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ABKHAZIA: Troubled Region Prepares for Winter Olympics

Apostolis Fotiadis

SOCHI, Dec 9 2008 (IPS) - The nomination of the Russian city Sochi to host the 2014 Winter Olympics is already affecting the sensitive geopolitical balance in the region.

Sochi and the Adler district are situated on the Black Sea coast, north of the border with the volatile Abkhazia region. The new Sochi-Adler airport and the area where the Olympics village will be located are just a few kilometres from the border checkpoint.

Sochi and Adler, little known to westerners, are popular summer resorts for Russians. Many leaders and celebrities, including President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, visit the area regularly.

“Last summer more than six million visited the area, which depends greatly on tourism,” says Vladimir Gourelian, a flower store owner in downtown Sochi.

Abkhazia was just as popular among Russians for its natural beauty and warm climate, but instability due to the ethnic conflict between Abkhazians and Georgians has reduced tourist flows.

Russia supported Abkhazians against Georgian aggression earlier this summer; its army was already present as a peacekeeping force. Immediately after the conflict, Russia recognised the two breakaway republics as independent countries. Its forces remain in the region to guarantee Abkhazians’ security, and as a shield to protect Russian interests in the Black Sea.

“The plans announced by the Russian government are really ambitious,” says Gourelian. “If implemented, they will result in nothing less than rebuilding Sochi city centre from scratch.”

The initial budget was expected to be more than 12 billion dollars. But Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Kotzak has said that in view of the international financial crisis “we now have the task of fulfilling our plan while reducing spending.”

Freelance journalist Olga Petrovka is not optimistic. “There is a lot of talk of investment and projects but few real initiatives. Success does not depend only on creating infrastructure, but also whether you create the capacity to host the games. This means a better public transportation system, more people with language skills, an improved services sector.”

Nikolaj Diatchkov, deputy rector of the State University For Tourism and Recreation in Sochi told IPS that “the nearer we approach 2014, the more money will be poured in.” Tourism students, he said, “are planning ahead in order to provide people with skills for careers as specialists in their field during the Olympic games.”

But the region does not have sufficient workforce to carry out infrastructure projects for the Olympics. Workers will have to be imported, says Gourelian. “Under a bilateral government agreement, up to 60,000 Chinese will come to work in Sochi and Adler during the next few years.”

Most guest workers are likely to be asked to stay in Abkhazia, which has a population of 215,472 according to the 2002 census. A region with weak social structures and lack of efficient economic activity might soon face a critical population influx.

“The prospect of such a population movement will offer unprecedented economic boost, but simultaneously will create a migration challenge for us,” Abkhazian deputy foreign minister Maxim Gountzia told IPS. “The truth is that there is no stopping them from coming, but it is better if this happens under a well-organised plan.”

Beyond infrastructural development, regional security remains the major challenge for Russia’s plans for the 2014 event. Two small bomb attacks in Sochi just days after the war were blamed on “Georgian terrorists”. Such attacks could derail investment and restructuring plans.

Violent incidents are reported regularly in villages on the front lines between Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Georgia.

Negotiations between Russia and Georgia collapsed in Brussels last month after Georgia refused to accept delegations from the breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia later agreed to listen to representatives from South Ossetia and Abkhazia at talks in Geneva supervised by the UN, the EU and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) in Europe. But little agreement was forthcoming.

Russia’s plans for organising a great event and Abkhazia’s aspirations for benefiting from the development will have to get past local insecurities.

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