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Olympics: Russia celebrates year before Sochi Games

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Russian President Vladimir Putin was set to oversee lavish ceremonies on Thursday, marking the start of the one-year countdown to Russia's first Winter Olympic Games in the palm tree-lined port city of Sochi.

The sports-mad Kremlin chief has made the Games an instrumental part of the patriotic message he has preached since returning to a third presidential term in the face of street protests last May.

But massive cost overruns and reports of corruption along with allegations of abuses of construction workers' rights have cast a pall over the festivities and put the Kremlin on the defensive.

"Cost increases are possible during construction -- but they must be justified," Putin remarked while inspecting the ski jump venue with his Olympic pointman Dmitry Kozak on Wednesday.

"The most important thing is making sure that no one stole anything," Putin said to the deputy prime minister.

Kozak had earlier estimated that some $50 billion of state and private funds will be spent on the Games.

That price tag would make them more expensive than the record-setting 2008 summer Games in Beijing.

But officials voiced confidence that all the facilities and the accompanying buildings and roads would be finished on schedule.

"We are currently continuing to finish off the surrounding infrastructure," said Sochi 2014 organising committee president Dmitry Chernyshenko.

Organisers are under intense pressure to present Russia in a positive light at a time of deteriorating relations with the West.

The Sochi Games offer the Kremlin a chance to showcase Russia as a booming country with top-flight facilities and ambitions to reestablish its Soviet-era domination in sport.

But Putin's administration was rocked on Wednesday by a scathing report from the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) group that accused Russian officials of abusing migrant workers during venue construction.

HRW chronicled cases of workers being cheated of wages and having their passports and work permits confiscated so they were held virtual prisoners.

"Exploiting workers is a victory for no one, and Russia urgently needs to change course," associate Europe and Central Asia director Jane Buchanan said in a statement.

The head of the Sochi migration service called the charges "a made-up issue".

The Sochi extravaganza will mark the Games' first return to Russia since the Soviet era.

The 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow were boycotted by the United States and most of its allies at the height of the Cold War because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130206/olympics-russia-celebrates-year-sochi-games