Putin’s Olympics: heading for a fall?

Vladimir Putin chose Sochi as the venue and stepped in to help Russia win its bid for the 2014 winter games. But with building taking its toll on locals and the environment, and opposition to his new anti-gay laws, the president faces mounting pressure


From her house on a Russian hillside Tatyana Skiba can see President Vladimir Putin’s dream coming true. Down below, where the city of Sochi meets the Black Sea, an army of workers, excavators, cranes and trucks swarms around the glittering new stadiums, apartments and hotels that will host next February’s winter Olympics and thousands of visiting athletes, officials and fans.

In the hazy distance behind Skiba’s house, bound to the coast by dozens of kilometres of freshly laid roads and railways, hang the high peaks of the Caucasus mountains. There, swathes of forest have been cleared for ski slopes, chalets, a ski jump and a bobsleigh run. Cable cars already glide between the facilities, and vast mounds of last year’s snow lie stored under silver tarpaulins that reflect the summer sun.

Less than 150 days remain until Sochi and the mountain resort of Krasnaya Polyana stage Russia’s biggest sporting event since the 1980 summer Olympics, in the then Soviet capital of Moscow. It is Putin’s personal project, and he wants to promote Russia as a modern, dynamic nation with the wealth, know-how and natural beauty to stage the greatest winter Olympics in history. It is also something of a dress rehearsal for Russia’s 2018 football World Cup.

But as the lighting of the Olympic flame draws closer and builders toil against a looming deadline, so the list of problems facing Sochi seems to grow ever longer.

The most expensive Olympics ever – summer or winter – is beset by claims of enormous environmental damage, rampant corruption and flagrant abuse of workers’ rights; Islamist militants have vowed to attack the event; and protests are planned by gay-rights groups and campaigners for the Circassian people who were massacred and expelled from this region 150 years ago.

This intended celebration of the state Putin has built since taking power, in 2000, could become a €35 billion embarrassment, an event that does not symbolise a new and successful Russia but exposes chronic ills behind a gilded facade.

Death of the dream
For Skiba, the Olympic dream died in April 2011, when she woke in the middle of the night to something that “felt and sounded like an earthquake”. The wooden house she and her family had lived in for decades had suddenly shifted and slid down the hill. Her neighbours had experienced the same thing, and some couldn’t open their windows or doors to escape their creaking homes.

Now two small apartment blocks on Skiba’s street lean drunkenly together. Her old wooden house is uninhabitable, and the new concrete house she had built next door is like a scene from an unsettling dream: the floors are wavy, the walls cracked and uneven, all the angles slightly off and the planes tilted; doors swing open and children’s toys roll across the floor of their own accord.

Environmental experts told Skiba and her neighbours that the main cause of the landslide that damaged their homes was an unauthorised dump higher up the hillside. Building firms had used it to dispose of large quantities of concrete and metal, causing the ground to give way after rain.

Though a local court ordered officials to fully investigate the cause of the landslide, no one has been held to account for the dump, and Skiba has been offered only temporary accommodation in a dormitory that is notorious for its poor conditions.

“The slightest earth tremor could bring the house down. It could collapse anytime,” she says. “All I want is somewhere to live safely – some compensation or a small house. But we mean nothing to this state. We have approached our political representatives. They do nothing. We only have democracy on paper. It doesn’t work for ordinary people. Why do we pay our taxes? Why do we send our kids to the army for this state?”

Thousands of people have been evicted to make room for the Olympic infrastructure that has turned Sochi and the surrounding area into the world’s biggest building site. Most have been given compensation or new houses, but they had no choice but to leave once their properties were earmarked for destruction.

Even supporters of the Olympics, of which there are many in Sochi, bemoan the upheaval involved in transforming this slightly shabby stretch of seaside into an Olympic host city. They talk of chaotic building programmes, with some roads lifted and relaid several times, horrendous traffic jams and choking dust from construction that has taken place around the clock for several years.

The Sochi area could not supply enough labour for this vast enterprise, so it acted as a magnet for migrants from poorer parts of the former Soviet Union, particularly central Asia. Far from home and desperate for work in a country where labour laws are weak, many of these foreign workers were abused by bosses who withheld their wages, confiscated their passports and housed them in unsafe and unsanitary buildings.

Human Rights Watch believes more than 16,000 foreigners worked on Olympic building sites, typically earning between €1.25 and €1.80 an hour over extremely long days.

“We’re talking about serious, consistent reports from workers on several of the major Olympic sites,” Human Rights Watch said in its extensive report on the issue. “The world should not cheer Winter Games in Russia that are built on a foundation of exploitation and abuse.”

Semyon Simonov, whose advocacy group gives free legal advice to Sochi workers, says the area was until recently a “law-free zone”, but now police are cracking down on illegal migrants. “Until June the police didn’t pay attention to anything, because the workers were needed to get everything built. Now that it seems the Olympic sites will be completed on time they are suddenly raiding building sites and sending foreigners home.”

The scale of the construction work is staggering, and against the backdrop of the Caucasus and the Black Sea the venues should look magnificent when the games begin, on February 7th. No expense has been spared to transform Krasnaya Polyana from a remote and dilapidated Soviet-style settlement, visited by only the most dedicated skiers and hikers, into a destination with the infrastructure, accommodation and other facilities to match big resorts in the Alps.

But at what cost to the pristine forests and rivers of this beautiful region? “The damage is very large,” says Suren Gazaryan, an environmental campaigner. “A significant part of Sochi National Park has lost its natural value. The entire valley of the Mzymta river has been destroyed from Adler” – a Sochi suburb – “to Krasnaya Polyana. What’s more, under the guise of Olympic preparations, a big part of the national park has been used for things unconnected to the games – for commercial and private buildings, quarries and dumping.”

Gazaryan’s organisation, Environmental Watch on North Caucasus, warns that unique habitats and protected plants are being destroyed by the breakneck construction work, and that chemicals and other waste are being disposed of illegally, sometimes in rivers and streams.

Gazaryan is now in Estonia, where he received asylum late last year after being accused of trying to kill a security guard at a Black Sea marina that allegedly belongs to Putin. He says the charge is absurd but believes a fair trial is impossible in Russia.

He was earlier convicted of criminal damage in a trial that Human Rights Watch called flawed and politically motivated, and the group has documented the harassment of “numerous activists and journalists who criticised or expressed concerns about preparations” for the games.

Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch is among the campaign groups that have urged the International Olympic Committee to take up such issues with Russia, but without success.

It seems the committee is not keen to cross swords with Putin, who from the start has made it clear that the Sochi Olympics have his unconditional support.

Putin, a keen sportsman who often skis at Krasnaya Polyana, led Russia’s final presentation to the International Olympic Committee before the games were awarded to Sochi, in 2007. He even delivered his impassioned address on behalf of Sochi in English, which he speaks with difficulty.

Gazaryan complains that the Olympics were given a green light in Russia without the environmental and other assessments required in the West. “In fact, the decision to hold the games in Sochi was taken by Putin alone,” he says.

Last month Putin sacked the vice-president of Russia’s Olympic committee when he was told that construction of the ski jump at Krasnaya Polyana was overdue and six times over budget. The entire games has already cost more than four times the original estimate, however, and critics claim the reason is corruption on a huge scale.

In preparing for the Olympics, about €20 billion was stolen, according to the Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who in a report on the games claimed that major sports facilities were commissioned without competition or public tenders. “Only oligarchs and companies close to Putin got rich,” Nemtsov said. “The absence of fair competition, cronyism . . . have led to a sharp increase in the costs and to the poor quality of the work to prepare for the games.”

Companies linked to Putin’s old judo partner Arkady Rotenberg reportedly received €5.5 billion in Sochi contracts – more than the entire cost of the 2010 winter Olympics, in Vancouver.

Sochi behemoth
Like gnats buzzing around an elephant, the critics do nothing to stop the Sochi behemoth. The venues will surely be ready, and Russia must put on a spectacular show because that is Putin’s wish, made reality by the application of enormous financial muscle.

But some people are nonetheless determined to spoil the president’s party. Earlier this year the leader of Islamist militants who regularly stage attacks in Chechnya, Dagestan and other parts of the North Caucasus turned his sights on Sochi.

Calling for the use of “maximum force” to ensure the games do not take place, Doku Umarov said: “They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea. We as mujahideen are required not to allow that, using any methods that Allah allows us.”

He seemed to be referring to the tragic history of the Circassians, who, after a final defeat by tsarist forces, were massacred and forced to flee the region around Sochi. That last rout took place in 1864 – exactly 150 years before the Olympics – at Krasnaya Polyana.

More than a million Circassians were killed, deported or fled to Turkey and the Middle East, where some of their descendants are protesting against the games and Russia’s refusal to recognise what they call the genocide of their people on the land where the Olympics will take place.

Circassian diaspora groups from Turkey to the United States, while having nothing to do with Umarov’s threats, support a peaceful boycott of the games.

The surviving Circassian community in Russia itself is more circumspect, however, and insists only on some kind of acknowledgment that the Olympics are taking place on Circassian land – perhaps the flying of traditional flags and a performance by dancers in the opening ceremony.

“We don’t need a boycott or any conflict with Russia,” says Khauti Sokhrokov, president of the Russian-based International Circassian Association. “But we want the world to recognise that we lived here and still live here today. We want them to know this is our homeland and we want to be involved in the Olympics.”

Other groups may be less willing to play by Putin’s rules. In July Putin signed a law banning “gay propaganda” in Russia, and gay activists’ applications to set up a “Pride House” in Sochi – a common feature of Olympic host cities – have been rejected.

Some gay-rights organisations support a boycott of the Sochi games or protests against the propaganda law and against big corporate backers of the Olympics, including McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. The International Olympic Committee has already received queries from worried US sponsors.

Putin insists nobody will be discriminated against in Sochi, but he may be more concerned than he admits about the problems piling up for his pet project: last month he severely restricted movement near the Olympic venues during the games and banned all nonsporting gatherings in their vicinity.

While Putin is determined that his winter Olympics will be remembered as the greatest ever, other Russians have more modest hopes. “We want to believe that Sochi won’t be the most closed games in history,” says Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Moscow. “We hope that won’t happen but will just have to wait and see.”

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