel to speak with reporters, because his case still hasn't gone to court. But they say he was lured into the attack by a mysterious young man he'd met at a soccer game.

It had all begun, she says, when a group of thuggish guys came from nowhere and attacked Pavel. Another young man burst from the crowd and helped him to fend off the attack. The two became friendly. Soon thereafter, the new friend told Pavel that he owed him one. He needed to help him in a fight, he said.

And so Pavel went along. It was dark. He didn't understand what was happening, whom he was fighting, until it was too late, his parents say. This account clashes with other versions Rikhvanova has given to reporters, including early insistence that her son was not involved.

On one point, Rikhvanova has never faltered. "It was a setup," she says. "It was an attempt to discredit me."

Rikhvanova's story strikes many of her defenders as entirely plausible, which is a measure of just how shadowy and byzantine Russia has become.

This is a country where journalists are gunned down; oil executives are thrown into jail; and, this fall, a suburban editor who spoke out against deforestation was beaten into a coma. Against this backdrop, almost anything seems possible.

"I don't know how it was done or whose plan it was, but I'm totally confident it was not an accident that her son was arrested," says Svetlana Zlobina, an Angarsk journalist who specializes in environmental coverage. "There are two things they are doing to us: They want to buy us, or they want to scare us."

The organizers of the attack remain at large, and unidentified, the family says. Pavel was arrested, and spent a year in a crammed jail cell that held 12 people and four cots. They had to sleep, and even sit down, in shifts. He told his parents that they were regularly beaten. He was held for the maximum time allowed, then released pending trial.

Among government and industry supporters, the idea that Rikhvanova was set up is dismissed as a ridiculous conspiracy theory. In these circles, animosity toward Rikhvanova lurks close to the surface. Rosatom spokesman Dragunov describes her as "pretty fanatical."

Then there's Vadim Titov, a young, lanky sociologist who is a member of the Rosatom- organized Public Council on Issues of the Safe Use of Atomic Energy in the Irkutsk Region.

Ecological groups, he argues, are funded by the West, and their protests are designed to undermine the stability of the Russian state. He scoffs at their "slogans and posters in squares," and complains about the "radical political movements, anarchists and anti-fascists" who are sleeping out to protest the nuclear plant.

"They are consciously misleading the public," he says. "Often ecological organizations are just pretexts to get funding for people who are not really concerned with ecology."

He describes the attacks on the antinuclear camps as deeply regrettable, but adds that the protesters "excessively demonstrated and obviously aroused irritation."

And Rikhvanova's contention that the attack was meant to warn activists away from the uranium enrichment center?

"This theory," he says crisply, "doesn't have any right to exist!"

megan.stack@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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