Steven Lee Myers, “acting bureau chief of The Times’s Moscow bureau…at work on a biography of Vladimir Putin”, takes a gentle ramble through Putin’s Potemkin village:
… “This is one of the biggest frauds of the Olympics,” Boris Nemtsov said about the new road and railway, and the whole Sochi project, he says, is the biggest fraud in Russia’s history, “maybe even the biggest in human history.” Now 54, Nemtsov was once one of the brightest stars of the democracy movement that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. A mathematician and a physicist with a Ph.D. that he defended when he was only 25, he became involved in politics by protesting plans to build a nuclear reactor after the Chernobyl disaster. In 1991, he was appointed governor of Nizhny Novgorod, the formerly closed city of Gorky, and served until 1997, when Boris Yeltsin drafted him to join his government. He was so popular — young, handsome, intelligent — that he was widely discussed as a potential successor for the ailing Yeltsin. Those prospects crashed with the Russian economy in 1998 and, a year later, with the unexpected ascension of Putin. The two occasionally worked together in the beginning, but Nemtsov turned fierce critic after the arrest of the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003. He has since vehemently attacked Putin’s authoritarian instincts and the heavy hand of the security organs and has been arrested three times for taking part in anti-Putin protests.
“What is really interesting is that Putin believes nobody knows about the corruption,” Nemtsov said over dinner in Moscow. It’s not for Nemtsov’s lack of trying. In a report he co-wrote and distributes at political protests, he noted that Russian Railways contracted the bulk of the road and railway project to two companies, including one that is now partly owned by a businessman named Gennady Timchenko, who has longstanding connections to Putin. Nemtsov also claims that 15 percent of the entire Olympic budget went to companies owned by the brothers Rotenberg, Arkady and Boris, who were Putin’s friends and judo partners when they were coming of age in the 1960s. After Putin’s rise to power, they advanced in the ranks of Russia’s oligarchs. In an interview with The Financial Times in 2012, Arkady Rotenberg defended his friendship and said he had not used it for personal gain. “I have great respect for this person,” he said of Putin, “and I consider that this is a person sent to our country from God.”
Every Olympics costs more than the initial projections, but Russia’s costs have increased more than fourfold since Putin’s initial estimate of $12 billion. As Nemtsov figures, because most games typically double in cost, the difference in Russia — $25 billion to $30 billion — can be attributed to outright thievery. “This is a festival of corruption,” he said. And he argued that everything — from the choice of Sochi, to the design of the buildings, to the contracts parceled out — was effectively controlled by Putin. “There was no public discussion about the place. Zero. Not even one discussion in Parliament. Zero. No discussion on Putin TV, the zombie box. It was completely closed.”.
In December, a scientist and environmentalist named Yulia Naberezhnaya agreed to meet in Sochi, but only after certain precautions were taken to protect the now-secret location of her organization, the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, which has been chronicling the abuses done to a fragile biosphere by the preparations for the Olympics. The alliance’s office in a nearby town was raided by security services in March, as was the home of one of its members, Vladimir Kimayev. Its leader, Andrei Rudomakha, was detained in October along with Naberezhnaya, as they were on their way to the office in Sochi… “We are not a powerful-enough organization to fight the state,” Naberezhnaya told me. “The only thing we can do is raise hell, and then see what happens. And even that is being taken away from us.”
Naberezhnaya asked that a colleague and I meet her at a bus stop in Bytkha, a working-class neighborhood that climbs into the hills along the coast and is likely to be trod by few, if any, of the visitors who come for the Olympics. It was already dark when we arrived, and she appeared at the bus stop a few minutes later. She took us on a rambling walk through darkened streets and alleys before we arrived at the back of a Soviet-era apartment building, with an expansive view of Sochi’s center and the mountains cast in silvery moonlight. An old shed had been converted into a crude apartment, sparsely furnished and occupied most of the time by a lone cat. Stacked around were boxes of campaign literature for Yabloko, one of the oldest democratic parties in Russia, to which many of the environmentalists also belong. It is here that Naberezhnaya is finishing work, in virtual collaboration with the alliance’s now-scattered members, on a final report on the environmental impact wrought not only by the Olympics but also by the rapacious development underway in the region’s protected parks, including a supposed research center above Sochi that is widely believed to be a personal mountain resort, replete with helipads and several Swiss-style chalets, for Putin.
She cited a new law that was proposed by the Kremlin and dutifully adopted by both houses of Parliament in November 2007, effectively superseding all other relevant laws regarding the use of environmentally sensitive areas. “The territory planning documentation for the location of Olympic facilities shall be approved without holding public hearings,” the law declared….
Human Rights Watch and other groups like the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus have chronicled a range of abuses, including the gross exploitation of migrant laborers, many of them shuttled in from abroad. While Russian officials dispute the accusations of corruption, the evidence has mounted to the point that even a member of the International Olympic Committee, Gian-Franco Kasper, told Switzerland’s SRF radio this month that roughly a third of the spending on the games had been lost to embezzlement…
The pictures at the link are really impressive, too.