Russia keeps bewildering the public with extravagant economic plans for the North Caucasus that are supposed to pacify the region. According to Russian officials, it is unemployment that is causing the problems there (www.russiatoday.ru, 24, December 2010). To provide employment for the local population, ski resorts will be built across the region. The government, however, does not take into account how this project will be received by the Muslim population of the North Caucasus. For the mentality of the local population, the ski resorts make about as much sense as skating would for the population of Saudi Arabia.
An estimated $122 billion to $130 billion was preliminarily allocated for this project (http://ehorussia.wordpress.com, July 27) – undoubtedly the most money Russia has ever allotted for the North Caucasus since Russia colonized the region in the nineteenth century. After these plans were announced, the Russian finance ministry requested that this allocation of resources be properly scrutinized, which would essentially mean cuts for the project (www.rusnovosti.ru, August 1). But after a review by the minister for regional development, Viktor Basargin, and the minister for economic development, Elvira Nabiullina, the government increased the allocation to $183 billion, contrary to the finance ministry’s expectations (http://kommersant.ru/doc/1777061, September 20). Thus, this project became Russia’s most expensive project, including the exorbitantly priced 2014 Winter Olympic Games that are scheduled to take place in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.
This ski resort project is a goldmine for the Kremlin’s local henchmen. They will do everything they can to get involved in distributing the funds for the project. Foreign creditors, such as the French state bank Caisse des Depots et Consignations (CDC), will demand full control over their investment. CDC is prepared to invest up to 10 billion Euros ($13.62 billion) contingent on 100 percent guarantees by the Russian government.
According to the government’s plans, five new ski resorts are to be built in the North Caucasus by 2020 – in Matlas (Dagestan), Mamison (North Ossetia), Arhyz (Karachaevo-Cherkessia), Lago Naki (Adygea) and Elbrus (Kabardino-Balkaria). In addition, Dzheirakh, in the mountainous part of Ingushetia, has been included in the resort project. Also, the wish of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to have his own resort in Veduchi, in the Chechen mountains close to the border with Georgia, will also probably be granted.
This project, especially given its costs, evoked lively discussion about its appropriateness in Russian society. Many Russians regard the North Caucasus as unpromising because of its propensity to secede from the Russian Federation. Unlike the state bureaucracy, there are some experts who go against the Kremlin’s view, arguing that the identity issue, not unemployment, is the root of the problem in the North Caucasus. People in the region do not call themselves Russians, but instead proudly identify themselves with their ethnicity – Chechen, Kabardian, Karachai. So they do not associate themselves with the Russian nation. There is also a religious identity issue: locals embrace Islam, as opposed to those who identify with the Russian state, which prizes Orthodoxy. Cultural antagonism is also a factor, with people who are culturally Russian not always understanding or accepting North Caucasian customs and traditions (www.poisknews.ru, June 23).
These important issues cast doubt on the viability of this grandiose and truly reckless project of building ski resorts along the Caucasus mountain range. Even if the project is implemented, there will be very serious issues regarding the public behavior of tourists in a culturally Muslim area that tends to be much more restrictive than the rest of Russia. It will be especially hard to persuade tourists to choose the North Caucasus against the backdrop of news reports of clashes between Russian security services and militants, claiming dozens of casualties each week. There are a few other, quieter regions in the Caucasus where tourists can spend their time.
It is easy to discern an element of competition on the part of the Russian government, which is trying to sideline the plans of Georgia, just across the Caucasus mountains. Unlike the clumsy Russian bureaucracy, Georgia has attracted substantial foreign investment without much government spending, and that is turning this South Caucasian state into one of the most attractive tourist destinations in the region. Neither Sochi nor ski resorts that will be built in eight years will be able to compete with Georgia’s existing tourist sites. In addition, tourists can visit Georgia without a visa or, at a maximum, after undergoing a five minute procedure at the airport. This ease of access beats Russia’s stringent visa rules, as well as restrictions imposed by the Russian security services on visiting areas close to the border.
Given the current circumstances, it can be asked: Why exhaust one’s nerves and money in the North Caucasus when, on the other side of the mountains in Georgia, one can enjoy service at the level of the world’s best resorts, with safety guarantees? Such features will be absent from the North Caucasus in the next eight years. In the best case scenario, the new ski resorts will be second-rate tourist destinations for the Russian citizens who have no other choice, just the way the existing ski resorts in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia have not become especially popular with Western tourists.
The purpose of this project seems to be to change superficially the international image of the North Caucasus without touching the essence of the conflict that produces armed resistance in this troubled region.