SOCHI, Russia — Sochi native Vladimir Tkachenko needed a decade to build a house on his modest salary. He then had 11 hours to move all belongings out of the way for the bulldozers clearing the way for a new road.
Tkachenko’s violent eviction, which has recently alarmed the Sochi community, is only the latest incident in what critics say is the darker side of Sochi’s Olympic preparations ahead of the 2014 Winter Games.
The father of two, who had to seek medical assistance after bailiffs hit him over the head with an electric shock baton, does not shy with his words: “It’s real fascism,” he told AFP a week after his family’s three story brick house was reduced to rubble.
“We scream that we are a democracy, but judging by the way people are treated we are in a cavemen state,” Tkachenko said. “I don’t understand anything. I am completely lost.”
Russia is to hold the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in its southern resort of Sochi, and has pulled out all the stops to develop massive sports and transportation infrastructure on time in an area that has been a residential and agricultural backwater south of the city.
But while visiting IOC officials praise the Russian government’s efforts to remake the Black Sea city into the future sports capital, locals and observers say the undertaking is economising on the locals’ wellbeing.
About 1,000 families have to be relocated under eminent domain to make room for Olympic venues and roads that are part of Sochi’s 2014 Games development plan.
A letter sent late last year to the IOC by the Human Rights Watch said that “in most cases, expropriation takes the form of a forced sale” that is neither transparent nor fair.
The Sochi administration did not respond to a request from AFP for comment.
Officials have insisted that locals are being properly compensated for any forced evictions, so long as they can prove ownership with the right documents.
“We give adequate compensation to everyone who has something. But if you have nothing, then, unfortunately, we are not a charity,” deputy Krasnodar region governor Alexander Saurin told Kommersant Vlast magazine this week.
In case of Tkachenko’s family there was no sale, and the family will get nothing after a local court declared his house illegal. The bailiffs came a day later before Vladimir could receive a written copy of the decision.
“Their cars did not have license plates, they did not introduce themselves or show documents and forced entry into my house,” said Tkachenko, who argues Sochi’s authorities gave him permission to build the house in 1996.
His case has made other potential evictees shudder at their prospects.
“The court decided to seize my house and deposit 1.6 million rubles ($55,000) into a bank account in my name that I know nothing about,” said Natalya Gordiyenko, whose house is also in the way of a road in another Sochi neighbourhood.
But like many other locals, she said she has no use for a sum that will not buy her even a small apartment in a city where a real estate boom has driven up prices to unprecedented heights.
“We will be homeless,” said Gordiyenko, who supports two sons and an elderly mother. Frightened by Tkachenko’s case she started looking for a place to rent, but cannot find anything affordable, she said.
Since November, her battle to get a fair appraisal has left a long paper trail and made a dent in the family’s finances.
“I’m not asking for much, just give us a similar house, and we’ll move there,” she said. But all she was offered in exchange for her home near the sea was a one-room apartment 10 kilometres (six miles) away, which she declined.
Sochi’s eviction nightmare has been caused by lack of planning, legal ignorance, and decades of property issues that often made it impossible to register land until handing over a handsome bribe, locals said.
“People have been completely erased from the land eviction process,” said Valery Suchkov, who sits on Sochi’s city planning council and has consulted dozens of locals who are being evicted for Olympic projects.
“Nobody asks locals what they want, it’s completely depersonalised,” he said. “There have been cases when property was appraised based on satellite imaging, and then people would be notified of their eviction by mail.”
“Fair balance and applicable human rights standards are not being met” in the process, Human Rights Watch said adding that the European court of human rights is likely to rule against Russia in many cases.
Russia’s Olympic bid was a personal effort on the part of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has since then also cinched Russia’s right to host the Football World Cup in 2018 and the Formula One Grand Prix in 2014.
But amid the construction windfall, “what they are economising on is the people and the environment,” said Suchkov.