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Monday, April 14, 2008

Annals of the Sochi Scam

Other Russia reports:

A Moscow press-conference of ecologists, human rights activists and Sochi residents has suggested that the International Olympic Committee(IOC) has grounds to cancel the winter Olympic Games, set to take place in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2014. The press-conference, titled “The 2014 Sochi Olympics. Opportunism, incompetence, disregard for the law – the major threat to the collapse of the National Project,” met in Moscow on April 10th.

Garry Kasparov, the leader of the United Civil Front party, noted that what is currently happening in the region does not correspond to the original plan as it was presented in Guatemala. Several planned construction sites are currently unbuildable, after geodesic surveys discovered underground problems. Panelists named the Imeretinsky Bukhta, which has an exceptionally high water table, with groundwater just two meters beneath the surface of the soil, and where “15-20 meter-long pilings drown.”

“There are things that cannot be done, even if a billion dollars is buried into them,” Kasparov said.

Another concern raised by the panelists was the unprecedented level of spending required to pull the Olympic games together, which Kasparov said is “beating all the records.” Sochi lacks much of the infrastructure of previous Olympic locations, and the original expense prediction of 6 billion dollars is shockingly low. Ivan Starikov of the People for Democracy and Justice party, commented that the current estimate for transportation infrastructure alone was now set at 7 billion dollars. Other cities beaten out by Sochi for the bid to host the games could take the IOC to court, Starikov said, as total cost was a factor in making the original decision.

One Russian Member of Parliament, Viktor Ilyukhin, told the press on April 3rd that the Sochi Olympics could cost more than the last three winter Olympic games combined.

Greenpeace, the international ecological watchdog, may also take the IOC to court. Dmitri Kaptsov, a representative of the “North Caucasus Ecological Watch,” said that Greenpeace is planning to protest the lack of environmental planning before construction, arguing that leading the Olympics in Sochi would cause a regional eco-catastrophe. To date, no expert reports on construction or ecological matters have been completed.

Sochi residents were also present at the conference to speak about the thousands of families facing eviction in the Black Sea resort. Residents complained that government officials were seizing land without providing adequate compensation or equally valued housing. Panelists also called unconstitutional a so-called “Olympic law,” which expedites the process of taking resident’s homes, and bars locals from seeking judicial protection for their property.

The press-conference reached a troubling conclusion, that Olympic planners in Sochi were using the Games as a means to attain personal wealth at the expense of local citizens and Russian taxpayers.

“It must be stated, that the present course will lead to the destruction of a unique Black Sea resort, the massive violation of Russian citizens’ civil rights, [and] the misuse of funds earmarked for the games,” a statement by participants reads. “It will damage Russia’s image, and ultimately, will put even the possibility of leading the Olympic games in Sochi into question.”

As Kaptsov explained, the IOC has the right to move the Olympics to a different city in the case that the country hosting the games does not meet its obligations. As an example, the presenters noted the 1976 Olympics, which were moved from Denver in the United States to Montreal in Canada.

The press-conference did suggests a way to ameliorate the state of affairs in Sochi. They proposed enacting a strict citizen’s control of the preparations, and suggested the possibility of moving some of the major Olympic facilities to other Russian regions that are more suited to hosting the winter Olympics. A Citizen’s Council with the obligation of overseeing the preparations in Sochi is currently in the works.

In an apparent last-minute effort to unite two world leaders for the last time, US President George W. Bush will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 6th. The meeting will take place in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, scheduled to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. In early May, Putin is expected to assume the post of Prime Minister, as his successor, Dmitri Medvedev, takes office.

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, told press that the pair will discuss European security, including missile defense and the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. The two countries have been locked at an impasse on US proposals to locate defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, with Russia threatening to point its nuclear warheads at Europe if the plans go through.

Bush and Putin have had a friendly personal relationship, even as rhetoric on either side of the Atlantic has escalated in tone. At their first meeting, Bush was jovial, saying: “I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

Still, critics of the Kremlin have argued that Bush has failed to voice concerns at the erosion of democratic and human rights that has taken place in Russia since Putin took office. Their final meeting, framed by a resort mired in a controversial program of evicting area residents, may exemplify that point.

As the Sobkor@ru news agency reported on March 27th, some four thousand Sochi residents are under threat of forcible eviction from their homes. Authorities need to free up space for the construction of a new Olympic park. Residents claim the compensation offered for their property is minimal, and that many families will receive no compensation at all.

The first round of evictions has already begun, with the displacement of 15 refugee families from the neighboring break-away Republic of Abkhazia, The Sunday Times newspaper reported.

Some two hundred construction projects are planned for Sochi in the next seven years, including sporting facilities, railroads, highways, as well as a new airport. This makes for an expensive endeavor, with experts expecting costs to rise as high as 24 billion dollars, or double the current estimates. (By comparison, the 2006 winter Olympics in Turin, Italy cost approximately 3 billion dollars, and the 2010 games in Vancouver, Canada are estimated to cost around 4 billion dollars). As result, real estate prices in Sochi and the surrounding areas have grown by 500 percent, making them some of the highest in Russia.

The News.rin.Ru news agency spoke with Andrei Loginov, one of the residents facing eviction:

“When we found out that Sochi won the bid, we were beside ourselves with joy,” he explained. “We thought that this would bring investment to the city, and would create new jobs. Now we understand that only a small chosen group will become rich, and the ordinary people like us will be left standing by the broken washtub.”

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