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Why Putin Cares So Much About Sochi

The Sochi Olympics are to Putin what Saint Petersburg was to Peter The Great. Freeing rivals, such as Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot, are one more step toward sealing his place in history.

Vladimir Putin at the Krasnaya Polyana ski resort
Vladimir Putin at the Krasnaya Polyana ski resort
Marie Jégo

SOCHI — On Moscow’s Manege Square, located just minutes away from President Vladimir Putin’s office at the Kremlin, a giant digital clock counts down the days, hours, minutes until the beginning of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. The biggest international event organized by Russia since the fall of the USSR in 1991 will begin on Feb. 7, 2014.

Sochi, the old seaside resort of Russia’s nobility, is unrecognizable as it prepares to stand as the symbol of the country’s renewal, willing to show off its muscles and its newfound splendor. Large spaces are still under construction in this town of 400,000 inhabitants, located on a 145-kilometer-wide strip of land between the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains that features little infrastructure.

About 8,000 Russians were recently recruited to replace the foreign workers who were expelled by immigration services. Now time is running out. The snowflake-shaped stadium that is supposed to host the opening ceremony is not yet finished, and several hotels still need to be constructed. Also, because Sochi is situated in a sub-tropical area, some fear there won’t be any snow. More than 300,000 cubic meters of powdered snow have had to be stored to prepare for that eventuality.

The bill for this grand Olympic production is breathtakingly high. Despite initial cost estimates hovering between $7 billion and $16 billion, more than $51.5 billion has already been spent, including $32 billion by the state. By comparison, the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 cost $3.6 billion and the London summer games $15.58 billion.

In early November, three billionaire investors — Oleg Deripaska, Vladimir Potanin and Viktor Vekselberg — warned that they would be unable to pay back Russia’s Development Bank VEB for loans issued to construct sports facilities, hotel complexes and an airport. According to financial newspaper Vedomosti, these three investors received $7.2 billion in loans from the VEB.

The celebrations haven’t even started yet and the oligarchs are already worrying over the profitability of their investments. A significant number of these projects are loss-making, they say, because of extra demands such as accessibility for the disabled and a higher number of hotel rooms than planned.

Putin’s Games

Nothing is too beautiful for Sochi. That’s why the government promised these billionaires “additional measures” (tax rebates, lower interest, public properties as guaranties). After all, these are Putin’s Games. Didn’t he indeed get personally involved in the project by traveling to Guatemala in 2007 to advocate the city’s candidacy? He’s convinced that the choice of the International Olympic Committee is a recognition of his success.

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Krasnaya Polyana ski resort — Photo: GNUFDL

“I can tell you with certainty that if we hadn’t restored territorial integrity, if we hadn’t put an end to the turmoil in the Caucasus, if we hadn’t fixed the economy and the social issues, there wouldn’t be any Olympics,” Putin explained in 2007.

A year later, when Russia was at war with Georgia, the country reinforced its positions in the region, installing military bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Soon after, Russia unilaterally recognized the “independence” of these two territories. And yet, when you get closer to the barbwires set up by Russian soldiers as a demarcation between Ossetia and Georgia, you receive the following text message on your cellphone: “You have entered the Russian Federation.”

It is with the Caucasus that Vladimir Putin conquered Russia, using the second Chechen War as a springboard to his election as president in March 2000. He’s now counting on the Sochi games to establish his legacy. In many respects, Sochi is to Putin what Saint Petersburg was to Peter The Great, an upgrade in status from the “window to Europe” to the picture window to the world.

The news Thursday that Putin would release from prison some of his best-known nemeses, including former billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the music protest group Pussy Riot, was widely seen as an attempt to remove any obstacles from the Games in Sochi becoming his crowning achievement.

But such maneuvers aside, the Caucasus is far from being at peace. To the East, on the banks of the Caspian Sea, the Republic of Dagestan is infected by civil war. Kabardino-Balkaria and the region around Stavropol are riddled with Islamist groups. In Abkhazia, where all sorts of trafficking takes place, Dmitri Vichernev, the man in charge of the land register, was shot dead on Sept. 9. On Oct. 21, in Volgograd, a kamikaze from Dagestan blew himself up on a bus, killing six people.

That’s why Sochi will be turned into a vast experiment for the SORM system, which was activated by Russian intelligence services to intercept communications of visitors and their online data. Security measures will be drastic, with U.S. and British services having already pledged to cooperate. The border with Abkhazia will be closed, and control checkpoints have already been installed on the roads. Road traffic in the city will be limited, as will be sailing on the Black Sea.

The president also decided to ban any demonstrations unrelated to the Olympics. Finally, almost 40,000 police officers and soldiers will be on red alert. In the words of blogger Alexander Valov, it’s enough to turn Sochi into an “Olympic internment camp.”

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