Sour Olympic legacy for Russia?

Eyes are now on the next chance for Olympic glory: 2014’s winter games in Russia. But preparations have included an ominous change in conservation law.

The Russian government treated select participants at the Summer Olympic Games in London this month to a posh gala night, where it presented its ambitious plan to construct a world-class ski destination in the pristine high peaks of the Northern Caucasus, extending across the region from the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

But while high-level international financing is pushing the project forward, parts of the proposed network of resorts lie in World Heritage protected areas. Conservationists are decrying the prospect of widespread tourist infrastructure development in the pristine region as a sour legacy of the development to support the 2014 games.

That legacy is likely to leave its mark not only in the Caucasus, but in environmentally protected areas across Russia. In November, the then president Dmitry Medvedev changed the law to allow tourism infrastructure development inside any specially protected area. While the legal changes were prompted by the ski resort development in the Caucasus, such development now threatens all of Russia’s environmentally protected areas.

In June, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee issued a statement expressing its “utmost concern” with the new law, “which is weakening the protection status of Strict State Nature Reserves and therefore could affect the Outstanding Universal Value of several World Heritage properties in the Russian Federation.”

Planning for millions of tourists

The plan in the Caucasus is to build a cluster of seven world-class ski resorts. The national priority project will see construction of 1,100 kilometres of ski slopes, 228 ski lifts and new hotels and apartments for over 100,000 people. The target is a daily ski-resort capacity of 172,000, and it’s hoped the new area will attract up to 10 million visitors per year on completion in 2020. Beach resorts on the Caspian Sea will also be developed.

While no infrastructure development is yet under way, the boundaries of a special economic zone designed to attract investment directly threaten the Western Caucasus World Heritage Site, specifically Lagonaki plateau inside the Caucasus Strict State Nature Preserve and the River Tsitsa headwaters Nature Monument, according to UNESCO.

UNESCO and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have warned Russia to back off the tourism development project or its World Heritage Site in the Caucasus will be put on the endangered list, as the site was listed in the first place “largely based on its undisturbed character and inaccessibility”.

Olympics key in driving project

The presentation of the development project at a gala – complete with dance ensemble – on the sidelines of the London Olympics and in the context of the coming winter games in Sochi reflects the key role the Olympics has played in driving the development plans and helping attract investors.

The project is already backed at the highest political levels and funded by several international groups, who together with the Russian government must invest an estimated 451.4 billion rubles (US$14.3 billion) to make the project a reality.

Caisse des Depots, the French ski-resort developer, is a key partner in the project to build the Caucasus resorts on the model of the French Alps, under an agreement signed by the Russian and French presidents at the G8 meeting in 2011. Chinese investment outfits Dalian Wanda Group and China Oceanwide Holdings Group agreed to invest US$3 billion in the project during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Beijing in June. And Italian investor Rizzani de Eccher has also agreed to throw in 1 billion euros (US$1.2 billion) under a deal secured when the Italian prime minister went to Moscow in July.

Environmental concessions

In its August 3 announcement of the gala night in London, Northern Caucasus Resorts – the state corporation in charge of the development – described the resort scheme as a major effort, and “the largest project of construction of ski and beach resorts in Europe which will cover the whole Caucasus, from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.”

But some of the parties involved are urging the public to view the project as limited in scale and concerned with environmental preservation.

“There are some protected areas, and we need to respect that. But we also need to realise what the overall size of the project is,” Laurant Vigier, director of European and international affairs at Caisse des Depots, said in response to the environmental controversy in the June edition of the magazine of the Franco-Russian Chamber of Commerce. “Actually, we’re going to develop about 1% of the overall surface of the North Caucasus mountains . . . The impact is going to be very limited.”

The Northern Caucasus Resorts is looking to resolve the environmental conflicts with concessions. On July 7, it announced its support for a plan by German environmental group NABO and a local government authority to establish a buffer zone around UNESCO World Heritage sites in the area.

Whether such concessions and promises of development with minimal environmental impact will be enough to preserve the unique, undisturbed character that gave the region its World Heritage status is a question UNESCO will continue to debate.

Meanwhile, development of tourist infrastructure under the new rules for specially protected areas in Russia is under discussion in Lake Baikal and the Altai Mountains.

Jenny Johnson is a journalist based in St Petersburg, Russia.

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