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Sochi Olympic Project Hits Snags As Workers, Environmentalists Complain


A tribute to the Sochi Games is unveiled during the closing ceremony of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. Will Sochi make the grade?
(RFE/RL) -- Preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi have come under fire in recent days from environmentalists and from workers at the massive construction site.

The UN Environment Program issued a report today that charges Moscow "did not take into account the cumulative...effects of the various projects on the ecosystems of the Sochi region and its population." The UN report is based on the findings of an inspection conducted at the site in January and largely repeats concerns that have been heard in Russia since the 2014 Games were awarded to Sochi in July 2007.

The UN notes that irreparable environmental harm has already been done during construction of road and rail communications corridors linking the Games' mountain venues with those on the Black Sea coast. It also says that government commitments to mitigate the damage by enlarging the Sochi National Park and creating new protected coastal areas for migrating birds have been stalled.

The report comes just weeks after leading environmental organizations WWF and Greenpeace suspended their consultative activities connected with the Sochi Games, saying that the Olympic organizers routinely ignore their recommendations. The United Nations urged both sides to resume the contacts and to cooperate more effectively.

Environmental activists protest in front of the Russian Olympic Committee following Russia's request to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The Russian government rejects the claims of environmental damage, saying the UN report is a public-relations stunt intended to sabotage the Games. The Sochi 2014 website is full of ambitious proclamations of "Games in Harmony with Nature" and "Managing Sustainable Development."

It also features a 35-page "Sochi 2014 Environmental Strategy." In the introduction to that report, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov, who heads the Olympic organizing committee, writes, "We are aware that sustainable development of this area and, particularly, protection of the Sochi environment is our obligation to Russia and to the world community, our duty for future generations of Russians."

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak told "Vedomosti" the UN report and other environmental issues would be discussed at a meeting of the Public Council on Preparations for the Winter Olympic Games, scheduled for March 16 in Sochi. Natural Resources and Ecology Minister Yury Trutnev and representatives of the main construction companies are expected to participate.

The Sochi Olympics will be unique in that all the facilities are being built from nothing. Russia expects to spend some $7 billion on the massive project, compared to the $580 million that Canada spent on the Vancouver Games earlier this year. In addition, Moscow plans another $30 billion in spending on related projects, including renovating rail communications between Sochi and Moscow.

Labor Problems

However, work on the project is not proceeding smoothly. About 100 workers have launched a strike complaining that they have not been paid for months. In addition, they posted a video on YouTube purporting to show the unsanitary conditions in which the workers -- most of whom are migrants from other parts of the country -- are forced to live.

The workers are employed by a subcontractor on a project that is being overseen by a company called Moskonversprom.

Preparations for the Sochi Games are not proceeding smoothly.
Worker Igor Pechorin tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that he is owed some 150,000 rubles ($5,100) for work performed over the last six months. He said that after he wrote asking to be paid, "they gave me partial payments -- 7,000 rubles, 10,000. They should have paid 25,000 according to the order, but they paid some other sum."

Pechorin adds that he came from Altai Krai in Siberia "to help my country and my government hold a beautiful Olympics. And to earn money. I have a family." He says he plans to quit and seek work on another Olympic project.

Moskonversprom says the wage-arrears problem is largely the fault of the subcontractors and that prosecutors are looking into the matter. Moskonversprom CEO Valery Morozov admits his company is having trouble managing the contractors.

"Some subcontractors have appeared at the Olympic sites who are used to doing low-quality work," Morozov says. "They are used to coming into a project and trying to get money -- then most of this money goes into the pockets of the managers or owners of these companies."

Economist Mikhail Delyagin, a former government adviser who now heads the Institute of Globalization Issues, says that the nonpayment of workers is symptomatic of larger issues in Russian society.

"Major corporations understand perfectly that people have no rights," Delyagin says. "They know this. And paying for work when people are not real employees but are only hired on a contract basis is like throwing money into the wind."

There are 1,424 days until the Olympic torch is lit in Sochi.

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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