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Russian oligarchs foot most of 2014 Sochi Olympics

Monday - 5/20/2013, 12:36pm  ET

By NATALIYA VASILYEVA
AP Business Writer

SOCHI, Russia (AP) - The mountains of Sochi are now home to Potanin's slope, Gazprom's gondola lift and Sberbank's ski jump. The nicknames used by locals and an army of construction workers leave no doubt about who is paying for the 2014 Winter Games: Russia's business powerhouses.

Other countries that have hosted the Olympics have overwhelmingly used public funds to pay for the construction of needed venues and new infrastructure. The Russian government, however, has gotten state-controlled companies and tycoons to foot more than half of the bill, which now stands at $51 billion and makes the 2014 Winter Games by far the most expensive Olympics in history. In contrast, the much-larger 2012 Summer Olympics in London cost about $14.3 billion and the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing cost about $40 billion.

For President Vladimir Putin, the games have been a matter of pride. He has entrusted the country's top businessmen with Sochi's key projects. He himself is spending increasing amounts of time in the southern Russian city, hosting world leaders at his luxurious presidential palace.

Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister under Putin, described the tycoons' participation as a sort of tax imposed by the president.

"If you want to carry on doing business in Russia, here's the tax you need to pay _ the kind of a tax that he wants you to pay," Kasyanov, now an opposition leader, told The Associated Press.

This is particularly true of those like metals tycoons Vladimir Potanin and Oleg Deripaska, who made their fortunes in the rags-to-riches privatizations after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. For others who have grown fabulously wealthy since Putin came to power in 2000, the 2014 Olympics have been a chance to reap the profits through lucrative state contracts.

Most of the projects the tycoons are involved in are not profitable _ and many businessmen are making no secret of the losses they are incurring. But anyone who does business in Russia today is acutely aware of the importance of maintaining good relations with the government _ and especially with Putin. The tycoons remember well how Putin in 2008, with one verbal attack, sent the stock of metals company Mechel tumbling 40 percent, cutting $6 billion from its shareholder value.

"Russian big business is heavily dependent on the government and often has to follow Putin's requests and take on projects that are important for top officials," said Vladimir Milov, an economist and former deputy energy minister who also is now part of the anti-Putin opposition.

The tycoons and state-owned companies dismiss claims that they were pressured to invest in Sochi or that they did so in exchange for promises of preferential treatment.

Gazprom, the world's largest natural gas producer and a publicly traded company, said in a written statement to the AP that its work in Sochi is "both a business project and serious social responsibility." Gazprom's Sochi projects are vast. It is building a pipeline to bring gas supplies to the Sochi area, a power station in a Sochi suburb, an Alpine ski resort, one of the three Olympic villages and a cross-country skiing and biathlon center. Its total costs run to $3 billion.

Andrei Elinson, deputy general director at Deripaska's Basic Element investment vehicle, insists its Sochi projects were all designed to be profitable. The company is building an Olympic village and a seaport and has just finished revamping the Sochi airport, for a combined cost of $1.4 billion.

"We are a strategic investor in the area. We believe in the development of the area on the whole," Elinson said. After the games, Basic Element plans to convert the Olympic village into apartments and the sea port into a marina.

Even so, some tycoons are grumbling that they have been hit up with unexpected demands that are stretching their funds more than anticipated. Their balance sheets have been dragged down by a flow of requests from the state contractor Olimpstroi to build more infrastructure than originally planned.

Potanin started building his Roza Khutor ski resort even before Sochi was picked in 2007 to host the 2014 games. He is spending $2.5 billion, including $500 million on infrastructure required by the International Olympic Committee. In addition, the Alpine resort had to close to tourists for months at a time while hosting Olympic tests events during the past two winter seasons, costing it $3.2 million in lost revenue each month it was closed, according to Roza Khutor general director Sergei Bachin.

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