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Sochi Residents Question Property Seizures for 2014 Winter Olympics


Sochi's winning bid for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games has been a mixed blessing for many of the Russian resort city's residents. The joy of hosting such a prestigious event has been accompanied by rising prices and the realization that many will lose homes to make way for Olympic sites. VOA correspondent Peter Fedynsky recently visited the city and reports widespread dissatisfaction with the process of taking people's private property.

For the past 13 years, Oleg Shcherbatsky has lived with his family on a Black Sea beach about a 45-minute drive from Sochi and the mountains where Olympic skiing events will be held in 2014. He and other residents of the region, known as Lower Imeretinka, say Olympic joy has turned into a catastrophe. He expects to lose his land.

Shcherbatsky says he does not understand why a beach is needed for Olympic Games, a winter Olympics no less. He says residents of Lower Imeretinka suspect somebody has eyed their land, adding that it's not right to take it from them under the pretext of the Olympics.

Shcherbatsky says a Moscow architect has drawn up an alternative plan that works around existing homes, but that Russian officials refuse to discuss alternatives with the public.

Sochi Mayor Viktor Kolodiazhniy declined VOA's interview request to discuss people's concerns. He says he prefers not to talk with foreign media. Kolodiazhniy noted, however, that people will be adequately compensated.

Valeriy Suchkov, head of the Sochi Property Owners Association, says the mayor is repeating his assurance for the second year now, but that nobody believes him.

Suchkov adds that people understand the need to take private property for public use, a process known as eminent domain, but not if it is seen as unfair.

The activist says there should be commission, a legal procedure, and search for a balance of interests - state, social and private. But there is none of that, he says, and gestures to show the disposition of property is rubber stamped by bureaucrats who fail to recognize the individual owner.

Suchkov says authorities are cutting deals directly with investors and arbitrarily forcing people out of homes in prime locations. He says Russian courts dismiss lawsuits against such sales. And so several homeowners have filed complaints with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Russia has budgeted about $12 billion to prepare for the Sochi Games, more than the three previous Winter Olympics combined. Western technicians involved in infrastructure preparation say much of the money is being embezzled by government officials.

A representative of Base Element, one of the private Russian companies working on Olympic development projects, agreed to a VOA television interview to discuss such charges but then reneged. And Russian energy giant Gazprom, another major investor in the Games, prohibits videotaping at the ski area it is developing.

Sochi homeowners say this kind secrecy creates fears that powerful interests are using the Olympics as a pretext to take over their property.

James Brooke, director of external affairs for Jones Lang LaSalle, a U.S.-based company with real estate consulting contracts in Sochi, acknowledges the hardships facing property owners in the city.

"The Russian concept that this is for the greater good of turning this part of Sochi, which a basically is sort of swamplands, flatlands, lowlands right next to the Georgian border from a class C resort into a class A resort - generating more income, more revenue, more employment, more tax revenue," he said.

Brooke says about 500 kilometers of Russia's Black Sea coast will also be developed and will give the country's 145 million people an excellent tourist destination long after the Olympics are over.

Most Sochi residents understand that kind of explanation, even if they do not want to lose the comforts of a home on the beach, near the slopes, or in central Sochi. What they say they do not understand is why Russian officials deny their own people a say in a process that will profoundly affect their lives and livelihoods.

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