Wednesday, January 13, 2010
The Georgian Dimension of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics
By Giorgi Kvelashvili
In 2014 the Russian Black Sea coastal city of Sochi, located a few kilometers north of the Russian-Georgian border across the Psou River, will host the Winter Olympic Games. The Russian leadership considers the Sochi Olympics as a manifestation of Russia’s pride and growing great power status and attaches “state significance” to the due preparation for the Olympics.
Sochi is a city in the Krasnodar region, which has one of the worst corruption and human rights records across the vast domains of the Russian Federation. Russian human rights organizations have reported facts showing that property rights of individuals in Sochi and in adjacent areas have been constantly violated by the authorities and construction companies they lobby, who strive to make room for the building of Olympic facilities, but in fact are trying to enrich themselves on the already skyrocketing real estate prices (Segodnia.ru, June 8, 2009, http://www.segodnia.ru/index.php?pgid=2&partid=11&newsid=8812). Some Russian sources allege that a lack of transparency and dubious deals characterize tenders organized by the Russian authorities for the needs of future Sochi Olympic sites (Segodnia.ru, June 8, 2009, http://www.segodnia.ru/index.php?pgid=2&partid=11&newsid=8812).
Also, considering the poorly developed infrastructure such as railroads, paved motorways and bridges around the city of Sochi, Russia needs to either transport construction materials from distant parts of the country, which would be both costly and time-consuming, or find “more economical,” albeit illegal, ways of dealing with this arduous task. Moscow hopes that the Russian-occupied Georgian region of Abkhazia can be a “viable alternative.”
Apart from outstanding political aspects, a harmful impact on Georgia’s environment, analysts believe, is yet another dimension of the Sochi Olympics. Georgia’s Abkhazia region bordering on the Sochi area is rich in mineral resources, including construction material such as sand, stone and timber and has infrastructure for transit and transportation, namely roads and railroads. Located very close to the future Olympic city, resources found in the Russian-occupied Georgian region have the potential Moscow deems essential for its construction efforts at Sochi (Online Russian Constructor Magazine, March 11, 2008, http://www.i-stroy.ru/docu/mpp/kozak_podryadchiki_smogut_zakupat_v_abhazii_stro/14887.html).
Ever since Russia was granted permission to hold the 2014 Olympic Games in its Black Sea city, it escalated efforts to make good use of the construction material available on the Georgian side of the border. By recognizing Abkhazia as an independent state, Russia, among other things, freed itself from an immediate obligation to seek Georgia’s consent for the use of resources from Abkhazia. Nonetheless, there is evidence that Moscow started to explore and exploit the “southern option” much earlier, at the beginning of 2008. Thus, months before Russia’s aggression against Georgia and consequent military occupation of the Abkhazia region, representatives of the Russian government had on many occasions expressed readiness to arbitrarily utilize resources in the neighboring country (Online Russian Constructor Magazine, March 11, 2008, http://www.i-stroy.ru/docu/mpp/kozak_podryadchiki_smogut_zakupat_v_abhazii_stro/14887.html).
From March to May 2008 – when Russia still formally acknowledged the Abkhazia region as part of Georgia’s sovereign territory – high-ranking Russian officials had openly stated that Moscow was intending to extract from the deltas of coastal rivers of Georgia’s Abkhazia region some 120 million cubic meters of construction material such as stone and sand and export them to the Russian Federation to meet infrastructure needs of the Sochi Olympics (Segodnia.ru, June 8, 2009, http://www.segodnia.ru/index.php?pgid=2&partid=11&newsid=8812).
Georgia fears that in the course of the illegal extraction of inert materials the unique and fragile environment of the subtropical Black Sea coastal zone immediately south to the Georgian-Russian border will suffer a heavy and irreparable damage. This will include beaches, mountains, rivers, lakes and valleys as well as the picturesque flora and fauna of northwestern Georgia. Erosion of the coastal area and the riverbanks will be one of the many dire consequences. Addressing the Summit on Climate Change at Copenhagen on December 18, 2009, President Saakashvili said: “Olympic Games must serve peace and human aspirations, though it has become the reason for destroying the nature. The process of erosion resulted in climate changes and landslides, the results of which are already felt” (official website of President of Georgia, December 18, 2009, http://www.president.gov.ge/?l=E&m=0&sm=3&st=0&id=3128). It was the first time the Georgian leader brought up the issue of the Sochi Olympics at an international forum.
The only time in history when Russia has had the honor to host Olympic Games was in 1980. Notably, they were held one year after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and thus without the participation of Western democracies. This time, too, Russia has invaded a neighboring sovereign nation in the run-up to the Olympics, but unlike in past experience it did so soon after securing the status of Olympic host in 2007, and a good five years before the event was due in 2014. Apparently, by allowing more time between the invasion and the hosting, Russia’s current leadership wants to avoid the repetition of the 1980 international fiasco. Many analysts believe that the international community should take immediate and decisive steps to make Russia comply with its international obligations, including the obligations under the Olympic Charter.