The 2014 Sochi Olympics are still a few years away, but a different competition is unfolding in the coastal Russian city. Outspoken billionaire and former spy Alexander Lebedev is the most recent addition to the mayoral race, joining former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov. (Andrei Lugovoi, who is wanted in England in connection with the 2006 poisoning death of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, dropped out of the race this week.)
Putin’s coterie has yet to introduce its candidate for Sochi—a decision it won’t take lightly. At stake, after all, is control over billions of dollars—and the prime minister’s international reputation. Putin personally delivered the city’s bid to host the Games, shocking the International Olympic Committee with pitches in English and French. And Jean-Claude Killy, a French IOC member, credited “the Putin charisma” with securing several votes.
Whoever wins on April 26 is in for a challenge. Even before the global economic crisis, critics questioned whether the resort town, which lacks infrastructure and facilities, could be ready in time. Now, with the wealth of Russia’s oligarchs diminished, sponsorships are proving elusive. The Kremlin has slashed its building budget in half, to $8 billion, and construction is lagging on everything from ski slopes to hotels. At the same time, environmentalists are up in arms about plans to level 50,000 acres of forest, and some 1,500 residents are facing forcible resettlement.
The election, meanwhile, is turning ugly. On Monday, Nemtsov, who has vowed to “protect Sochi from the Olympic Games,” endured an ammonia attack. But all politicking may be for naught; last week Russia’s lower house introduced a bill that would allow governors to fire mayors. Apparently, when Putin said, “problems are not permitted,” he meant it.