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Originally published July 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 12, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Guest columnist

Russian Olympics: Will greens see red?

President vladimir Putin triumphed in securing the 2014 Winter Olympic Games for Sochi, but behind Russian national pride is the story of...

Special to The Times

President Vladimir Putin triumphed in securing the 2014 Winter Olympic Games for Sochi, but behind Russian national pride is the story of a nasty struggle over possible damage to the Caucasus Mountains.

It began several years ago when Russian companies and government agencies began setting aside environmental norms to clear the way for the Olympics bid. New sports complexes, a press center, hotels and other facilities would have to be constructed around the existing mountain resort of Krasnaya Polyana. Russian prestige was on the line, but there was also the profit motive of keeping Russian millionaires skiing at home rather than at their preferred upscale resorts in Europe.

The obstacle was Sochi National Park and the bordering buffer zone of the Western Caucasus nature reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site. In 2006, existing laws were nullified by the Russian government to rezone areas of the national park that contained original-growth forest and were home to endangered species.

Forest clear-cutting then began, to prepare the site. New rules were even adopted for development in the buffer zone of the neighboring reserve. All this took place with no public hearing or published environmental-impact assessment.

Local activists formed Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, with Andrey Rudomakha as their spokesman. WWF-Russia (Worldwide Fund for Nature, formerly World Wildlife Fund) and Greenpeace also protested publicly, and Greenpeace initiated a lawsuit in the Russian courts.

Then, a strange turn of events occurred in Moscow. In late 2006, WWF and Greenpeace announced they were satisfied that construction associated with the Sochi bid would follow green norms, even as Greenpeace lost its lawsuit. The government, rather after the fact, named a "Sochi 2014 Ecological Council," which included respected academics and representatives from Greenpeace and WWF-Russia.

This turn of events left local environmental activists out in the cold, with Rudomakha commenting that the WWF change of heart seemed "strange and surprising."

Now that Russia has won its bid, there is hope that the presence of WWF and Greenpeace will result in successful oversight. But, there is room for disquiet if a person were to examine the corporate sponsors of WWF-Russia. Their main financial support is from Alfa Bank, whose Pyotr Aven is a key member of the foundation to support the Russian Olympic team.

Another corporate sponsor is the Russian firm Agros, part of the Interros empire that is a major business interest behind the Olympics bid and its hotel development. A subsidiary of Agros, Silovye Mashiny, was just selected to build the major new thermal plants to generate the power Sochi will need.

The enormous telecommunications investment will be given to Kuban-electrosvyaz, a subsidiary of Southern Telecommunication Company, which in turn is an arm of the Svyzinvest empire, which is a major corporate sponsor of ... yep, WWF-Russia.

The successful bid does present an opportunity, however, because it will open up Russia to scrutiny, if the outside world pays attention. The International Olympic Committee's norms on the environment and sustainability state that the Games should not be the cause of deforestation or harm to biodiversity.

Will this be the case, thanks to the more "flexible" approach of WWF, or will Rudomakha be proven correct when he called Sochi already the "most environmentally unfriendly Olympic Games in Olympic history"?

Kathleen Braden is a professor of geography at Seattle Pacific University.

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