TALLINN – Every couple of weeks, Suren Gazaryan, a Russian national born in Georgia, shuffles between Estonia and Germany in search of asylum after being accused of attempted murder at home for outing the environmental evisceration and corruption paving the Kremlin’s road to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
If anyone is discussing issues of official extortion, ecological ruin, secret slush funds, and the extermination of one of the world’s most treasured landscapes at all, they have Gazaryan’s quiet, methodical, relentless, organized documentation and the work of the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus (EWNC) to thank – or, in the case of the Kremlin, to blame.
Based in small towns with a headquarters office in Sochi, the group began as a collective of concerned citizens who feared encroachment on the Krasnodar Region’s protected national forests and seashores.
Ever since the Olympic bid ramped for the Sochi Games ramped up, the site has become a kind of ecological Wikileaks in Russian, documenting one governmental abuse, one illegal landfill and one graft scheme after another.
Understandably, the authorities are not happy, and engaged a local and national campaign to tar the organization’s credibility. And though several of the group’s founding members, are in the wind, this has not prevented them, especially Gazaryan, from documenting the frenetic razing of the landscape.
Most expensive Games in history missing $30 billion
Fifty one billion dollars of state and private funding have been pumped in to Sochi 2014, making it the most expensive Olympics in history.
Russian politician and a former deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov, a Sochi native and no friend of the Kremlin, said his own investigations in an interview with Al Jazeera English reveal that $30 billion of that has been spent on anything but the Olympics – “basically stolen” he said, to grease palms and “line pockets.”
“It’s shameful, disturbing and causes a feeling of hatred for the people who are involved in making the Sochi Games ugly,” said Nemtsov.
President Vladimir Putin is depending on the Games to showcase the “Modern Russia” free now of street demonstrations against his rule and the vote rigging that preserved his power. And free, as well, of irritating social dissent.
But to Gazaryan, the gob-stoppingly colossal investment into Sochi 2014 is the modern Russia – venal, vain and myopic.
The Games begin in 43 days, running from February 7 to 23. By that time, the toxic landfills, swathes of national forests felled to make way for Olympic venues and palatial estates for Russia’s politically anointed, the poisoned rivers and drinking water, the species nearing extinction and the limestone quarries gouged into protected lands will fade from public attention, eclipsed by the race for medals.
Until then, builders continue to dump literal tons of untreated construction and household waste in makeshift landfills – most of which remain undocumented but by environmentalists – overtaking protected lands throughout the once pristine Krasnodar region – a giant welch on Russia’s promised “Zero Waste Games” promise.
According to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), 3.5 billion tons of waste was generated during Olympic preparation in 2009 alone.
Olympic ‘Zero Waste’ pledge seems empty
Construction vehicles and garbage trucks slow traffic to a Moscow-like gridlock on roads between coastal, temperate Sochi, with its population of 400,000, and the Caucasus Mountain ski slopes of Krasnaya Polyana 45 kilometers to the north, causing smog that is utterly foreign to the area, say activists.
The junk being documented has come about partly because Sochi – where the average February temperature hovers around 5-7 °C – is just not a winter town. In other words, the Russian Olympic Organizing Committee’s Games-building effort has been an exercise in building winter from scratch – something akin to popularizing igloos in Ibiza.
To change the local seasonal cycle, the Organizing Committee has constructed, by their own statistics, more than a dozen venues in separate coastal and mountain complexes with over 367 kilometers of roads, 200 kilometers of railway, and 170 kilometers of gas pipelines. Sochi has even stored 450,000 cubic meters of snow to ensure a white Olympics come February 7.
Dozens of local species of plant and animal life were at risk even before the Kremlin’s Olympic juggernaut descended on the 1,938 square kilometer site of Western Caucasus National Park. These include the Persian leopard – now one of the mascots of the Sochi games. If it goes extinct, at least it will be commemorated on t-shirts and coffee mugs.
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