Sochi's merchants ride Putin's Olympic dream

By Angela Charlton

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 11 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

The region's $51 billion transformation for the Olympics has been by all accounts striking. But for all the money spent on Olympic infrastructure, 74-year-old Sochi native Dina Kobolenko says, "This was a village, is a village and will remain a village" — not Russia's answer to Las Vegas or Dubai.

She's proud of her city, and can't afford to be down on the games. Her three-generation household's income depends in part on a tourist kiosk she manages selling maps, books and postcards outside the Sochi train station. Any extra profit she can make on a Russian-English map of town helps her 12,000-ruble-a-month pension stretch farther.

She was horrified at the amount of money spent on the games — "That is a lot! A lot, a lot!" — not to mention the estimated $2 billion a year it will cost to maintain Olympic facilities. And she's skeptical of the government's projections of bringing in cruise ship business, doubling tourism to 6 million visitors a year and creating 600,000 jobs.

Even before Russia was handed the Olympics, economists had urged the government to diversify a heavily oil- and gas-dependent economy and invest in structural reforms. Instead the government has poured money into well-connected conglomerates funding the construction of sports venues, transport infrastructure, electricity and telecommunications, hotels.

Small businesses were never a priority, and Nagabedian says she feared the authorities would shut all independent business owners down for the Olympics "because we don't look perfect enough."

But she and her husband have been able to work in peace, waiting for business to pick up, waiting for Sochi's promised future to become, one day, its prosperous present.

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