Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Has Moscow Decided to Turn to a Businessman to Save Sochi Olympics?

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 2 – The engineering, ecological and ethnic problems now plaguing the construction of venues for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi are so great that the Kremlin, given the failures of the officials it has put in charge up to now, reportedly is planning to hand over responsibility for completing this high-priority project to a private businessman.
According to Aleksey Polukhin, the economics editor of “Novaya gazeta,” the Russian government will soon name Vladimir Potanin head of the Olympic Construction agency, Olimpstroy, in the hopes that he will solve the problems bedeviling a program in which Moscow has invested so much money and prestige (
If this appointment happens, Potanin will replace another businessman, Taymuraz Boldoyev, the former head of “Baltika,” who in turn replaced ex-Transneft head Semyon Vaynshtok. But it seems likely that Potanin will have more independent authority than either of the others who had to coordinate on most issues with “Olympic” Vice Premier Dmitry Kozak.
Such “cadre experiments,” Polukhin writes, have carried with them a high price: “The project is gradually sinking into the Imereti bogs, and it is impossible to conceal this from journalists, society, from the International Olympic Committee and from [Prime Minister] Vladimir Putin.
“For Putin in particular,” the “Novaya gazeta” editor continues, Sochi “is the project which he wants to be his legacy.” And “it is in no way part of the premier’s plans to become the public face of the most public failure in the history of the country.” Consequently, he is prepared to do almost anything to make sure the Sochi Olympics succeeds.
According to the Moscow paper’s source in the Presidential Administration, “the last straw” was the December 2009 storm which destroyed the port through which construction materials of the Olympics were to pass. Now, no one can say exactly when that port will reopen and the wreckage cease being yet another obstacle to the construction of the Sochi venues.
Polukhin writes that as of today, “the entire Olympic project is under threat.” And Putin is increasingly finding out that the ruined port is only a symptom of bigger problems. Trucks carrying in building materials are now waiting in long lines because of the limited highway network, thus slowing up all construction.
Another problem, “one with which Putin is not accustomed to take into consideration,” is environmental protection and the opposition of the World Wildlife Fund, the UN Environmental Protection Program, and allied organizations and institutions to the often cavalier way the Russians have approached the issue of protecting the fragile ecology of the Sochi region.
The environmentalists may not seem important to Putin within Russia, but their opposition to a project which is international by definition is something neither he nor other Moscow officials can ignore. And their opposition to his plans calls into question Moscow’s ability to pull off the games.
And there have been social conflicts as well as a result of importation of “not less than 16,000” Gastarbeiters already, whose clashes with the local population are likely to increase still further if their number rises as predicted to 50,000 by the end of the year, a truly astronomical number in a place as small as Sochi.
(There are two other problems as well, although Polukhin does not mention them here: security of games not far from the unstable North Caucasus and the objections of Circassians to the holding of Olympics on the site of the expulsion of their ancestors from the Russian Empire in 1864, an action they argue is equivalent to a genocide.)
For all these reasons, the “Novaya gazeta” journalist continues, “the tone of the International Olympic Committee has even begun to change.” While it has up to now “supported Russia without qualification, closing its eyes to internal problems,” the IOC has done so on the assumption that “construction is proceeding apace.”
But now construction is moving forward “so slowly that even the IOC’s representative, Jean-Claude Killy was forced to publicly express doubts: where in fact will live the guests and participants of the Games if construction of the promised hotels with 42,000 rooms has not yet even begun?”
Moreover, and as a result, “even citizens of Russia have ceased to believe in the [Sochi] Olympics,” Polukhin says, noting that a recent VTsIOM poll found that “only 37 percent of Russians are ‘unqualifiedly certain’ that our country will be able to conduct the games in a worthy fashion,” an attitude that suggests many have questions about Putin as a manager.
“Of course,” the “Novaya gazeta” editor continues, “the third change in the leadership of Olimpstroy in three years will look somewhat unserious, but it is really necessary to save the project.” And it is quite likely that only someone who is “sufficient rich not to steal, loyal to the Kremlin and independent of local groups” could possibly do so.
That is what people at Staraya ploshchad, the headquarters of the Russian government, think, a source there has told the paper. Putin cares very much about the fate of this project, and Potanin appears to meet all the requirements, but even he faces an uphill battle to build the venues and overcome the objections of environmentalist and ethnic groups.

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