Why is a subtropical gangster's paradise hosting the next Winter Olympics?
- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.
After a lackluster athletic performance at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Russia now looks ahead to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. Vladimir Putin’s government hopes the event will showcase Russia’s return to superpower status, but critics think the Kremlin’s headaches have only just begun. Last week, Boris Nemtsov — opposition leader, former deputy prime minister, and one-time Sochi mayoral candidate — spoke with FP‘s Joshua Keating about his concerns for his hometown.
Foreign Policy: So why do you believe it is a mistake to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics in your hometown, Sochi?
Boris Nemtsov: In all of Russian history, I can think of only one example as crazy as this. After he visited Iowa, [Soviet Premier Nikita] Khrushchev, told farmers around Murmansk, above the Arctic Circle, to grow corn in the frozen tundra. [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin is now repeating Khrushchev’s experience.
He has found one of the only places in Russia where there is no snow in the winter. He has decided to build these ice rinks in the warmest part of the warmest region. Sochi is subtropical. There is no tradition of skating or hockey there. In Sochi, we prefer football, and volleyball, and swimming. Other parts of Russia need ice palaces — we don’t.
FP: But isn’t the construction good for the local economy?
BN: It is disastrous. Roughly 5,000 people have been forced out of their homes to make room for the Olympic facilities, and thanks to the corruption and incompetence of authorities, have not yet been adequately compensated for their property or been given equivalent housing elsewhere, as they were promised. Billions of dollars have simply disappeared. All this sacrifice is for facilities that will most likely not be used when the games are over.
FP: What are the problems besides the weather?
BN: These Olympics will be an economic and ecological catastrophe. A road being built from Sochi to the ski areas in the nearby mountains will cost around $130 million per kilometer. This is now one of the world’s most expensive roads and a symbol of corruption. The road will also pass directly through environmentally sensitive areas under the protection of UNESCO.
Putin seems to think he can buy success. When Sochi was awarded the Olympics at the 2007 [International Olympic Committee meeting in Guatemala, he promised to spend $13 billion on them. Vancouver has only spent $2 billion. It’s certainly possible that with the level of corruption in Russia, $13 billion is what will be needed to get anything done after everyone has had their cut, but we don’t think this is very good for Russia, or for the world.
Sometimes, it seems like God doesn’t even want the Olympics in Sochi. Putin’s close friend, the oligarch Oleg Deripaska, attempted to build a sea cargo port in Sochi, but a huge storm in the Black Sea [in late 2009] destroyed it. They should have taken this as a sign that God doesn’t want this to happen!
FP: What about terrorism? Sochi is near some very dangerous areas of the North Caucasus.
BN: I don’t think terrorism will be a big problem. There is not much of that in Sochi. The bigger concerns are organized crime — which is very active there — and government corruption.
FP: What response have you gotten for raising these issues?
BN: It is impossible in Russia today to criticize any of the government’s decisions in the government-controlled media. My movement, Solidarity, has several times proposed public debates on the games, but nobody from the Russian Olympic committee has agreed to take part.
FP: Why do you think the International Olympic Committee went along with the idea?
BN: I believe that the organization is under very strong pressure from Putin and there is an informal relationship between him and the committee. Eventually, there will be an international investigation to bring to light why this decision was made. Whether it happens before or after the Olympics will depend on the level of interest of the international community. But the truth will come out and the IOC will have to answer for it.