Bush to Meet Putin in Sochi as Thousands Face Eviction

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In an apparent last-minute effort to unite two world leaders for the last time, US President George W. Bush will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 6th. The meeting will take place in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, scheduled to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. In early May, Putin is expected to assume the post of Prime Minister, as his successor, Dmitri Medvedev, takes office.

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, told press that the pair will discuss European security, including missile defense and the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. The two countries have been locked at an impasse on US proposals to locate defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, with Russia threatening to point its nuclear warheads at Europe if the plans go through.

Bush and Putin have had a friendly personal relationship, even as rhetoric on either side of the Atlantic has escalated in tone. At their first meeting, Bush was jovial, saying: “I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

Still, critics of the Kremlin have argued that Bush has failed to voice concerns at the erosion of democratic and human rights that has taken place in Russia since Putin took office. Their final meeting, framed by a resort mired in a controversial program of evicting area residents, may exemplify that point.

As the Sobkor®ru news agency reported on March 27th, some four thousand Sochi residents are under threat of forcible eviction from their homes. Authorities need to free up space for the construction of a new Olympic park. Residents claim the compensation offered for their property is minimal, and that many families will receive no compensation at all.

The first round of evictions has already begun, with the displacement of 15 refugee families from the neighboring break-away Republic of Abkhazia, The Sunday Times newspaper reported.

Some two hundred construction projects are planned for Sochi in the next seven years, including sporting facilities, railroads, highways, as well as a new airport. This makes for an expensive endeavor, with experts expecting costs to rise as high as 24 billion dollars, or double the current estimates. (By comparison, the 2006 winter Olympics in Turin, Italy cost approximately 3 billion dollars, and the 2010 games in Vancouver, Canada are estimated to cost around 4 billion dollars). As result, real estate prices in Sochi and the surrounding areas have grown by 500 percent, making them some of the highest in Russia.

The News.rin.Ru news agency spoke with Andrei Loginov, one of the residents facing eviction:

“When we found out that Sochi won the bid, we were beside ourselves with joy,” he explained. “We thought that this would bring investment to the city, and would create new jobs. Now we understand that only a small chosen group will become rich, and the ordinary people like us will be left standing by the broken washtub.”