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August 9, 2007

Sochi trips over its first Olympic
A month has passed since the Russian resort city of Sochi won the bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics. But the preparations have already gathered so much pace that it is as if the Games were going to be held next year.

The Russian budget allocates a total of 25 billion rubles (about $980 million) for the remaining five months of this year. Big private investment projects will be launched on the Black Sea coast in September-October, while state-owned companies will pay for the improvement of the transport and energy infrastructure. Much has been said about the benefits of being the Olympic host city, but few people have mentioned the risks involved.

Meanwhile, accelerated growth and large-scale construction of Olympic venues will have an enormous effect on the city of Sochi and its environs. All risks stem from the absence of a detailed plan for the city's Olympic preparations. The federal program for Sochi's development as an alpine resort and seaside spa for 2006-2014 will be of little help because it was drafted before the city was chosen as the Olympic host.

Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref said that 341 billion rubles would be invested in the region in the next six years. But nobody has a clue as to what the city will be like in 2014 and how the huge expansion will affect it.

The plan for Sochi's development is being revised with urgency, but nobody has yet seen the plan for the location of numerous Olympic facilities, which Gref's ministry was supposed to present on August 6. There is every reason to be concerned about the future of the Sochi 2014 project.

Olympic developers risk becoming embroiled in a loud, public row with environmental activists. Having won the Olympic bid in Guatemala, Sochi has turned from a small local resort into a focal point of global attention. Environmentally conscious Old Europe has learnt that the West Caucasus Nature Reserve forms part of what UNESCO has designated as a World Heritage Site, and Greenpeace Russia argues that large-scale construction will damage it and other natural sites beyond repair.

Even before the Olympic win, environmental activists had demanded changes to the federal program for Sochi's development. They insisted that no construction should take place inside Sochi National Park, in particular on the Grushevoy Mountain Range and the cascade zone of the hydropower plant on the Mzymta River, and that the buffer zone of the Caucasus Biosphere Reserve should remain intact.

The authorities' task of finding common ground with the Greens has been made more difficult since Sochi won the bid for the games. The Ministry of Natural Resources has pledged to use satellites to monitor for any felling of trees in the resort area, and the Prosecutor's Office has declared that it will strictly punish any failure to comply with conservation laws.

The environmentalists, however, are not buying all the official assurances. The simplest way out for the government would be to ignore the Greens, but on August 23 a commission of the International Olympic Committee will come to Sochi for the first tour of the Olympic facilities, and the environmentalists may persuade the IOC to revisit its decision to hold the Games in the city.

The forthcoming enormous construction projects have given locals reason to worry. For the time being, the Olympic exuberance has had only one result: skyrocketing real estate prices. Will the Olympic budget earmark a couple of billion rubles to resolve the housing problems of the city's low-income residents?

No one can say. Other problems have emerged, too: 74 unauthorised buildings have been found inside the Olympic construction zone. Moreover, flaws in Sochi's zoning and building laws make it impossible to know how land will be allotted for the construction of roads, air- and seaports. To prevent abuses, the Sochi City Government has banned land privatization, but this decision is not a cure-all for the city's problems.

Distributing the Olympic budget is another headache. Experts from the Ministry of the Interior, the Audit Chamber and the Public Chamber are going to watch this process. Even Britain's National Audit Office has offered to help the government combat corruption in the run-up to the games. But evil tongues argue that a good part of the budget for the 2014 Olympics will be divvied up among corrupt bureaucrats. If this happens, Sochi will become one more black hole in the Russian budget, tarnishing the city's reputation. No amount of Olympic benefits would be able to repair the damage done to Russia's image.

RIA Novosti political commentator Mikhail Khmelev
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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