Only a year after Russia hosted soccer’s World Cup, one of the stadiums completed and opened just months before the event already appears to be in serious trouble, possibly sinking into a swamp.
From collapsed and bulging brickwork ringing the stadium to headaches with the drainage system that compound the risk of flooding, all is not well at the soccer stadium in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave squeezed in between the Baltic state of Lithuania and Poland.
The reason? Critics say it has everything to do with the site. Kaliningrad Arena was built on wetlands in a floodplain with loose soil where no large structures of any kind had stood before. Builders were supposed to shore up the foundation with sand, but instead skimped on that while overbilling on the work, authorities alleged -- leading to arrests, including that of a senior local official who is now on trial.
Russia spent more than $14 billion to host the FIFA World Cup in July and August 2018, making it the most expensive soccer competition in history. And like the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi far to the south on the Black Sea, the building of infrastructure and stadiums was plagued with charges of corruption, kickbacks, and shoddy work.
Neglect and decay are no strangers to stadiums and infrastructure in cities hosting events like the World Cup or the Olympics. Even some of the sites from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil are already abandoned. But critics say few facilities have nosedived as quickly as the Kaliningrad Arena.
Kaliningrad Arena, which cost the equivalent of some $300 million, had largely been forgotten beyond Russia’s westernmost region after hosting four World Cup matches. It now is home to FC Baltika, a lower-division Russian side whose games usually attract a few thousand fans.
But it was in the national spotlight on September 9 when it played host to a Euro 2020 qualifier between Russia and Kazakhstan.
Instead of reveling in the 1-0 Russian victory, a columnist at one of the nation’s leading sports daily, Sport-Express, voiced shock at the state of the stadium, predicting the national team would never play there again and questioning whether the structure would collapse.
Amid the uproar, Aleksei Moisa, the director of the municipal firm in charge of stadium maintenance, Gidrotekhnik, told a meeting involving top city officials on September 10 that its sewage and drainage systems are in poor condition, and lamented what he said was the lack of a sense of urgency about rectifying the problems.
In the wake of Moisa's remarks about drainage issues, others expressed concern that heavy rains could cause serious flooding at the stadium.
The stadium in Kaliningrad was always among the most problematic of the dozen built for the 2018 World Cup. Built from scratch for the tournament, its completion was delayed until March 2018, mere months before the first match. Financial problems led the company responsible for the stadium’s design to declare bankruptcy.
The 35,000-seat facility was built on Oktyabrsky Island, a spit of land sitting between two branches of the Pregola River. It proved a difficult location, largely because soggy soil does not make the soundest foundation for major structures. The builder said that added to the final cost of the stadium.
Kremlin-connected tycoon Aras Agalarov, chief of Crocus Group, the general contractor for the stadium, said amid mutual recriminations that half of the required sand, and of a lower quality, was used to bolster the foundation.
“The regional administration was supposed to prepare the ground under the stadium construction site by pouring a six-meter layer of building sand, but in fact only half as much was used, and it wasn’t construction sand, but clay sand,” Agalarov told the independent Russian outlet RBK in 2016.
In July 2017, police arrested Amir Kushkhov, the former Kaliningrad regional minister for construction, Sergei Trubinskiy, a regional deputy director in charge of construction control, and Khachim Eristov, a senior manager at GlobalElektroService, a subsidiary of the company Summa, which had been contracted to do preparatory stadium construction work, including lining the base with sand.
According to the Russian business daily Kommersant, all three were suspected of stealing 500 million rubles ($7.8 million at current exchange rates) in connection with construction of the Kaliningrad Arena.
Those were not the only detentions linked to the Kaliningrad stadium scandal.
In March 2018, police in Moscow detained Ziyavudin Magomedov, a co-owner of Summa, along with his brother, Magomed Magomedov. They were charged in a larger case involving the theft of 2.5 billion rubles ($39 million), an unspecified amount of which was linked to the Kaliningrad stadium project.
According to Russian investigators, the charges stem from the 785 million ruble ($12.2 million) tender won by GlobalElektroService to do the foundation preparatory work at the Kaliningrad Arena.
Russian tabloid site LifeNews reported in July 2017 that investigators suspected GlobalElektroService used a subsidiary, Industrial and Technical Equipment Management, to shift 300 million rubles of allegedly ill-gotten gains to accounts in Cyprus.
Solomon Ginsburg, a high-profile Kaliningrad politician and member of the Public Chamber of the Kaliningrad Oblast, an official civil society advisory board, said that what he called the “ingenious thievery” surrounding the project was rooted in an ill-conceived choice of location.
“Competent people in Kaliningrad had proposed a different scenario for organizing the soccer World Cup games -- reconstruct the existing Baltika Stadium,” Ginsburg told the North Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service, referring to the older, humbler former home of second-division FC Baltika.
If that plan had been implemented, he said, “the cost would have been nearly halved, lowering the chances of corruption as well. But someone needed to build a huge structure in a swamp, burying millions of tons of sand and billions of rubles.”
Kushkhov, the most senior former official officially charged in the case, insists he is innocent.
Appearing at a recent Kaliningrad court hearing via video link from Moscow, where he has been held in jail since his arrest, Kushkhov said that he did not understand the charges leveled against him and suggested the evidence was lacking.
“If I am accused of committing a crime, then where is the proof of the conspiracy?” Kushkhov asked the court. “And where is the money, the 752 million rubles that I allegedly stole?”