The corruption Games? Putin foes trying to make the mud stick over Sochi's cost

Anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, the biggest thorn in Vladimir Putin's side, says the costly Sochi Olympics are "a monument to embezzlement." But are ordinary Russians merely taking those allegations in stride, Margaret Evans asks.

Anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny says Sochi Olympics are "a monument to embezzlement"

Alexei Navalny, a Russian lawyer, political and financial activist, politician and anti-corruption blogger, calls the Olympic games a "monument to embezzlement." (Courtesy Alexei Navalny)

In the grey, mid-February sludge that is Moscow, you have to give it a pretty good try to catch a glimpse of the Olympic spirit. At least one that's not been staged by the Kremlin.

Even the time-honoured tradition of Olympic merchandising seems to have passed the city by. Just try finding one of those matryoshka nesting dolls sporting ski-goggles or a hockey helmet.

Still, if you're persistent, and make it down to the inner core, you'll find many Muscovites do indeed care for the Olympics — if not the price tag.

"It's very important, we've been waiting 10 years for this day," 30-year-old economist Julia Petrova says while out taking snaps with her friends in front of the Sochi countdown clock in Manezhnaya Square, one of the few Olympic symbols in the capital.

With Russia's oil-dependent economy starting to show signs of slowing, Petrova is not happy about the estimated $ 50-billion price tag for Sochi.

But that's when you get the shrug. "We paid too much. It is our money. But it is done."

The Sochi Games are widely acknowledged as the most expensive Winter Olympics in history — over seven times the $7-billion cost of Vancouver's Games in 2010 when all the related infrastructure is accounted for.

They may also be a "monument to embezzlement," according to Moscow's best known anti-corruption campaigner and general thorn in Vladimir Putin's side, Alexei Navalny.

Julia Petrova says Russia has been waiting for the games for 10 years. 'We paid too much. But it's our money.' (Margaret Evans/CBC)

Navalny has been conducting what he calls a forensic investigation into every Olympic budget and contract he can get his hands on.

"Because for this $50 billion spent on the Olympics, Russia could have renovated the country," he said in an interview at the Moscow office where he oversees a buzzing team of volunteers and employees.

"But instead of that, the Olympics turned out to be a notorious monument to Vladimir Putin, a monument to embezzlement, a monument to corruption."

The Navalny campaign

Navalny's group, called the Fund for the Fight Against Corruption, issued a report on its findings to coincide with the start of the Games.

He claims that one new railway line from the Black Sea coast to the mountain competition sites cost more (the equivalent of $10 billion, he says) than the entire Vancouver Games.

The report accuses Putin of hiding costs by reclassifying them as infrastructure projects, and of rewarding friends with lucrative contracts and plenty of assistance from state-owned companies.

"It was a complete lie when the oligarchs and Putin stated that the great part of the Olympic facilities were built by private money," Navalny says. "We proved that private money was not more than four or five per cent."

Putin has denied these allegations, as have his key allies. Billionaire Oleg Deripaska made the media rounds in Sochi this week to say the cost of the Games was no more than $25 billion.

For Navalny, though, this is more than just a war of numbers.

An outspoken blogger, he rose to prominence two years ago as the leader of the massive anti-Kremlin protests that followed Putin's re-election as president, only to find himself jailed earlier this year on corruption charges that most believe were fabricated.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks with energy and metals tycoon Oleg Deripaska, one of Russia's richest men and the guy who tried to save Sochi's stray dogs from being rounded up and euthanized. Deripaska's holding company built much of the Olympic village and a sea port, and revamped the Sochi airport (Reuters)

Like others who Putin has pardoned or freed in some fashion, Navalny was unexpectedly released so he could run for mayor of Moscow in September (he lost to a Putin ally and has demanded a recount).

But then new charges were levelled against him by officials in October, a reminder that Putin still holds all the cards.

Navalny says that while corruption in Russia is nothing new, the excess and cronyism at the Olympics is, in his view, a step too far for ordinary folk.

"Corruption, unfortunately, has become a sort of routine in Russia, but the Olympics became a sort of turning point to some extent, because millions of Russians disagree with Olympic policy."

No revolution in the streets

It's clear Navalny hopes that his figures, if proven correct, will spur some kind of national outrage, perhaps rekindle an opposition movement that has been cowed by government pressure.

Putin, though, has considerable strongman appeal for many Russians, and while straw polls on the street show unease about overspending and potential corruption at Sochi, there seems little fire in the belly for a big fight.

"On the one hand, it would have been good if the money had been distributed among the people," says Anatoli Arshavsky. "On the other hand, I understand that such big events can never happen without money."

The cost of Sochi is unreasonable, adds 21-year-old Anastasia, but she didn’t want to discuss the politics of it.

"Nobody knows how it will be used in the future, probably it will never be used and it will just become shabby and collapse," she says.

Moscow economist Andrei Yakovlev says there can be an "over-evaluation of the corruption at the top level."

He feels that it is not as big a problem as, say, inefficiency and the lack of incentives to improve education, health care and other public services.

"A much bigger problem," he says, "is connected with this huge bureaucratic system constructed in 2000," which is the year Putin first became president. More than a quarter of the Russian workforce is employed in the public sector.

Yakovlev and other analysts don't believe that there is enough widespread outrage over allegations of Olympic corruption to translate into street protests, unless the huge costs are seen to have an impact on people's standard of living.

A young Muscovite named Anastasia told CBC News that the cost of the Games is too much, but that she doesn't want anything to do with the politics of it. (Margaret Evans / CBC)

Without that, Putin will be left to enjoy the Games he's staked so much on.

"Two weeks and then it's gone," says Victor Kremenyuk, of the Russian Academy of Sciences. "He wants to get maximum political, moral profit from Sochi."

How long those moral and political profits will last depends on so many factors, not least the fires burning on Russia's fringes, like those warming protesters in Ukraine's Maidan Square next door.

There lies the real test of Russia's place of influence on the world stage. Challenges like that aren't likely to disappear when all that manufactured snow in Sochi is finally allowed to melt. 


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.


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