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Sochi's mixed feelings over Olympics

The southern Russian resort city of Sochi saw scenes of jubilation last year when it won its bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

But numerous concerns have since emerged, including controversies over funding and the relocation of local residents, the BBC's Russian affairs analyst Steven Eke says.

Vladislav
Vladislav and other local villagers say they are being "robbed"

In a rather modest, wooden village house in the Imereti Valley, a beachfront location just outside Sochi, 40-year-old Vladislav told me of his fears.

The house - home to his family for four generations - is to be confiscated, to make way for the Olympic Village.

The valley is desolate and certainly under-developed. There are few roads, and at night it became almost impassable.

It is difficult to imagine this will be turned into the "Sochi Riviera". Plans are well-advanced, but there is still no sign of construction.

At the moment, it is home to almost 200 families, who face eviction. Vladislav told me inspectors had spent "a cursory half-hour" evaluating his home.

Land had shot up in price around here, he said, after the Olympic bid. But the levels of compensation being proposed by officials do not reflect this.

The villagers, he complained, were being robbed. Some say they will refuse to leave; there have already been violent stand-offs with bailiffs.

Responsibility and pride

It was a very different story when I went to see Alexander Belokobylsky, the executive director of Rosa Khutor.

Alexander Belokobylsky stands by the model of a ski resort
Alexander wants the world to discover his "beautiful place"

This is the alpine ski resort that will be the jewel of the Sochi facilities.

Financed by oligarch money, it is taking shape quickly. Perched high up in the spectacular mountain scenery close to Russia's border with Georgia, it was conceived of long before the Olympic bid - and quickly "re-profiled", as officials here say, into an "Olympic object".

Alexander told me of the sense of responsibility he felt - but also pride. As a local man, he was glad, he said, that "the whole world will see this beautiful place".

He acknowledged a major downturn in the region's construction industry, caused by the global financial crisis. But he suggested the Olympics were simply too important to Russia to suffer. Moscow would never allow it, he assured me.

I spoke to many Sochi residents about their attitudes to the Olympics. Most were undoubtedly proud - but many also suggested Russia had more pressing social needs to finance.

There was also a clear resentment at the effect on local property and living costs of a large influx of rich people from Moscow.

'Fantasy'

Sochi has undergone a comprehensive and immensely fast, city-wide clean-up in preparation for the event.

Russia's former President Vladimir Putin skies near Sochi in 2007
Vladimir Putin was instrumental in securing Sochi's bid

It has a unique environment, combining a sub-tropical coastal region and an alpine mountain range. Parts of it have been protected by Russian law, as national parks, for more than a century.

This is precisely what fuels strong opposition among local environmental groups to hosting the Olympics.

Dmitry Kaptsov, from local environmental group Ecological Watch, said the promised economic benefits were "fantasy". His organisation has won a number of court cases against developers, and has attracted much international attention and support.

Mr Kaptsov insisted that Sochi had the resources to develop economically without the Winter Olympics. Their cost, he said, would be environmental and social damage.

He also claimed that "poor city management" and "high levels of corruption" were hindering Sochi's development.

'Nervous' officials

Whatever the real level of corruption, politics in Sochi is far from calm.

Mountains near Sochi
Sochi has a subtropical coastal region and an alpine mountain range

The local mayor has recently been suddenly dismissed, part of what residents said was a battle for influence and lucrative posts.

Sochi, and the wider Krasnodar Region, have promoted themselves as a modern-day Russian success story. And in many respects, they are.

The region has high rates of investment, new roads and industries, flourishing agriculture. It is open, hospitable, and incomparable to the troubled republics (Ingushetia, Dagestan and Chechnya) lying just a few hundred kilometres to the east.

Despite this, officials from the city administration and Olympstroi, the state corporation building the facilities, pointedly refused to meet me. Repeated faxes, setting out what I'd like to talk about, drew endless excuses.

Russian Olympic officials in London later told me this was unusual. But Russian journalist friends in Sochi said it was typical.

Local officials, they said, are nervous of Russian journalists, let alone foreign ones.

Governor's warning

Nonetheless, I managed to get into a large meeting of officials, where the powerful regional head, Governor Aleksander Tkachov, was berating political and construction bosses.

map

Mr Tkachov was candid about the scale of the task facing Sochi - one of the largest infrastructure projects undertaken in Russia in decades.

When he came to the practical results achieved so far, he was visibly frustrated. Condemning what he called "a culture of official carelessness and indifference", he told the audience they would be "blind" not to see the opportunities the Winter Olympics present.

If they ignored them, he warned, Sochi's "Olympic victory" would go to another part of Russia - or even another country.

That worst-case scenario seems unlikely. But the message is clear - whatever the cost financially, or the objections from residents and environmentalists - the Olympic project must be a success.

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