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Independent On Sunday: Oleg Mitvol: ‘I don’t only take from the rich. I also take from the poor’

The bane of Shell and BP he may be, but Russia’s environmental watchdog explains to Tim Webb that he is just as likely to punish Russian companies as Western ones

Published: 15 July 2007

Oleg Mitvol, the Russian environmental watchdog loathed by Shell and other Western natural resources companies, describes himself as Robin Hood with a difference. “I don’t only take from the rich, I also take from the middle class and poor. For me an enemy is a company who breaks our rivers, forest, landscape – an enemy of our children.”

Talking in broken English, he means he does not discriminate between rich or poor, Western or Russian when he targets companies flouting environmental regulations; they all get the same treatment.

Shell, along with other Western companies that have had their fingers burnt in Russia, might disagree. In December, the Anglo-Dutch oil giant was forced to dilute its stake in the $20bn (£10bn) Sakhalin II project in Russia to let state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom take control. This followed months of warnings from Rosprirodnadzor (RPN), the government environmental regulator where Mitvol is deputy head, that Shell and its Japanese partners had broken the law by wrecking forests and driving grey whales from their breeding grounds off Sakhalin Island.

This Kremlin-backed campaign started only weeks after Shell doubled the costs of the project, reducing the tax revenues it would generate for the state. More recently, Mitvol also recommended that BP’s Russian subsidiary, TNK-BP, be stripped of its licence to operate the huge Kovykta gas field, which was duly sold to Gazprom. Critics have cast him as the “attack dog” of Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying this hitherto obscure official and his allegations of environmental violations have been used as an excuse to wrest back more control of Russia’s natural resources.

Of course Mitvol insists he is independent of the Kremlin. “I do not work for Mr Putin, I work for the country,” he says. Diplomatically he adds: “I’m not scared of the government. But Mr Putin is sure not bad. I voted for Mr Putin.”

He has also targeted Russian companies for flouting green regulations, which he says proves he is even-handed. Last year he threatened to revoke Lukoil’s licences in the Komi region of Siberia. “Some of my activities make it worse for some companies. For example, after my ecological inspection, Lukoil has to pay [for a clean-up]. That’s why they don’t like me. Many people don’t like me but it’s my job.” Lukoil denies it has had to pay for a clean-up. Mitvol has also written to the prosecutor’s office to report violations by the state-owned oil groups Rosneft and Transneft, but it’s not clear what action, if any, has been taken against them.

Mitvol has made enemies both inside and outside Russia. In October, police raided RPN’s offices and seized documents relating to its investigations of Sakhalin II, including some detailing officials’ expenses, such as hotel bills. A month later, the head of RPN, Sergei Sai, wrote to the natural resources minister calling for Mitvol’s dismissal over unspecified “inefficiencies” at the agency. Mitvol survived this but appears concerned that next time he may not be so lucky – to the extent of fearing for his physical safety.

He says he will be most vulnerable to attack when he leaves RPN and no longer has the limited protection that working for the government affords. He recalls one thinly disguised threat. “One powerful businessman told me, ‘Oleg, you not work for the state for 100 years. We speak with you after you finish state work.’ All the problems I know after I finish my job.”

It’s not clear what Mitvol’s motivation is. It could genuinely be a desire to protect the environment, but nothing in Russia is ever simple. It’s certainly not the money: while he says he is paid £1,000 a month, he is already a millionaire, having made a reported $20m from property deals. He insists he is not anti-capitalist, despite calling himself a communist (it’s good to cover all bases in post-Soviet Russia). “I have capitalist and market ideas but not bandit markets [ideas]. I will help to make a civilised market in Russia.”

“Bandit markets” is a reference to the rigged privatisations of Russia’s state-owned businesses in the 1990s, which a bankrupt government sold for a fraction of their true value. Russia was a “banana republic” in 1990, he says. Mitvol admits he too benefited from this but, unlike some oligarchs, he insists he won’t leave Russia. His job, he says, is to stop companies thinking they can get away with the kind of environmental violations that were standard business practice in the chaos of the 1990s, when the rule of law was virtually non-existent. “Russian companies were gangster capitalists too. Now some international companies coming to Russia don’t understand what has changed – what penalties you can get.”

As with much of the law, and despite his protestations, Mitvol’s recommendations seem to be enforced selectively. His attacks on Shell and BP fitted with Putin’s avowed aim of reasserting control of more of Russia’s natural resources. But his efforts to revoke Lukoil’s licences and make it pay for a clean-up appear to have met with resistance from other Russian authorities.

Foreign oil companies realise that to do business in Russia, they have to co-operate with the government. Despite being stripped of much of their Russian assets, BP and Shell recently signed joint-venture deals with Gazprom and Rosneft respectively. And the Russian government realises it needs Western expertise for the more technically challenging oil and gas projects. That’s why Gazprom last week invited French firm Total to form a $20bn venture to develop the huge Shtokman gas field in the Barents Sea; government officials had said foreign firms would be excluded. So whether Mitvol is as bold in his environmental convictions when it comes to taking on these state-backed ventures is open to doubt.

Indeed, he seems to have got the message and has softened his stance towards the Sakhalin II project now that it is under Gazprom’s control. “A new problem – we don’t think about,” he says. “We just think about better renovation of nature.”

There had also been fears that Mitvol might lead a similar campaign against US giant ExxonMobil, which is involved in the Sakhalin I project. But inspection results out later this month should give the company the all-clear. “There is not such a big problem. OK, the company has a technical problem, but it is not critical like Sakhalin II [was].” Could it be that “Putin’s attack dog” has lost his bark? and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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