Olympic construction besets Russia’s Sochi

February 18, 2013

The frenzy of construction for the Winter Games enveloping this city has local people feeling as if the Greek gods of old are flinging one Olympian thunderbolt after another at them as they helplessly endure.

President Vladimir Putin wants to turn Sochi, a threadbare resort on the Black Sea, into a polished Russian jewel, an up-to-the-minute, year-round snow-and-sun resort drawing tourists long after next year’s Olympics have moved on.

About 500 companies and 96,000 workers are laboring in this city of 345,000, Dmitri Kozak, the deputy prime minister overseeing the Olympic project, told reporters recently. Construction roars along 24 hours a day, leaving some residents dazed. Others are protesting. All are weary of the pounding of jackhammers and the clouds of dust.

Sochi is being transformed not only by stadiums and ski jumps but also by new roads, 22 tunnels, train stations, miles of railroad track, high-rise apartments, new sidewalks, construction of eight power plants and a new grid system to replace a now-precarious supply of electricity.

Bulldozers have torn the neighborhood of Mirny, near the giant Olympic media center, in half to make way for new buildings and highway interchanges. Many of the construction workers are migrants, especially from Central Asia, who get miserable wages and sometimes are not paid at all, according to a Human Rights Watch report issued this month.

Russian President Vladi­mir Putin has made it his “personal project” and political mission to showcase the town of Sochi to the world when it hosts the next Olympic Winter Games. Fiona Hill from the Brookings Institution explains why and points out another reason 2014 will be a significant year for the town. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

And every day residents of the small settlement of Kudepsta gather near their backyard stream a few miles from the Olympic ice rinks, ready to block heavy equipment with their bodies in an effort to fend off construction of a thermal power plant they contend will poison them.

They began mobilizing in May against the plant on the Kudepsta River, setting up a 24-hour camp to block construction after workers began clearing a forested ridge about 500 yards from apartment buildings and a school. They have managed to stall the project, which was supposed to be completed by November of this year, because work began without the required permits and environmental studies. But they fear they will lose eventually.

“We have written to the president’s office and the governor,” said Tatyana Osipova, a Kudepsta resident, “and we’re not getting any answers.”

A ‘prison’

Vladimir Ivanov, a 63-year-old pensioner, said he spent 40 years working at the Norilsk Nickel plant above the Arctic Circle, surviving ferociously cold winters and health-threatening pollution. He used his life savings to buy a small piece of land and build a house in Kudepsta, close to the water and hillsides thick with greenery. All will be ruined by a power plant spreading pollution, he said. “I got out of one prison,” he said, “and entered another.”

Officials have assured residents that the plant will be built according to strict European standards, with filters preventing the dispersal of any pollutants. But most Russians do not trust their officials, and the people of Kudepsta insist that they are being misled, that officials act only in their own self-interest despite all the assertions to the contrary. Neither do they believe Sochi will become a tourist mecca. Turkey has lower prices and better service, they say.

“They want to make money selling electricity abroad,” contended Natalya Vorobyova, a young mother holding her 2-year-old daughter in her arms, “and they’ll leave us to die.”

They want the plant built elsewhere.

“We aren’t against the authorities or the Olympics,” Osipova said, “but we want things to be done properly.”

In its 67-page document on migrants, Human Rights Watch reported that the laborers — many from poverty-stricken Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — make $1.80 to $2.60 an hour on Olympic construction sites, earning about $455 to $605 a month. Sochi wages are low in general, but the average pay for construction workers here is about $850 a month. In Moscow the average is more than $1,300.

Interviews with 66 migrants produced consistent descriptions of 12-hour workdays, with only one day off in two weeks, Human Rights Watch said.

Semyon Simonov, coordinator of the Migration and Law organization in Sochi, said migrants are often hired without the registration, work permits and labor contracts required under Russian law. This leaves them vulnerable to abuse, he said. “Two days ago during a press conference, our mayor said there had only been two complaints made over working conditions,” Simonov said. “That’s because all the complaints are turned away.”

When Simonov and a lawyer try to intercede to get unpaid wages, they often encounter insurmountable problems. Various levels of subcontracting make it difficult to find the actual employer, and if a worker does not have a contract, regulators say they have no authority to intervene.

‘Nothing to lose’

To make way for the Games, about 1,500 families have been forced to leave their homes, according to Human Rights Watch. In some neighborhoods, such as Mirny, most houses have been torn down, but a few remain there, lonely islands surrounded by construction. Some have lost their houses without compensation, because titles, received during chaotic post-Soviet days, were not always clear.

Residents of the remaining 30 or so houses in Mirny — which means “peaceful” — feel trapped. They get home by traveling along roads deeply rutted by heavy equipment, dodging bulldozers along a landscape filled with mountains of dirt and gravel. A row of blooming mimosas reminds them of what used to be marshland, where they could hear frogs croaking instead of engines roaring. Now empty beer bottles, discarded by construction workers, sprout where flowers once grew.

“It’s hard to understand what’s going on,” said Alexander Dzhadze, who has lived in his modest little house for all of his 64 years. “They took the land from many people and never gave anything in return.”

The streets are still dark when children set off to school. Huge streetlights have been erected above to illuminate the new highway exchange that towers over them, but residents say the lamps will not be turned on until next year, for the Olympics.

Dzhadze said officials ordered him and his neighbors to paint their houses — sienna-hued roofs and cream-colored walls — to create a charming visual backdrop for the Olympics. With a pension of about $170 a month, he has no idea how he can afford it.

He is not afraid to speak up to a reporter.

“What do I have to fear?” he said, gesturing toward the dusty road, the high, massive wall supporting the highway about 12 feet from his yard and his tumbledown house. “I have nothing to lose.”

Neighbors are more cautious, and one man with a shock of white hair and full mustache planted himself in front of his car license plate, just in case it could somehow be used to identify him.

Electricity is sporadic — this day, Putin was in town and Mirny refrigerators roared to life for a time. Dzhadze fears that he may endure all this disruption, invest in painting his house, and then get pushed out for further development later. The nearby media center is meant to become a shopping and entertainment center after the Games are done, and who knows what the authorities have in mind for Mirny.

“It’s only going to get worse when the Olympics are over,” Dzhadze said, “because the journalists will be gone and anything can happen.”

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