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#16 - JRL 7033
The Electronic Telegraph (UK)
January 24, 2003
Putin gives Russian skiing resorts a lift
Julius Strauss reports on a 1bn complex that exemplifies the president's Western approach

The chair lifts squeak and whine. On the faded red, yellow and green seats
that carry skiers to the slopes, the paint is peeling.

Apres-ski is limited to a basic, if cheerful, cafe and a Georgian
restaurant where taciturn waiters serve vodka and bowls of borscht for
breakfast.

The southern Russian ski resort of Krasnaya Polyana is a poor cousin of the
elite European resorts of Verbier, St Moritz and Klosters.

But there are plans to convert this ageing Soviet haunt into a destination
that investors hope will put it on a par with the Swiss aristocrats.

The billion-pound make-over at Krasnaya Polyana will quadruple the number
of runs and import the latest in high-tech infrastructure.

The existing road, a hair-raising "serpent" that coils up from the Black
Sea town of Sochi, an hour away, is already being upgraded with wide,
well-lit tunnels.

A Yugoslav firm has built a futuristic airport due to open later this year
and there are plans for a suspended electro-magnetic railway to whisk
skiers from aeroplane to piste in under an hour.

A specialist company from Whistler in Canada has come up with a blueprint
for new slopes and transport links. An early version shows cable car routes
and space for several four- and five-star hotels.

The financier behind the scheme is Vladimir Potanin, a Russian billionaire
and Kremlin-friendly tycoon.

The inspiration, however, comes from Vladimir Putin, Russian president,
judo black belt and keen amateur skier.

Two years ago, Mr Putin and his wife Lyudmila arrived at Krasnaya Polyana
for a brief holiday.

With bodyguards in tow, the president headed out for an afternoon off-piste
on the nearby Engelmanova Polyana, a pristine mountain accessible only by
helicopter.

Since that day, his visit has been a favourite topic of conversation in the
town.

Ivan Fulopulo, who works on the lifts, said: "The president even spoke to
my son Ponayot. He asked him if he could ski. His visit helped us a lot.
More and more people are coming now."

Yuliya Volodkina, who works in a small ski equipment shop, said: "A lot of
people who come here ask us about the president's visit. It has made our
resort very popular."

Locals still tell how the president, ever a reserved man, gave his seal of
approval to the glorious vistas, gentle climate and snow quality.

The presidential nod was enough to galvanise Mr Potanin and a host of other
Kremlin favourites.

Gazprom, the murky mega-heavyweight of the Russian energy sector, began
building a huge corporate chalet complete with satellite villas.

Mr Potanin is rumoured to be behind the construction of a sumptuous complex
for the president, complete with its own helipad.

The compound, just visible from the top of ski-lift No 3, will house the
president and his entourage for the few days of the year he spends in the
mountains.

Political and business analysts point to the development as the shape of
things to come in Russia.

St Petersburg, Mr Putin's long-time home and favourite city, has also been
the target of hundreds of millions of pounds of public and private
investment to spruce it up for its 300th anniversary this year.

One project alone, the renovation of the Konstantinovsky Palace which
overlooks the Gulf of Finland, has sucked up more than 120 million.

For critics, such lavish schemes are evidence of an unhealthy Russian
penchant for fawning over their leaders. They draw parallels between Mr
Putin and the tsars.

Sergei Belov, the editor of the Sochi daily Chernomorskaya Zdravnitsa,
said: "When Yeltsin played tennis, everybody played tennis. Now everybody
does judo or skis. It goes to the heart of the Russian nation. When the
tsar laughed, everybody else laughed too."

But those enjoying the slopes said their enthusiasm had little to do with
the president. Anastasia and Ksenya Podshibyakini, sisters from Moscow,
were in Krasnaya Polyana for the third year.

Archetypal modern Russians, Ksenya is studying Korean and economics at
Moscow University and Anastasia Japanese.

"We don't like politics," Anastasia said. "But we need development in this
country. The fact that Putin is involved in skiing can only be good news
for investment."

Alexander Fomitchev, a snowboard instructor with a prominent stud in his
chin and a Bob Marley hat, was resting at Cafe 1144, halfway up the slopes.

In the corner was a photograph of Vladimir and Lyudmila Putin eating
pancakes with honey and drinking tea at the same tables two years ago.

Alexander said: "Putin's interest in skiing is good for Russia. There are
now training centres all over the country and the developments are
attracting lots of investment."

His friend Artem Khalyavin, marketing director of a sports club, said: "All
this place needs is a bit of money and we can take on the likes of Verbier."

Many political and business analysts agree that the president is a force
for good. They argue that there is nothing wrong with inspiring public and
private investment into grand schemes.

"Putin is the catalyst for these projects but he is not the reason behind
them," said Boris Makarenko, of the independent Centre of Political
Technologies. "These projects must be seen in the context of general upward
economic movement in Russia. Putin is developing the country in a Western way.

"But he is smart enough to know that he must sell it in a Russian wrapping.
If you unwrap the chocolate you'll find a Westerner inside even though the
emblem on the outside may be of a bear or even a hammer and sickle."

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