TV drama? Putin rips Sochi official on air over Olympic cost overruns

Analysts say that the Russian president's angry tirade, followed by the official's firing, may be a bit of political theater meant to ease public concerns over the troubled Sochi Games preparations.

Sergei Karpukhin/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits a ski jumping complex in Krasnaya Polyana, near the Black Sea resort of Sochi in southern Russia Wednesday. In a televised tirade, Mr. Putin lit into one of the top officials involved in Russia's Olympic preparations, which have been beset with massive cost overruns and construction delays.

Vladimir Putin marked the one-year countdown to the Sochi winter Games, to which he has pegged his personal prestige, by throwing a televised fit of temper and dressing down a top Olympic official, who was subsequently fired.

Some analysts say that while Mr. Putin was given plenty of reasons to be out of sorts during a two-day visit to Sochi's Olympic construction sites, that his highly publicized tantrum was probably a carefully crafted piece of political theater aimed at calming public concerns.

The Olympic project appears to be losing billions of dollars contributed by the Russian government and state-owned companies such as the natural gas monopoly Gazprom, the state oil firm Rosneft, and the banking giant Sberbank, where the majority of Russians keep their savings.

The causes of Putin's anger included construction delays, revelations of bad design choices, and staggering cost overruns that have already put the Sochi winter Games on track to be the most expensive Olympics in history at $51 billion – well above the previous mark of $40 billion set by the 2008 Beijing summer Games.

There have been persistent rumors of massive corruption associated with the road, rail, and stadium-building projects, with some experts alleging that up to 50 percent is being skimmed by corrupt officials and organized criminals.

Putin might also have been upset over a fairly predictable natural consequence of choosing a city that lies in a sub-tropical climate zone to stage a winter sports extravaganza: At least this year, there is hardly any snow at the mountaintop hub where the Games are set to start in exactly 364 days.

Visiting the RusSki Gorky ski jump at Krasnaya Polyana, the main winter sports center for the Games, Putin became visibly agitated when he learned that the still-unfinished construction is two years behind schedule and its projected cost has exploded from about $40 million to $265 million.

"Well done! You are doing a good job," Putin said in a voice dripping with sarcasm.

After being informed that the responsible official was Akhmed Bilalov, vice president of Russia's Olympic Committee, Putin lit into him.

"What is Mr. Bilalov doing now? Where does Bilalov work?" he asked. "It turns out that a deputy president of the country's Olympic Committee is dragging the construction down?"

The next day Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, who oversees Olympic preparations, told journalists that Bilalov had been fired from the Olympic Committee and would probably lose his other job as head of a state tourism development company for Russia's turbulent north Caucasus.

"People who do not fulfill their obligations on such a scale cannot lead the Olympic movement in our country," Mr. Kozak said.

The 2014 Winter Games were given to Russia almost six years ago, after Putin personally came to a meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Guatemala and made an impassioned pitch – his first ever speech in English – on behalf of Sochi.

Experts say Putin has a huge personal stake in the success of the Games, which he hopes will raise Russia's global profile and counter the waves of negative imagery that depict the country as backward, seething with corruption, and sliding into authoritarian rule.

And at least the feared snow shortage problem has been resolved.

Russian officials tell journalists that special machines will be producing artificial snow for the next year – a huge enterprise that will be fed by two special mountaintop water reservoirs – and the snow produced will be stored under thermal blankets until it's needed. During the games, 446 snow guns spaced around Krasnaya Polyana will start spraying the white stuff any time the temperature climbs above 28.4 degrees F.

Although Putin pronounced himself generally satisfied with his two-day visit to Sochi, Putin's highly publicized outburst may be a sign that he feels growing public concerns over reports of corruption and skyrocketing costs need to be assuaged.

Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal, says he chose to do that in the traditional manner of Russian czars and commissars: Find a lower level official to blame and throw the book at him.

"Russia is proving to be a more complicated place to govern than it was during Putin's first two terms, when he was lifted by high oil prices, a quiescent public, and universally loyal elites who knew they could count on him to arbitrate disputes and distribute the wealth," she says.

"None of those conditions look as solid as they used to be, and Putin is responding in a variety of ways. He's becoming more emotional, more angry.... The message TV sends out when it covers these performances is that, while problems clearly exist, Putin is above criticism. Putin is depicted as the ultimate problem-solver. Anyone else can be fallible, or a self-seeking bureaucrat, but Putin is the only force that can redress the wrongs and set things right...."

"It's called 'picking a scapegoat'," she says.

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