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Putin faces green Olympic challenge

The Sochi 2014 Winter Games are threatened by a looming international boycott, environmental concerns, and public protests against local development.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 11, 2008

Seeing Green: Prime Minister Putin makes developmental concessions at a meeting with environmentalists in Sochi.

Alexei Nikolosky/AP

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia

Here, amid the breathtaking mountain vistas of Europe's last slice of untouched alpine wilderness, the state gas monopoly Gazprom has nearly completed a huge new ultramodern ski base. Nearby, other big Russian corporations have been hastily building roads, hotels, Olympic sports facilities, and a press center to meet the Kremlin's timetable for the Sochi 2014 Winter Games.

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Winning the bid for Sochi against stiff international competition a year ago was one of Vladimir Putin's crowning achievements as Russian president. But supervising the increasingly troubled preparations for the Games may be one of his biggest challenges as he settles into his new role as prime minister.

"Putin has made the Olympics his most important principle, and I'm sure he will never back down, whatever the problems," says Boris Nemtsov, a Sochi-born former deputy prime minister. "But the whole enterprise is in danger of turning into a black hole. There is no transparency in the way the money's being spent, corruption is rampant, and it's making Sochi too expensive for most people to live in."

Glitches include environmental hazards, looming cost overruns, citizens' protests, and a threatened international boycott of the Olympics led by Georgia over Russia's backing for Abkhazia.

Soviet-era roads and buildings

Sochi is built on a narrow, subtropical strip of lush beachfront wedged between the towering Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea. Yet for all its natural advantages, the city is hobbled by transportation bottlenecks. One narrow mountain road and a single-track railroad are all that connects Sochi to the rest of Russia. The city's only thoroughfare, Kurortny Prospekt, is often paralyzed with traffic jams. Moreover, the city's antiquated seaport cannot receive oceangoing ships. In a recent speech, Mr. Putin complained that Sochi's sewage system needs rebuilding.

"The infrastructural challenges facing us are immense, we know that," says Alexei Malkov, head of the city government's information department.

But one of the political storms the Kremlin is trying to weather as it transforms underdeveloped Sochi into a world-class venue is an outcry by ecologists over rapid development in the formerly pristine mountain region.

A decision taken last week by Putin to move several Olympic installations may force some developers to go back to the drawing boards. "In determining our priorities – money or the environment – we chose the environment," Putin told a meeting of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Sochi last week.

Among the sites that will need to be moved, he said, are a bobsled run that cuts close to a UNESCO-protected nature reserve, an athlete village, a road, and a water-extraction plant. Local environmentalists say they're pleased with Putin's choice, but add that more installations need to be moved further from the fragile Grushevy Ridge. "We hope the government will move all the Olympic [infrastructure] from that area, or these concessions will be just half measures," says Dmitri Kaptsov, spokesman for the Caucasus Ecological Wave, an environmental group.

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