Kremlin Critic Claims Mass Corruption Ahead Of 2014 Olympics

A critic of President Vladimir Putin is charging Russian officials and contractors with some $30 billion in theft and corruption activities, in the runup to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Boris Nemtsov is calling the preparations a "monstrous scam."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

With the Olympics set to begin in Russia this coming winter, a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin is calling the preparations, quote, "a monstrous scam." That language comes from a report just released that alleges massive theft and corruption. It estimates that contractors and government officials may have already stolen as much $30 billion dollars as they build Olympic venues in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

NPR's Corey Flintoff joined us on the line with us from Moscow. Good morning.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And Corey, this would seem to be pretty shocking news for people there in Russia.

FLINTOFF: Well, you know, it remains to be seen how much actual play this story gets inside Russia. It's not likely to get that much coverage in the state-run media, which is very loyal to President Putin, but it's basically sort of an ingenious stunt by Boris Nemtsov. He was a deputy prime minister during the late '90s, but he's since become one of the Kremlin's toughest critics.

And in this case, he's calling attention to something that most Russians are at least somewhat aware of, that the Winter Games in Sochi have turned out to be hugely expensive, and that those costs have never been explained.

MONTAGNE: Now, those huge amounts that he's referring to and suggesting that they're due to corruption - billions of dollars - how did he arrive at that figure?

FLINTOFF: Well, it's pretty simple arithmetic. Nemtsov and his coauthor took the original cost estimate for the games, which came out in 2007, and that was $12 billion. And they compared that with their recent estimate of what the real cost will be, which is about $51 billion. Just as a point of comparison, Renee, last year's Summer Olympics in London cost $14.3 billion.

But most people know that Olympic projects always have huge cost overrun. So Nemtsov included that in his calculations. And he found that most of the recent Olympic Games have come out to be about twice as expensive as they were originally projected to be.

So, by that standard, the Sochi Olympics look even worse. They're four times as expensive as the organizers said they'd be.

MONTAGNE: But is there any proof that he's able to offer that this money was actually stolen?

FLINTOFF: Well, no. And, in fact, Nemtsov said when he unveiled this report that it wasn't his business to figure out where the money went. He said that's basically up to the appropriate law enforcement agencies. So this is really kind of a challenge to the government.

MONTAGNE: Well, how likely is it that this will be investigated by the government?

FLINTOFF: Well, there are some investigations that are underway. President Putin himself railed against the cost overruns when he inspected the Olympic sites back in February. And he very publicly fired the official who was in charge of one particularly egregious example. It's the ski jump.

But critics like Nemtsov are saying that's just the tip of a very dirty iceberg, and basically, that the government needs to show contracts were doled out and how the spending was accounted for.

MONTAGNE: Now, Corey, you were down in Sochi just a few weeks ago and you saw these venues. And I'm sort of thinking of the spectacular venues in Beijing for the Summer Games a few years ago. Anything that fabulous that would justify these figures?

FLINTOFF: You know, Renee, it struck me that what Russia is building will be - it'll be very nice, but frankly, you know, there's nothing that seems architecturally exciting. You know, after all, a modern hockey stadium is a pretty generic place. It's sort of like a modern airport.

You know, the state-run company that's supervising the building has said that one fact that boosted the cost so much is that much of the basic infrastructure in Sochi - things like highways and the power plant and the railway station - were all pretty antiquated and had to be built from scratch. And, you know, that may be true but we still haven't seen any detailed accounting of how much it all cost.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Corey Flintoff in Moscow. Thanks very much.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Renee.

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