IOC Checks Up on Sochi, While Hunger Strikers Continue

APA construction worker handling a frame at the building site of the Bolshoi Ice Palace on June 3 in Sochi. As the host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, the southern city has been dotted by controversial infrastructure projects.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and hunger strikers turned out in Sochi on Monday to welcome a delegation from the International Olympic Committee on its latest tour of construction sites for the 2014 Winter Games.

The committee has been making regular visits to the Black Sea resort to check up on work amid cost overruns and construction delays, but the government and IOC maintain that preparations are going ahead as planned.

Environmentalists, construction workers and dislocated property owners have protested the Olympics preparations, saying officials and builders are breaking rules to meet deadlines or to line their pockets with a share of the massive state spending.

IOC President Jacques Rogge stopped by the future ice-skating arena Monday to put an "official screw" into the facility, along with the government's top Olympics official, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak.

Meanwhile, just 100 meters away, six local residents were protesting on the 20th day of a hunger strike over what they called unfair property assessments for land seized to make way for Olympics facilities.

"In 2008, our land was appraised at 3 million rubles [$94,500] per 100 square meters, and now it has gone down to 1.4 million rubles," one of the hunger strikers, Lyubov Firsa, told The Moscow Times by phone from Sochi.

Firsa said she owns 1,500 square meters of land — worth $1.4 million by the earlier price — in the Imeretinskaya lowlands, the southernmost part of Sochi where most of the Olympic venues are to be located.

The state’s compensation, she said, is not enough for her to buy comparable housing built for people whose land will be seized. Its development is overseen by state corporation Olimpstroi.

The government also offered Firsa another plot of land, valued at the same price as her property, but it was unsuitable for farming and farther from the Black Sea.

"No plan has been approved for this area making it clear what our land would be used for," Firsa said. "Supposedly, it's for a park, but we know there will be villas built here for the rich."

The protesters — whose signs included one reading "On hunger strike since May 19. Waiting for Putin" — had been hoping that the prime minister would hear their complaints and use his influence to resolve the dispute.

Although a local street was cleaned before the IOC visit, neither Putin nor the IOC met the strikers.

The tensions could be resolved if land from a former collective farm were redistributed to displaced property owners, Alik Le, a local activist and landowner, told The Moscow Times.

The farm was leveled in 2008 for a planned cargo port, but the government later decided not to build it. "Instead of using it to settle the dispute with the locals, the land has now been promised to hotel developers," Le said.

The Krasnodar regional government, which is in charge of settling land issues with the locals, has dismissed their complaints, saying most residents have not yet been given final appraisals.

Putin said earlier this year that relocation issues should be "finished and forgotten" before the end of 2010.

But it is not even clear whether the houses meant for relocated residents will be ready by then. Olimpstroi said last week that it would end its contract with Moskonversprom, a contractor building the houses.

Tax officials conducted searches at Moskonversprom on Thursday.

Olimpstroi said it broke off the contract "primarily because of Moskonversprom's failure to abide by the contract terms, such as labor conditions."

But the announcement came three days after Moskonversprom chief Valery Morozov told Russian and British media that he has paid 180 million rubles ($5.7 million) in bribes to Vladimir Leshchevsky, a deputy head of construction in the Office of Presidential Affairs.

Leshchevsky has called the accusations unfounded and said Morozov was looking to avoid repercussions for violating the terms of his contract.

In March, construction workers at a Moskonversprom project in Sochi told The Moscow Times that they had not been paid in months and were forced to pawn their belongings for food.

Morozov denied the allegations at the time, saying the strikers were part of a campaign to discredit his Moscow-based firm for the sake of local construction companies.

The Olympics effort has also had to contend in recent months with rumors that its third Olimpstroi president, former Baltika chief Taimuraz Bolloyev, was looking to quit.

The government is looking at replacement candidates, including Interros head Vladimir Potanin, Novaya Gazeta reported last week, citing sources in the presidential administration. Interros denied the reports.

Some turnover in Olimpstroi is already under way, however.

Vice president Stanislav Ananyev, who was responsible for overseeing environmental issues, left the corporation last month.  

Olimpstroi said Monday that Gennady Gubin, a former prime minister of the nearby Kabardino-Balkaria republic, had been appointed vice president for information policy. In addition, Moscow City Hall's purchasing chief, Leonid Monosov, may become another vice president, Vedomosti reported Monday.

Despite the turmoil, Putin said Monday that construction was going well.

"In 2007, the International Olympic Committee decided to have the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi. We had a pretty project and a great desire to host the Games," said Putin, who as president at the time lobbied heavily for Sochi's bid.

"Thirty-four sites should be finished and handed over this year," he said, according to a transcript of his meeting with Rogge posted on the government web site.

Some 19,000 people and 2,500 pieces of equipment are currently involved in work at 72 Olympics sites, and more than 35,000 people will be involved in the construction by the end of the year, he said.

Rogge thanked Putin for the "great achievements in construction" and said he was looking forward to the opening of the Olympics University, where the two laid a cornerstone earlier in the day.

Georgia may boycott the Sochi Olympics, Deputy Foreign Minister Davit Jalaghania said Monday. "Given what Russia is doing today, it would be unjustified for Georgia to take part," he told reporters, referring to a continued military presence in Georgia's breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The regions, which Russia has recognized as countries, are near Sochi.

See also:

Sochi Olympic Workers Unpaid for Months

New Stealth Submarine Joins Russia's Black Sea Fleet

Day of Truth as Olympic Committee Rules on Russian Athletics Ban