The Sochi Olympics fall out of local favor

MOSCOW, Russia — The Russian government assured the public once again this week that preparations for the 2014 Sochi Olympics are on target. But as the rift between promise and reality grows, national support for the Olympics has started to flail.

The 2014 Sochi Olympics are widely seen as the government's sacred cow, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin willing to do whatever it takes to make them a success after traveling to Guatemala to personally lobby for the bid in 2007.

Three years later, the 185 billion ruble ($6.3 billion) price tag looks ominous compared to the state's withered budget, locals are increasingly agitated and environmental groups have distanced themselves from what they say is ad hoc development that will destroy one of Europe's last pristine habitats.

Even the state-run pollster WCIOM said this week that people's confidence in Russia's ability to organize the games has dropped by 8 percentage points, to 84 percent. Now Taimuraz Bolloyev, head of hte Olimpstroy corporation, which is managing all construction, has written two resignation letters, according to Russian Newsweek. He would be the third person to leave the post since 2007, but so far Putin is not willing to let him go, the magazine said.

Government officials like Putin and his deputy Dmitry Kozak, who is charged with overseeing preparations, still radiate optimism. "We have no fears that we will not build all of the Olympic structures on time and with high quality," Kozak said Wednesday.

But environmentalists are skeptical. Pyotr Gorbunenko, deputy director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), blamed the destruction of a new Sochi port by a winter storm on a lack of monitoring and earnest studies of the region's conditions and the construction's environmental impact. WWF and Greenpeace both consulted for Olimpstroy until this year, when they publicly distanced themselves from Olimstroy's meetings, saying their advice is being ignored. Without integrated assessment and monitoring, other environmental protection measures are pointless, Gorbunenko said, since no one understands how each construction site contributes to pollution and other damage.

The United Nations Environment Programme, whose experts visited Sochi in January, said in a March report that environmental impact assessments used out-of-date literature, while compensation for construction's impact is taking too long. A week after the report’s release, Olimpstroy met with the Russian Nature Protection Society, whose deputy head Elmurod Rasulmukhamedov declared willingness to "organize an assessment of compensation measures" Olimpstroy is developing, according to the corporation's press release.

Olimpstroy confirmed in an email that more than 270 million rubles have been set aside for environmental compensation, but said an integrated environmental assessment of all construction, which WWF is insisting on, would be "difficult to carry out" because "it cannot be done in one season with a few researchers."

Joint statements from Olimpstroy and the Nature Protection Society only illustrate the rotten relationship between Olympic construction organizers and public stakeholders, environmentalists said. The society, a century-old establishment with a central Moscow office and dozens of regional branches that convene annually to vote on policy direction, recently received a warning from the Ministry of Justice that said the director in Moscow has no right to act on behalf of the organization. Marina Sergeyeva, who headed for 14 years the branch in Krasnodar, the capital of the region where Sochi is located, said she knows nothing about working with Olimpstroy and that the Moscow office has been acting on its own, against the organization's charter.

Rasulmukhamedov, of the society, is also director of Russian Loto, a lottery company that won a tender to operate 12 state lotteries in support of the Sochi Olympics, according to public information published by the Ministry of Finance on Monday.

"Protecting the environment is one of our priorities," Putin said to the International Olympic Committee during its visit to Sochi in mid-April. In response, environmentalists say that many areas, like the mountain river Mzymta, have already been lost forever.

The list of complaints does not stop with the environment, however.

Earlier this year, Putin sternly indicated that relocating residents should be "finished and forgotten" in 2010, but locals are increasingly opposed to moving and say that they are being scammed. "To this day, nobody is telling people the truth," said Alexander Nikolayev, whose house is one of 13 sitting on the site planned for the future central stadium for 40,000 people. None of the 13 families is willing to move because the compensation would not let them buy any decent property in Sochi, he said. In addition, "all of the offers are very ephemeral, and no agreements have been signed." While the initial offer two years ago was more or less acceptable, it has changed three times since then, and is "50 times lower than market price."

Some structures are already being built on public land in the neighborhood, but the central stadium site still features backyard orchards and large multistory houses locals built in just the past 10 years, many of them vacation rentals. "I have no plan to move," Nikolayev said, "from the moment of Sochi's bid to host the Olympics, it was a national scam."

Kozak, Putin’s deputy, said on Wednesday that the venues will be built on time and that the expenditures are "under total control." What is happening at the scene sometimes tells a different story. Olimpstroy publishes information about its tenders on the official website. But last month dozens of construction workers on one site refused to continue working after going for several months without salaries. After the media reported on the conflict, the prosecutor put blame on an Olimpstroy subcontractor.

Meanwhile, local journalists said reporting about the uglier face of Olympics construction is hindered by local and regional authorities. The site, which frequently features Olympics-related reporting, suffered a hacker attack in late March, after a series of posts about the striking construction workers.

Another Sochi journalist and editor of a local paper was beaten nearly to death with baseball bats on Monday, in broad daylight near his apartment. "Undoubtedly, it had to do with my work," he told the Kavkaz Uzel website, adding that his money and valuables were not taken.

Both incidents came within two months after Reporters Without Borders issued a report that journalists in the region are "press-ganged" into supporting the games in their stories while the authorities attempt to control their every step.