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.
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Local outcry over rising pricesSkip to next paragraph
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While environmentalists got a boost from Putin's announcement, there is palpable unrest among residents about the skyrocketing prices they claim have been triggered by an influx of Olympics-inspired speculators. Some fear their homes and livelihoods may be taken to make way for Olympic developments.
"When the authorities start an operation like this, they seldom take the interests of ordinary people into account," says Olga Miryasova, spokesperson for Autonomous Action, an anti-Olympic group that has staged several public protests in Sochi. "These Games are a political event to raise the country's prestige, but there are too many poor people to warrant these huge expenditures."
City officials insist that very few people will be displaced by Olympic constructions and those that are will be properly compensated. But trouble is already brewing on the site of the future Olympic Park, where a community of about 600 Old Believers, an Orthodox religious sect, are defying orders to leave their coastal village of Imeretinskaya Bukhta. "The authorities have told us we'll be arrested and our homes destroyed by bulldozers," says Dmitry Drofichev, a spokesman for the group. "But we are not going to give in. We'll fight".
Small-business owners add that their interests are also being brushed aside. "Big companies buying up property have driven land prices up fivefold in the past two years, which is a huge obstacle to any small entrepreneur," says Arsen Sadatierov, owner of a cafe in downtown Sochi. "The big companies are well connected [with officials] and seem to be able to solve their bureaucratic problems much more quickly and easily than I can."
A potentially Games-stopping challenge for the Kremlin is Sochi's proximity to the tense Georgian breakaway republic of Abkhazia, which has seen a wave of bombings in recent weeks. Georgia, which claims the territory, has alleged that Russia is illegally using labor and construction materials from Abkhazia and may be planning to build some Olympic facilities there. Georgian officials, cautiously backed by Europe and the US, have warned they might launch a boycott of the Sochi Games if Moscow continues its policy of aiding separatist Abkhazia.
In a report last month, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, warned that the spat over Abkhazia could "negatively impact" the Kremlin's hopes for an Olympic triumph. "If Moscow contributes to [escalating tensions], the IOC would have grounds to reconsider its decision to give the Games to Sochi," it said.
Still, some see the Olympic challenge and the accompanying $12 billion the Kremlin is pumping in over the next six years as a heaven-sent opportunity to drag this sleepy, Soviet-era spa town into the 21st century and also create an example for the rest of Russia to follow. "In preparing for the Olympic Games, we are getting the kind of experience that will enable us to reach world standards in many areas," says Efim Bitenev, deputy director of the Sochi Olympic Organizing Committee.