Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered the sites of several Olympic facilities in the South Russian city of Sochi moved after repeated protests from Russian and international environmental groups. The Prime Minister also said that funds allocated for environmental protection should be increased.
The conflict between the Russian Olympics Committee and environmentalists surfaced after it became public that the master plan of the Sochi Olympic facilities included a bobsled track, a railway station, a hotel and a housing complex that were planned to be built on the Grushevy Ridge, a buffer zone of the Caucasus Bioshere Reserve - a fragile environmental complex that could have suffered irreparable damage in the event of the plans being realized.
"I consider it necessary to move these facilities to another place to be negotiated with the International Olympic Committee," Vladimir Putin said at the conference dedicated to the observation of ecology norms in preparation for the 2014 Olympics.
The Prime Minister's words put an end to the conflict despite the fact that earlier the authorities stood rather firm to defend the original plans for the facilities.
Head of the Environmental Ministry Yuri Trutnev spoke before the residents of Sochi recently and dismissed the possibilities that the government would back down. "Are we seriously suggesting that the bobsled track on which someone would ride bobsleds and sleds for 10 or 15 days would affect a place... that is 7 million hectares large? I think there can be no real effect," the minister said.
Russian ecological groups suggested 16 alternative variants that would allow the natural preserves to remain intact. UNESCO also said in a special statement in early July that Russia should pay more attention to environmental protection while getting ready for the Sochi Olympics. The question was also raised at a UNESCO session in Canada on July 2, and the international organization indicated that the North Caucasus Preserve could be listed as an endangered site.
As a result, the Russian government approved the new project, according to which the Olympic sites will be moved to a new place. The new plan apparently requires more funding, and vice premier Aleksander Zhukov said that more money would be allocated for environmental protection, although he did not name any exact figures. However, according to the RIA-Novosti news agency, the combined budget of the preparation for the 2014 Olympics was increased from 17 to 39 billion rubles in one year.
The international community welcomed the Russian government's move. "The decision to move the Sochi Olympic venues away from the Caucasus reserve is a significant step forward on the road to green the Games in 2014," Achim Steiner, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program, said in a statement published on the UN website. The official also said the decision indicated the Russian government's "strong commitment to environmental sustainability" for the Olympics.
By Kirill Bessonov