Sochi's Olympic Troubles

By Boris Nemtsov
Saturday, April 25, 2009

SOCHI, Russia -- My country has produced some of the best Olympic athletes in history, but some things about the preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics, which are to be held in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, are very disturbing.

I was born in Sochi and am running for mayor in tomorrow's election, which has been marked by all the usual traits of "managed democracy": My Kremlin-backed opponent enjoys a vast administrative and media advantage, while my campaign materials are being confiscated and my supporters are constantly harassed. But the state of democracy in Russia is only one of my concerns: Based on the current plans, Sochi is simply not capable of hosting the Olympics, and continuing with the current approach threatens the well-being of the people of Sochi and the entire region.

Already, hundreds of residents have been evicted from their homes. Thousands more are being forced into "lease" agreements with the regional government. The beaches that have long attracted tourists in summer are slated to become loading ramps for the heavy machinery necessary to build Olympic facilities. It is understandable that residents have opposed the outsized disruptions that the Olympic preparations would bring.

Environmental groups, including Greenpeace, have raised concerns about the irreparable damage these preparations are doing to the rare ecosystem of the West Caucasus. Flora and fauna are being bulldozed. Construction practices undertaken with no regard for the environment are leading to landslides and other scars on a World Natural Heritage Site.

Then there is the question of graft. Russia's initial Olympic bid included investment promises of up to $12 billion. But the corporations the Kremlin has been counting on in this effort have been diminished by the economic crisis. Russia's finance minister told the Financial Times last week that Russia might return to borrowing money on international markets sooner than expected. It's hard not to wonder whether, in five years, having built an improbable Winter Olympics base will prove to have been the best use of the state's currency reserves. Even if the funding does go forward, are the appropriate controls in place to guard against epic levels of corruption?

Sochi is a beautiful subtropical coastal resort. For decades it has been a popular summer destination for Russians. The streets are lined with palm trees. Little wonder that people might scratch their heads in confusion when told this city will host the Winter Olympics.

It should also be noted that Sochi is between Russia and Georgia, caught in the zone of military tensions that boiled over into armed conflict last August. Given that Russia has recognized the independence of the neighboring breakaway region of Abkhazia and decided to place a military base there over Georgia's objections, a new military conflict cannot be ruled out. This creates an unprecedented threat to the security of the Games: No Winter Olympics has ever been conducted so close to the heart of an armed conflict.

Our athletes unquestionably deserve the honor of hosting the Olympic Games in Russia. But the effects of hosting the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, based on present plans, would be disastrous for this city and its residents. During the 1980 Moscow Games, sporting venues were spread across the country. I would recommend a similar approach for 2014. Unlike current Russian politics, Olympic sports champion fairness and good sportsmanship, and we can use their positive influence. But the preparations for the Games must be done in the right way.

The writer is former deputy prime minister of Russia and former governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region. He is a leader of the Solidarity opposition movement.

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