Putin’s ‘Potemkin Resorts’ in the North Caucasus

July 2, 2014
Snowless mountains. Photo by novoye-vremya.com

Staunton, July 2 – The consequences of Vladimir Putin’s much-ballyhooed “Winter Olympics in the Subtropics” continue to unfold with officials cutting back on the promises they made to develop the tourism industry in the North Caucasus even as they continue to persecute those who objected to holding the competition in Sochi.

Two weeks ago, Aleksandr Khloponin, then presidential plenipotentiary to the region, announced that there wasn’t enough money, enough infrastructure or enough snow to build four of the seven resorts that it had announced with much fanfare during the run-up to the Olympics.

According to Khloponin, Moscow has changed its plans not only because of the costs of actions in Ukraine but because the estimates of what it would have to be spent to open all seven had been dramatically low and wrong. In fact, he said, to build even a few of these facilities would cost “almost more than the Olympics in Sochi.”

But the problems are even more serious than that, journalist Timur Izmayilov notes. One of the resorts in Ingushetia which opened in March had to shut down immediately because “there was no snow” – and local residents say that “it is practically never there.” Plans to open another in Ingushetia have now been cancelled.

Things are no better in Dagestan, he continues. The Matlas resort had hoped to attract “hundreds of thousands of skiers,” but “there is no snow” — and it is still hard to get to because of problems with infrastructure. And in North Ossetia, plans for another resort were cancelled when it became obvious that Moscow would have to spend 20 billion rubles (US $550 million) for a single access bridge.

Moscow planners said that the new resorts it planned for the North Caucasus would have to attract “a few more than ten million skiers a year” in order to be profitable. But “not a single foreign investor believed” that would be possible, and consequently, no dollars, euros or even Mongolian tugriks have been flowing in.

Russian spending on Ukraine has also had an impact, pushing all discussions of “the problems with the budget in the North Caucasus to second place,” especially given that the new presidential plenipotentiary Sergey Melikov has said that addressing economic problems and fighting militants are his chief jobs.

Residents of the North Caucasus have always been skeptical about Moscow’s plans for what are turning out to be “Potemkin resorts.” In their view, these places won’t provide jobs but rather are intended to improve the image of the region. And both they and Moscow accountants have been shocked about the ways in which the resorts have been another channel for corruption.

Izmayilov concludes his report by suggesting that “it is possible that in the future, when the war in the North Caucasus will have become an event of the distant past, 10 to 15 million tourists will come to this remarkably beautiful area. But today,” he continues, “we can only count on lovers of extreme tourism who can get an adrenalin rush from us for free.”

Meanwhile, there are two other pieces of fallout from the Sochi Games. Environmentalists around the world are now collecting signatures calling for the release of Yevgeny Vitishko who is serving three years in prison for exposing the ecological damage inflicted on the Sochi region in preparation for the Olympics.

And a court in Nalchik gave a suspended six-month term to Anzor Akhokhov, ostensibly for illegal possession of explosives but in fact for his role in organizing Circassion protests in advance of the Sochi Olympics.

Since Sochi, Putin has moved on to Ukraine, and much of the rest of the world has moved on to other things as well. But for many people who were swept up in events around those competitions, the Olympics have not really ended and doesn’t appear likely to come to a conclusion anytime soon.