Sochi, Sochi tyomnie nochi

By September 30, 2009Atlantic Eye

SOCHI, Russia, Sept. 30 (UPI) — In Sochi, politics and corruption converge on history. Even during Soviet times Sochi was the “baksheesh capital” of the empire. Sochi epitomizes the good and bad of modern Russia. On this weekend, 1,000 journalists convened to discuss public policy, justice, corruption and the state of the planet.

It is a dark subtropical night — tyomnie nochi. The Black Sea reflects the brilliant setting sun. Dagomys, in its heyday the leisure complex for the creme of Soviet apparatchiks — replete with Olympic pool, grand sauna, tennis courts, disco, billiards, you name it — looms 22 stories high on a hill side.

Most of her savior faire is lost; the service is still superb. An enclosed compound stretches down to the sea — linked to a private beach by a private walled road and bridge. It feels like a walk through history. Soon, a complete refurbishment will take place in time for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

We are the last to see Dagomys in her Soviet splendor.

Vsevelod Bogdanov, president of the Russian Federation of Journalists, is not much liked by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Bogdanov has convened the 50th Annual International Conference of Journalists. The Federation has always been a powerful institution. As it did during Soviet times, it straddles media and politics. Bogdanov is a thorn in the side of the Russian government. He is both a system man, and an advocate for press freedoms and human rights. He was the first Federation journalist to be received by President Dmitry Medvedev.

I made Bogdanov’s acquaintance through Lithuania’s Henrikas Yushkiavitshus, who was responsible for communications and security during the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Yushkiavitshus is concerned about the state of the 2014 Sochi Olympic building project. More than once the words “corruption” and “behind schedule” fall.

Widely criticized mayoral elections held just months ago do not add to the confidence. Boris Nemtsov, the dissident politician who had run for Sochi mayor in a widely pseudo-sham election, lambasted the entire Olympic bid as a “corrupt scheme for powerful forces to fill their own pockets” just months ago at a dinner in London with me, Alan Mendoza and former U.K. Foreign and Defense Minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Of course Nemtsov lost.

It is widely known that bribes and money laundering are the order of the day in Sochi’s Olympic festooning. An incompetent International Olympic Committee, itself of dubious conglomeration and often accused of corruption, doesn’t help matters. The sites are well behind schedule. Even the airport leaves one wondering whether things will be done on time.

The average Sochian is nice and friendly. They do not much like the political hand of cards they have been dealt. They try to make the best of it under the circumstances. They are proud of Sochi and friendly to foreigners. Already in the Caucuses and only 25 miles from Georgia, Sochi has an impressive subtropical tundra, beautiful mountains and countryside. Unfortunately, villas built through bribes are popping up everywhere and destroying once pristine environmental lands.

Sochi seems the perfect backdrop for discussions on corruption in Russia. Numerous journalists expressed concern that it will take decades to weed it out. There is immense concern about the rule of law, free speech and the protection of journalists. Several bills have recently passed at committee level in the Duma, Russia’s parliament, strengthening the ability to prosecute those who seek to physically harm journalists. But they are not law yet.

Several participants were vitriolic in their critique of Putin and Medvedev. Putin is exceptionally unpopular. He is accused of tacitly — if not directly — abetting the murder of journalists. Medvedev comes away better. He was forcefully critical hours after the murder of journalist Natalia Estemirova of Memorial in Chechnya. She was brazenly abducted in broad daylight, put down in a professional hit, bullet to the head, her body found hours later thrown on a road. This works only if those doing the murder have political protection.

I am reminded that a big advocate of journalist rights and member of the Russian Journalist Federation, Vladimir Lomeiko, died at 72 some weeks ago after a long bought with cancer. Lomeiko was Gorbachev’s spokesman during Soviet times and a key player during Glasnost and Perestroika. He was the grand master of the spoken word and a superb practitioner of the art of the language of diplomacy. (See “Atlantic Eye: Lomeiko Turns A New Leaf,” Dec. 7, 2007.)

After the Soviet Union collapsed Lomeiko dedicated himself to UNESCO, where he had been ambassador and senior adviser to the director general. As a journalist he was deeply concerned about the murders of his colleagues in Russia — 300 murders, 10 solved. Abysmal. He founded the International Baden-Baden Foundation, on whose board I sat, to bridge dialogue with Russia.

The Estemirova murder would have enraged you, Vladimir.

You would have taken your pen to paper and to the fight — thoughtfully and convincingly.

You were a grand and honorable opponent.

You became my very dear friend.

Au revoir.

(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A supporter of the anti-communist underground, he has advised political candidates and is a founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)