Sochi Olympics success could trample Russia’s precious Black Sea nature preserves

frontpageingressimage_logo2_sochi.jpg Photo: www.olympic.org

The unexpected triumph of Sochi over the South Korean resort of PyeongChang was immediately attributed – and not just by Russian officials – to President Vladimir Putin, whose favorite skiing resort, Krasnaya Polyana above Sochi, will be a centre for the 2012 Winter Games. Putin himself traveled to the International Olympic Committee’s vote in Guatemala City to plead Sochi’s case.

He pledged $12 billion for Sochi’s development in his prevote speech to Olympic Committee delegates. The bulk of this money will be guaranteed by Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, which has pledged to raise it in sponsorship fees.

Olympics to be part of unstoppable state economic engine

This represents double the amount Coca-Cola pledged to support the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Sochi’s success in securing the Olympics – especially following St Petersburg’s bitter and scandal-tarred loss of the bid to Athens for the 2004 summer games – will become a major force in Putin’s economic engine and a point of pride in his presidency – meaning, according to environmental analysts, most ecological considerations could go by the wayside as the Kremlin showcases its so-called managed democracy to the world.

It will also be a demonstration of how Putin’s legacy is ensured to survive another five years – beyond the end of his current term – as any administration following will be pre-anointed by the president himself.

An environmental and human rights concern
By and large, environmentalists are not opposed to an Olympic boom for Russia and the economy. Yet some have seen it as a way for Putin to further entrench his power vertical by commercialising nature preserves.

“I think that hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi will become, and has already become, an excuse for the authorities to “privatize” attractive nature reserve lands,” said Yury Vdovin, chairman of the human rights watch-dog organisation Citizens’ Watch.

“Unfortunately, the level of environmental awareness in Russia is still very low. Under these conditions the preparations for and holding of the Olympics in Sochi could cause the environment in the region irreparable damage.”

Greenpeace Russia has issued a strong statement about how current Kremlin plans will encroach on the lands of Sochi National Park and the buffer zone surrounding the Western Caucasus, a World National Heritage property.

“Greenpeace has never protested against hosting the Olympics in Russia – we are questioning how these Olympics are being organized,” Mikhail Kreindlin with Greenpeace Russia’s High Conservation Value Area Department told Bellona Web.

“Unfortunately the plans for the Olympics, as developed by Russian authorities, contain serious violations of Russian environmental legislation.”

The construction project involves, among other things, a sledge-bobsleigh route, a mountain Olympic Village and a biathlon complex. Most of these objects are to be built in the Imeretinsky lowlands, an area of special importance for migratory birds, bearing international significance as a key ornithological territory, Kreidlin explained.

“According to the legislation currently in force, any economic activity on the territory of nature reserves and national parks in Russia is strictly forbidden,” said Kreindlin. “All efforts of environmental NGOs are now directed towards making Russian authorities stick within the boundaries of the law.”

Environmentalists say the fight is yet to come
Indeed other environmental groups have pledged to fight the Kremlin construction plans as they currently stand.

“Even a quick look at the Russian bid shows that Russia is in breach of all environmental norms when placing the Olympic facilities in Sochi National Park,” said Yury Shevchuk of the St. Petersburg division of the International Green Cross, which was founded by former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

“Naturally, the International Green Cross will use all its opportunities, all its influence on the Russian government and all its societal support to resist the seizing of nature reserve lands.”

Other environmental leaders have issued statements of regret that Sochi secured the Olympic bid because other countries vying for the games have more secure environmental legislation in place that would not allow their governments to ride rough-shod over nature preserves and rare wilderness.

Is there hope ecologists will be heard?

“I was very upset when I heard that Russia got the Olympic,” said Vera Ponomareva, coordinator for the St. Petersburg environmental group Save Yuntolovo, and a reporter for Bellona Web.

“Austria and North Korea would probably not have allowed such lawlessness to take place in their nature reserves and national parks.”

Ponomareva said that the Russian State Duma is currently reviewing a raft of amendments to law “On Specially Protected Natural Areas” which would legalise commercial development and economic activity in nature reserves and national parks. But there is little hope of raising the alarms, she said.

Environmental NGOs have almost no access to TV or other national media. In addition, the discrediting of the environmental movement might grow as a result of this,” she said. “They already have accused protesters against the Olympic of lacking patriotism.”

Charles Digges contributed to this report form New York and Ilya Brushtein reported from St. Petersburg.

Charles Digges