20 years under Putin: a timeline

On January 30, the Institute of Modern Russia (IMR) held a conference entitled “Olympic Abuses: Russia Before the Sochi Games” at the National Press Club in Washington DC. At this forum, which featured representatives of the Russian opposition, IMR launched its new interactive online guide to corruption in the Sochi Olympics.


Left to right: David J. Kramer, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Boris Nemtsov, Leonid Martynyuk.


The conference featured keynote addresses by Boris Nemtsov, Russian opposition leader and former deputy prime minister; Leonid Martynyuk, Russian journalist and opposition activist from the Krasnodar region; David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House and former U.S. assistant secretary of state; and Vladimir Kara-Murza, IMR senior policy advisor.

Kara-Murza, who opened the discussion, focused on issues related to the preparations for the Olympics. Speaking about financial abuses, Kara-Murza pointed out that the Sochi Olympics are “the most expensive” in history and “have already cost more than the combined price tag of all Winter Games since 1924. . . . Only the amount stolen during construction has been estimated at $30 billion.” Additionally, according to Kara-Murza, “the Olympic preparations revealed other abuses such as forced evictions of residents, environmental and architectural damage, and mistreatment of construction workers.” As the IMR senior advisor pointed out, the Olympic abuses are just a part of an overall political landscape in Russia shaped by such characteristics as “media censorship, falsified elections, mammoth corruption,” and, “despite very welcome recent releases, the existence of forty political prisoners” in the country.

At the conference, Kara-Murza announced the launch of a new interactive website developed by IMR entitled “Sochi-2014: The Reverse Side of the Medal. The Unofficial Guide to the Most Expensive Winter Olympic Games”. The website, which is available in both Russian and English, is the result of the collaborative efforts of IMR and investigative journalists based in Sochi. The interactive guide presents exclusive information on 26 Olympic-related objects, including costs associated with the preparations, instances of corruption, and other abuses that occurred during preparation for the Games. After reading the content of the website, readers can take a short quiz and enter a sweepstakes.

The IMR event also featured the launch of the English-language publication of Winter Olympics in the Sub-Tropics, a report co-authored by Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk. According to Nemtsov, the report was the first to present information about “the real cost of the Olympic games,” which the authors estimate at over $50 billion. This amount is more than four times the estimated cost originally announced by Vladimir Putin ($12 billion). According to Nemtsov, “one hundred percent of the money came from the state side: . . . the budget and state corporations.” As an example of how the funds were used, Nemtsov spoke about the most expensive of the Olympic projects, which is also “the most expensive road in the world”—the Ad­ler–Krasnaya Polyana Highway. The length of the road is 48 kilometers, and the cost of its construction amounted to about $9 billion, which is equal to about $200 million for one kilometer (or $10,000 for one square meter). Nemtsov compared this project with the U.S. program to reach Mars: “Flying to Mars is three times cheaper than building a road of 48 kilometers.”

The website “Sochi-2014: The Reverse Side of the Medal” presents exclusive information on 26 Olympic-related objects, including costs associated with the preparations, instances of corruption, and other abuses that occurred during preparation for the Games.

The report’s co-author, Leonid Martynyuk, spoke about the “high-risk points” of the Winter Olympics. For example, given “the limited power-generating capacity” in Sochi, “the Olympic venues will get priority over the rest of the users, potentially leaving the city without lights.” As Martynyuk recalled, in 2012, there were “more than a thousand blackout occurrences in Sochi because of the miserable condition of the power network.” There are also climate risks that are related to the sharp warming of Krasnaya Polyana, which could have been caused by “destructive deforestation and tunnel boring along the route from Adler to Krasnaya Polyana.” Additionally, according to Martynyuk, since the Olympics will be held in the North Caucasus, “which is a region with a traditionally high risk of terrorism, it is possible that some of the terrorist groups will try to carry out an attack against the participants and guests at the Olympics.”

Despite discussions of the Olympic terrorism risks in the U.S. media, Boris Nemtsov does not believe that the most dangerous period will be during the Olympics, since extensive security measures will be in place. In his opinion, the construction risk is more acute than the terrorism risk. The Olympic venues were built with the involvement of approximately 65,000 immigrants from Central Asia, who often lacked adequate qualifications for performing the work in the proper way.

Nemtsov noted that only those spectators who represent groups loyal to the regime will be allowed to attend the Games. As he pointed out, “If you are not a member of NASHI, not a member of United Russia party, . . . not a member of the Chekist [KGB] groups, you do not get access.” Recently, as he mentioned, spectator passes, which are required for Olympic visitors, were denied to a number of Russian opposition activists.

According to the opposition leader, while many people understand that there were multiple cases of abuse and corruption during preparations for the Olympics, no criminal cases against violators have been opened, “and this is the reason why corruption is so huge.” Nemtsov believes that the only way out is to organize an “international anti-corruption court,” which would be instrumental not only for addressing concerns about the Olympic Games, but also for overseeing future events, such as the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which will be held in Russia.

Freedom House president David Kramer pointed out that the beginning of 2014 “was very bad” for the Vladimir Putin. One of the problems that has plagued Putin is related to fears of terrorist attacks during the Sochi Olympics: “Although we all hope it would never happen, there is a sense of fear.” Speaking about democracy and human rights, Kramer indicated that there are still “huge problems in Russia . . . notwithstanding the high-profile releases [of political prisoners].” Among these “huge problems,” Kramer listed the Bolotnaya case; the case of Leonid Razvozzhaev; the conviction of Alexei Navalny, “which still hangs over him as a sword of Damocles”; the posthumous criminal investigation of Sergei Magnitsky; and Russia’s response to the Magnitsky Act, which “punished Russian orphans.” Kramer suggested that the domestic course pursued by the regime is reflected in Russia’s foreign policy. Speaking about the future of U.S.-Russian cooperation, Kramer indicated that there are “fundamental inherent limits” in collaborative work between the two, which, according to the Freedom House president, are related to significant differences between the American system and the Russian one, which is “based on corruption and authoritarianism.” In conclusion, Kramer argued that it is a matter of high importance for the U.S. to “restore the notion of linkage” between “human rights abuses and the rest of [its] relationship” with other nations, including Russia.