Monday 23 March 2009

Window on Eurasia: Nemtsov Offers Moscow a Way Out on Sochi Olympics

by Paul Goble

Vienna, March 23 – Boris Nemtsov, a leader of Russian Solidarity movement and currently a candidate for mayor of Sochi, has provided Moscow with a way to hold the 2014 winter Olympics in Russia despite all the scandals and delays that have plagued the Sochi venue over the last several years.

In an open letter to President Dmitry Medvedev that was published first on his own blog ( and then in today’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal” (, Nemtsov suggests decentralizing the games so that most of the competitions could take place in facilities that already exist or that would be easier to build.

Noting that Sochi residents are “extremely concerned about the course of preparation for the winter Olympic Games,” Nemtsov points to five major problems. First, he says, “Sochi is physically not ready for the enormous construction, ecological, transportation and migration burdens” such construction would require.

Second, says, “the economic crisis confronts Russia with new realities,” raising serious doubts about a massive expenditure on funds for this prestige project at a time when so many Russians need more immediate assistance. Third, many in Sochi don’t believe the facilities will be used after the games in an effective way.

Fourth, experts suggest, planning for the games has been inadequate with the authorities intending to put up facilities that will damage the ecological situation of the city and region. Indeed, some of those who have looked into the situation in detail that the whole effort “looks like an adventure.

Nemtsov does not mention it, but there is another problem with the Sochi games as currently planned: they would take place on the site of the expulsion and ultimate genocide of the Circassian people in the 19th century, something that is already agitating their descendents in Turkey and across the North Caucasus.)

Given these problems, Nemtsov says, it is “completely possible” that Russia could lose its right to conduct the games, a development that he suggests would constitute a serious blow to its prestige. But there is a way out that is provided by International Olympic Committee rules, and it is one that Moscow should consider.

Under extraordinary circumstances, he continues, Article 35 of the Olympic Charter allows for the “decentralization” of the games to more than one city in the country to which they have been awarded. The current economic crisis certainly falls under that rubric, Nemtsov says, and he proposes a radical decentralization program.

While the opening and closing ceremonies would take place in Sochi and some sports connected with the mountains like bobsledding would occur nearby, competition in hockey, figure skating and other ice sports should be moved to existing sports facilities in Moscow, Yaroslavl, St. Petersburg and Kazan, and other competitions could take place in still other cities.

If facilities in these places need modernization, he said, the Russian people would certainly recoup any investment, something that might not be true if Moscow goes ahead with plans to spend enormous sums building up venues in Sochi. And more Russians would benefit rather than migrant workers who might have to be brought in for new construction.

“An attempt to realize the current plan for conducting the Olympics will lead to destructive consequences for Sochi,” Nemtsov says. “The real alternative today is the decentralization of the Olympics,” something that would be “in the interests of Sochi, Russia and the successful carrying out of the winter games in 2014.”

Many in Russia are likely to see this as a publicity stunt by Nemtsov in advance of the Sochi mayoral elections now scheduled to take place on April 26 or as a direct attack on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin because of the latter’s personal commitment to the idea of the Sochi games.

But Nemtsov’s argument is a serious one, and it does provide a way out for Moscow, allowing the Russian government the chance to keep the games it wants so much for status purposes without the obvious problems that holding the games in Sochi would involve both over the next five years and long afterward.

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