Saturday, May 3, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia Unlikely to Be Ready to Host Olympics in Sochi, Austrian Contractor Warns

Paul Goble

Baku, May 3 – There is only “a small chance” that Moscow will complete the construction projects it has announced to allow it to host the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, the head of a Austrian firm that hopes to become a major investor in the development of projects related to that event.
In comments quoted by Vienna’s weekly Der Standard, Hans-Peter Hazelsteiner, who heads the Strabag engineering and construction corporation, said that he is very skeptical of the Russian government’s ability to meet its own deadline for the elaboration of a general plan for the games by mid-year (
If it does so, he said, “there remains a small chance that the Olympics will really take place” as scheduled. But he said, even if there is a plan, there are so many unresolved problems, including growing opposition by Circassians whose ancestors were deported through Sochi in 1864 that “we doubt” that this will happen.
Hazelsteiner’s firm won a 62 million euros (100 million U.S. dollar) contract to construct an international airport in Sochi to handle visitors to the games. But he said that since being awarded the contract, his company has been watching as problems arise “in all spheres” of the Russian operation there.
Among those he listed were difficulties with streets and highways, railroads, raw materials, electrical energy and a reliable workforce. While “geographically” Sochi is ideally situated for tourism, “one cannot say the same about its location as far as construction is concerned.”
At present, Hazelsteiner said, there is no port that can handle either the equipment or the construction materials his firm and other firms need to do the work. Building such a port will require “several months,” thus backing up everything else and raising doubts about the schedule Moscow has insisted on.
There is not even housing for the estimated 100,000 construction workers who will be needed to do the jobs, the Austrian businessman continued. Some of them may be housed on ships. But at present, it isn’t even possible to ensure that they will be able to go into the city of Sochi to take a bath – “and this is during the summer season.”
All these problems are going to add to projected costs, and the recent change at the top of the Russian Olympic Construction Corporation is only adding to these problems, Hazelsteiner said. But the head of the Austrian Olympic Committee told the paper that he did not share the businessman’s view.
Given Vladimir Putin’s investment in the Sochi Olympics, Heinz Jungwirt told Standard, Moscow will not allow them to fail, however dismal things appear to be at present. They will simply put more of their own resources into this effort, in order to ensure that everything is more or less ready for the games.
That possibility indeed may lie behind the problems that Hazelsteiner describes: Some in the Russian government and business communities may very much hope that Western firms will either pull out in frustration or be forced out by their inability to meet Moscow’s deadlines and that Russian firms will thus have the chance to take over.
But however that may be, the International Olympic Committee has been watching Russia’s progress or lack thereof with concern, sending several delegations in an attempt to find out just where Moscow is now and whether it is trying to use the building of the Olympic facilities as a cover for building other things as well.
And both these problems and the international attention they are attracting are opening the way for Sochi residents to complain about threats to their well-being and to Circassian communities there and abroad to increase awareness about the inappropriateness of holding these games at a place where the tsarist government carried out a genocide against their ancestors.

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