Andrew Osborn








World Cup 2018: Troubled times at Russia's other great international sporting venue

The Sunday Telegraph, 5th December 2010 10:01

Awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia has drawn attention to grave problems at the venue for the 2014 Winter Games.

By Andrew Osborn in Moscow

When Russia won the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, a spectacular firework display lit up the night sky above Sochi, the Black Sea resort chosen to host the games.

Three years later, Sochi is beset by a bloody mafia war, its Olympic construction projects are dogged by corruption allegations, and Islamist terrorists continue to strike at will in a volatile region less than 200 miles away.

As the world digests Fifa's controversial decision to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia, there are, perhaps unsurprisingly, fears that preparations for the multi-billion pound soccer jamboree could suffer the same fate.

Sochi, critics say, is a cautionary tale, while US diplomats, we learnt last week from WikiLeaks, agree with an assessment that Russia is a virtual "mafia state."

"When Russia won the right to hold the (Sochi) Olympics I, like many of my compatriots, was really happy," said Boris Nemtsov, one of Russia's main anti-Kremlin opposition leaders.

"Later it turned out it was all about shamelessly carving up money. I have no doubt that it will be roughly the same story when it comes to preparing for the World Cup."

Russian football, he added, was as rotten and corrupt as the Russian state itself.

"All the ulcers of Putinism that plague the modern Russian state – thievery, incompetence, and corruption – affect (Russian) football too. We are talking about appalling corruption, fixed matches, referees on the take, and opaque transfers."

He did not mention it, but dark-skinned players have also complained bitterly of widespread racism in Russian football.

Though it did not advertise the fact to Fifa before the vote, the Kremlin is well aware of the pitfalls that lie ahead.

When Russia learnt that its World Cup bid had beaten England's,Arkady Dvorkovich, a top aide to President Dmitry Medvedev, pointedly made a plea to anyone who would listen. "Let's do it without kickbacks," he begged.

Judging by past experience, kickbacks are however likely to be rampant. A top Russian businessman revealed earlier this year that he had paid £4 million in bribes to a senior official in the Kremlin to secure a lucrative construction contract for the Sochi games. An investigation is continuing.

Corruption has also made road building so expensive that, Esquiremagazine calculatedan Olympic road currently being built in Sochi might as well be coated in foie gras or caviar rather than tarmac.

The price tag for the 30-mile long road: a staggering £4.9 billion pounds. For the same money, the magazine calculated, it would be possible to coat the road with a 21.9 cms layer of foie gras or a 6 cms layer of truffles.

Most Russians concede that corruption is indeed appalling. But they are dismissive of the idea that it should stop them hosting world class sporting events like the World Cup.

"Yes there is thieving and swindling because this has been going on in Russia since time immemorial and will probably go on for ever," wrote Georgy Cherdantsev, a well-known commentator, in his blog. "(But) the idea that we shouldn't have the World Cup because all the money will be stolen doesn't stand up.

"If it did, it would mean that we should never be given anything and just left to disappear in the tundra. Are we supposed to live in complete isolation because of this (corruption)? No, that won't do."

Even though a chunk of the estimated £31.6 billion price tag for the tournament might disappear into corrupt officials' pockets, he argued it would be impossible for them to steal everything. The stadiums and other infrastructure would still be built on time, he claimed.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister whom US diplomats speculated has accumulated secret billions in illicit wealth due to Kremlin corruption, has also dismissed pessimistic projections about the tournament.

"You know, a great many clichés survive since the Cold War," he told reporters at his victorious press conference in Zurich after Fifa had voted.

"They roam Europe like so many flies, buzzing above one's head to frighten people. Things are really quite different."

Mr Putin, through his spokesman, has also angrily dismissed suggestions in the leaked US diplomatic cables that he presides over a virtual "mafia state" and is himself corrupt. The claims were "at the gutter press level" and "verged on madness," his spokesman argued.

Events over the last three years in Sochi, the venue for the 2014 Winter Olympics, are however troubling in the extreme and show why even people inside the Kremlin are worried that the World Cup bid win may trigger a new tide of corruption and murder.

On Nov 4, as Russia celebrated "National Unity Day", a gang of criminals broke into a house in a village in the same region as Sochi. Twelve people had gathered to have supper together, including four children. The gang stabbed 10 of them to death, suffocated the other two, and then started a fire. It later emerged that the village had been terrorised by the same gang for 20 years.

The region is key to Russia's World Cup bid and will host two stadiums. Yet its governor, who is directly appointed by the Kremlin, admitted after the grisly murder that it was essentially lawless.

"Unfortunately, to a greater or lesser extent, such criminal bands exist in the region in every municipality," the governor, Alexander Tkachev, said.

Local police say Sochi itself is in the throes of an all-out mafia war as rival gangs square off for a slice of the vast Olympic-related investment flows coming into the town.

In October, a well-known local crime boss nicknamed "The Carp" was shot dead as he was drinking coffee at his favourite café in central Sochi. Two men on a motorcycle sprayed him with 20 bullets before speeding off. Police said the murdered man, Eduard Kakosyan, worked for Aslan Usoyan, widely described as the former Soviet Union's most powerful criminal godfather.

Mr Usoyan, who is known in the Russian press as Grandpa Khasan, appears to be locked in a bitter struggle for territory in the Olympic city ahead of the games. In September, he himself narrowly survived an attempt on his life in Moscow when a sniper shot him close to the Kremlin just after he had got out of his car.

With tens of millions of pounds of bribes and kickbacks at stake, not to mention a race to buy up Sochi's prime land and businesses ahead of the 2014 games, experts say a full-blown mafia war is under way.

In the case of the World Cup, such a turf war would take on even bigger proportions.

Russia plans to host the tournament in 16 stadiums in 13 different cities spread out across the vast landmass that is European Russia. All the potential host cities would be linked by a high-speed rail network by 2018, it has promised, and all of them are within a two-hour flight from Moscow, the Russian capital.

There is however an enormous amount of work to do.

Some 14 of the 16 stadiums that Russia is promising will be at Fifa's disposal come 2018 are nowhere near completion and in many cases exist only on paper.

In the case of Nizhny Novgorod for example, a city 250 miles southeast of Moscow, there is only a barren peninsula jutting into the cold waters of the River Volga where a glitzy new stadium should rise.

Overgrown with wild trees and scrub, the desolate patch of sandy land underlines the scale of the task ahead. Nearby, the existing local football stadium rarely gets crowds of more than 10,000 and looks like it has seen better days.

Sitting in his office overlooking the River Volga's choppy waters, Dmitry Svatkovskiy, the local region's deputy governor, is undaunted by the challenge. A former Olympic pentathlon champion and a giant of a man, the official said in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph that he believed Russia would easily put the necessary stadiums and infrastructure in place before 2018.

"Right now the stadium is not there," he conceded, looking towards the barren peninsula.

"But it will be done and it is not difficult. We can build it in two and a half years and we have a full eight years. We could build a new city in that time let alone a stadium."

Mr Svatkovskiy's bullishness is matched by the fantastic sums of money the Kremlin has pledged to lavish on the tournament.

The funds will come from the Kremlin's own oil-fuelled coffers as well as from private investors such as billionaire oligarch and Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich.

Mr Putin has urged Mr Abramovich to open his wallet. "Let him dip into his pocket a bit. It's no big deal," he quipped. "He won't feel the pinch. He has plenty of money."

The final bill is likely to reach £31.6 billion, according to daily newspaperVedomosti. The money will go on building brand new sporting infrastructure, as well as hotels, airports, roads, and a new high-speed rail network.

Russia will have to build 4,791 miles of roads and lay 1,257 miles of rail track by 2018, at a cost of about £22 billion alone, it is estimated. That, say critics, is a big potential pay day for corrupt officials as well as for the country's mafia.

Dr Yuri Felshtinsky, historian and co-author of Blowing up Russia with Alexander Litvinenko - the arch-critic of the Kremlin who was subsequently murdered in London - said: "People close to Putin will undoubtedly benefit from this. There will a battle for the money. I am 100 per cent sure that some officials will participate in the stealing.

"We know from looking at the preparations for the Olympic games in Sochi what will happen. Money will be allotted from the budget for the construction of stadiums and other infrastructure. The budget will then be plundered and they'll have to come up with a new budget.

"It's no secret that the money will be stolen. Corrupt officials, dishonest businessmen and the mafia will all have a field day."