Sochi Olympics have an ugly side

August 10, 2012

Jane Buchanan is a senior researcher on the former Soviet Union for Human Rights Watch. Her Twitter handle is @JaneMBuchanan. Yulia Gorbunova is a Moscow-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.

As the London Olympics wind down, preparations are full speed ahead for the next Games — in Sochi, Russia, the host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Yet while athletes and fans the world over are celebrating summer sport triumphs, few in Sochi are feeling the Olympic glow.

Take Tatiana Samokval. She lives with her husband, two young children and elderly parents in a wooden home her father built 15 years ago. The modest house, where Samokval and her mom once tended fruit trees and a vegetable patch, now sits in the shadow of three hulking Olympic construction sites. The family has lived with round-the-clock construction noise, dust and debris for nearly two years. They desperately want to move, but they have nowhere to go. Meanwhile, Russian officials want to evict Samokval’s family without any compensation or an alternate home. Officials claim that their home, on which the state has collected taxes for years, is “illegal.”

The 1990s was a messy period of land distribution and privatization in Russia. Many families like the Samokvals received plots from the government without formal ownership documents or with contradictions in land registries. For years, officials ignored the errors and lack of formality in the system. Then, suddenly, when the land was needed for Olympic venues and infrastructure, things changed. Russian authorities should recognize that these families did not cause this untenable situation. In the case of Tatiana Samokval, they should do the right thing and move her family into another home. One of the houses already built for resettlement of those forced to relocate to make way for Olympic construction would be an obvious choice.

Even some helping to construct the venues for the 2014 Games are being left in the cold. Tens of thousands of workers, including thousands of migrants from Central Asia, Ukraine, Serbia and Turkey, are laboring in a 24/7 construction frenzy as contractors strive to complete Olympic venues and infrastructure on time. In April, workers from Uzbekistan told Human Rights Watch that for work on a major Olympic site they were promised regular wages, a 40-hour workweek, paid accommodations, food and protective equipment.

But once on the job, they were forced to work 11 hours a day with no days off. Initially, their pay arrived sporadically, and the amounts were significantly less than what had been promised. Later, wages became nonexistent, as has happened to many migrant construction workers throughout Russia. After four months of work without hope that the situation would improve, the Uzbek men quit.

They filed a complaint with Russia’s labor inspectorate in March but have yet to receive an answer.

These abuses and other issues, such as the environmental impact of Olympic construction, have not received the attention they deserve, partly because of the stifling environment for independent and critical voices in Sochi. Journalists and activists often describe interference in their attempts to highlight issues of public interest, including abuses linked to the Olympics.

One journalist told Human Rights Watch that the pressure on the media was “unprecedented,” with local authorities calling editors about which stories can and cannot be written. By now, most journalists in Sochi know that their options are to self-censor or quit.

Russian authorities apparently don’t want to hear critical voices like that of Irina Brovkina, a middle-aged woman whose outrage and despair in the face of forced eviction from her Sochi apartment — to make way for Olympic construction — inspired her to organize small public protests. Brovkina started receiving threatening e-mails and phone calls, and a local paper began a smear campaign against her.

In May, Brovkina staged a one-person picket outside the Sochi mayor’s office. Although a one-person protest does not require official permission, police officers dragged her into a patrol car and charged her with organizing an unsanctioned gathering and disobeying police orders. She spent three days in detention after a rushed, late-night court hearing for which she had no lawyer. Amazingly, Brovkina remains undeterred, but her experience sends a strong message to others who might seek to air grievances publicly: Do so at your own risk.

Both Russia and the International Olympic Committee have clear responsibilities to end such abuses. To its credit, the IOC has intervened in a handful of cases, but its ad hoc approach has not led to meaningful protection for the majority of those affected by the preparations in Sochi. The IOC should take a strong, clear stand against human rights abuses during Olympic preparations. Otherwise, an embarrassing legacy will overshadow the feats and triumphs of the athletes competing in the Sochi Games.

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