Putin’s Downhill Race

Zimnyaya Olimpiada v Subtropikakh. Nezavisimyi Ekspertnyi Doklad [Winter Olympics in the Subtropics: An Independent Expert Report]

by Boris Nemstov and Leonid Martynyuk
Moscow, 41 pp., May 2013
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Konrad R. Müller/Agentur Focus/Contact Press Images
Vladimir Putin at Novo-Ogaryovo, the presidential residence outside Moscow, June 2002

When the Russian city of Sochi, on the Black Sea, was chosen as the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics in 2007, Vladimir Putin had every reason to be pleased. Russia was given a chance to show the world the accomplishments of his regime. Now that he is again Russia’s president, after a four-year hiatus as prime minister from 2008 to 2012, Putin himself will be at the center of the events. But the Olympics might not turn out as he and his Kremlin colleagues have envisioned.

According to two of Putin’s critics from the democratic opposition, Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk, the Olympics, to be held in February 2014, are a disaster waiting to happen. Nemtsov and Martynyuk have published a booklet, Winter Olympics in the Subtropics: An Independent Expert Report, describing the folly of the choice of Sochi, the unprecedented amount of government money being spent to prepare for the games, and the vast corruption that is part of the process.1 The Sochi Olympics, for these writers, are a microcosmic example of what is wrong with Russia today. And far from presenting Putin’s Russia in a favorable light, the Olympics could be devastating to the country’s image, as well as Putin’s. The authors begin:

Russia is a winterly country. On the map, it is hard to find a spot where snow would never fall, and where winter sports would not be popular. Yet Putin has found such a spot and decided to hold the winter Olympics there: in the city of Sochi.

Sochi, which Nemtsov knows well—he is a native of the city who ran unsuccessfully for mayor there in 2009—is indeed an unfortunate choice. According to Nemtsov and Martynyuk, the temperature at Krasnaya Polyana, the mountain cluster outside of Sochi where many of the winter sports will take place, reached 55 degrees Fahrenheit this year on February 7, the date when the games will open next year. Four days later the temperature reached close to 60 degrees.

Equally disturbing are the enormous costs involved in construction for the games and the lucrative contracts that have been awarded to members of Putin’s inner circle. Nemtsov and Martynyuk have estimated that the Sochi Olympics will cost more than $50 billion, despite the fact that Putin initially told the Olympic organizers that Russia would be spending $12 billion on them. It is not unusual for a country’s actual expenses on the games to be double what was originally projected, but in Russia’s case the increase from the original estimates is more than fourfold. As the authors write:

The cost of the Sochi Olympics, based on the global average, should have been $24 billion (i.e., Putin’s $12 billion, multiplied by two). The remainder—$26 billion—consisted of embezzlement and kickbacks.

The Rotenberg brothers, Arkady and Boris, friends of Putin …

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    An English translation, by Kerkko Paananen, appears on Nemtsov’s website: www.nemtsov.ru. For my review in these pages of an earlier, highly critical report by Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov, Putin: The Results (2008), see “ The Truth About Putin and Medvedev,” The New York Review, May 15, 2008.