Russia's rich and powerful are using troubled economic and political times to resuscitate an investment plan long in the making. It involves stripping bare some of the world's most pristine mountain areas, and removing them from the protection of international conventions to construct world class ski resorts.
The plan is the legacy of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Two years ago, the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi made global headlines, with many stories focused on the Games' heavy environmental toll. It was the first Winter Olympics where all the ski and resort infrastructure was built from scratch. A national park was rezoned as a huge construction area. And it was to be only the start.
Russia's push for hosting the huge sporting event was always intended to open the tap of long-term, massive development in the Caucasian mountains. Officials promised that the development of tourist infrastructure would continue after the Games had come to an end, based on the foundation put in place. The development has taken place within protected sanctuaries of global significance. These areas are home to many threatened and endangered plants and animals.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) looked positively upon the Russian government's ambition to develop the Caucasus in awarding Russia the Games. It used the plans as a justification for the state's extraordinary monetary outlay for the event (estimated at US$55 billion).
At the same time that the bid was awarded, the Russian government officially promised the IOC and UN Environment Programme to compensate for the environmental destruction caused by the Sochi Olympics. Officials vowed to increase protection for areas adjacent to the new development. Namely, the boundary of the Western Caucasus World Heritage Site was to be expanded to include the upper Mzymta River.
Following the Olympics, the government looked to be on the path to fulfilling its commitments. It submitted a nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in 2014 to expand the boundaries of the Western Caucasus site, and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment drew up a draft resolution to make the change to Russian law.
But in 2015, “the situation drastically changed,” said Mikhail Kreindlin, director of the programme on protected areas at Greenpeace Russia.
In August last year, the ministry submitted a new draft resolution that would legalise construction in Sochi National Park by downgrading its protective status. In October, Russia withdrew its plans for expanding the preserve from UNESCO. The ministry finalised its resolution on November 3.
“They began plans to expand the resort complex instead,” Kreindlin said in a February 13 interview. “The government changed the status of the area on the boundary of the park to the lesser status of a recreation area in which construction of tourist infrastructure is allowed.”
At the same time, Sergey Bachin, director of the Russian ski resort developers Roza Khutor and Ober Khutor, and the owner of the companies, Russian oligarch Vladimir Potanin, began publicly touting their development plans in Russia and abroad.
The companies plan to quadruple their ski territories in the coming years as the upper Mzymta River is developed, Bachin told the International Ski Federation in Zurich in October last year, according to a press release from the Russian Ski Federation. The resort is “ready to relocate freestyle and snowboarding slopes higher in the mountains, so that they won't depend on the whims of Sochi's weather,” Bachin said of the expansion up to the river's headwaters.
On December 22 last year, the government's reversal on previous commitments became increasingly brazen. Then, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, who personally oversaw the construction of the Olympic facilities, issued an order under which the upper Mzymta River would be removed from any existing protections. As a result, it will be transferred to a list of land plots controlled by ski resort developer Rosa Khutor and Ober Khutor.
“It is doubly strange, in that Russia planned to expand the World Heritage territory precisely in that territory, which started to figure in the plans of Rosa Khutor the previous summer,” Valery Shumnik, director of the Russian Caucasus regional office of WWF Russia, said in an emailed response to questions.
The Russian Geographical Society is appealing to President Vladimir Putin to reverse Kozak's order.
“The destruction of the natural systems of protected areas is planned exclusively for the benefit of a private commercial company. At the same time, the initiative of the company Roza Khutor and its subsidiary Ober Khutor is in conflict with the post-Olympic international obligations of Russia,” the Sochi office of the Society said in a letter dated January 16.
The Geographical Society and environmentalists say the move to develop the river headwaters will mean the Western Caucasus will be transferred to UNESCO's List of World Heritage in Danger.
Because the resorts and transportation infrastructure were built for the temporary flood of visitors for the Olympic events, the development's capacity now far exceeds the demand the area would normally expect from tourists. The number of hotel rooms is on par with resorts such as Cancun, Mexico.
However, some experts say the areas open for skiing must be expanded if the resorts are to compete with world class ski areas and fill up their hotels.
“The appeal of Sochi to European tourists . . . remains limited to ski enthusiasts. Its skiing areas are small by international standards, with trails barely reaching 80km,” according to a May 2015 article in the journal Eurasian Geography and Economics.
Russian investors who built the existing facilities want to get out of debt and eventually see returns on their investments. And they also see more development as necessary to attract a much greater number of tourists to the area.
“In order to effectively use and develop the facilities of the Olympic legacy,” the territory available for skiing must be expanded to attract 20,000 people per day, year-round, to properly utilise the resorts, developer Bachin wrote in a January 2015 letter to the deputy prime minister.
Supreme Court hearing
It was in his January 2015 letter to Kozak, first published by the Sochi-based environmental group Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, that Bachin vowed funds for further development if the government reduced the protective status of Sochi National Park to a recreational area.
Greenpeace's Kreindlin will be in the Russian Supreme Court March 24 for the first hearing of his suit challenging the gutting of protections for Sochi National Park. He plans further legal challenges this year to Kozak's order giving away the Mzymta's headwaters to a private developer.
When asked if the current development plans are tied to the Sochi Olympics, Kreindlin replied, “Well, of course!”
“If there hadn't been any Olympics, there wouldn't be any resorts. Or there would have been much fewer, and they would have expanded more slowly.”