ADLER, Russia (Reuters) - The pretty spot where Russia will host the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics is on the Black Sea, framed by the Caucasus mountains. It is also just a 15-minute drive from a potential war zone.
Winning the right to host the games in its southern city of Sochi was a matter of intense national pride for Russia, but the event risks being blighted by a dispute over Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia uncomfortably close to Sochi.
Georgia — backed by the European Union and the United States — accuses Moscow of trying to annex Abkhazia and says the issue could haunt the Sochi Games in the same way that this summer’s Beijing Olympics is dogged by questions over Tibet and China’s record on human rights.
Russia is already under fire from Western states for establishing semi-official links to a breakaway region that the rest of the world does not recognize. Georgia, once part of the Soviet Union, says Moscow has no right to interfere in Abkhazia.
The dispute has global implications as Georgia is a vital link in a Washington-endorsed oil export corridor from the Caspian Sea.
And now the Winter Games have been added to the volatile mix: Olympic organizers plan to use construction materials and labor from Abkhazia, a picturesque region about half the size of Wales, to build the Olympic venues in Sochi.
“Our position is very clear: the use of any part of our territory is illegal,” Kakha Lomaia, secretary of Georgia’s National Security Council, told Reuters.
“Events in Tibet have demonstrated that the whole world was paying attention to how the policy of an Olympic host country lives up to the ideals of the Olympic movement,” he said.
He did not say what action Georgia might take, but some Georgian officials have raised the idea of pushing for a boycott of the Games. In the past, Tbilisi has said it will seek to freeze bank accounts of Russian firms operating in Abkhazia.
Western diplomats say Abkhazia, scene of a separatist war in the 1990s, came close to renewed hostilities this year. In one incident, an unmanned Georgian spy plane was shot down by what United Nations investigators said was a Russian air force jet.
On Thursday, Russia warned it might have to use force against Georgia if Russian peacekeepers were attacked again in its southern neighbor.
Earlier this week, Georgian police detained a group of Russian soldiers who they said were transporting weapons without permission. Russia has had peacekeepers in Abkhazia since the end of the separatist war.
The Sochi Games will be the first Olympics Russia has hosted since the 1980 summer Games in Moscow, which suffered a boycott over the Soviet Union’s military intervention in Afghanistan.
The Kremlin portrayed Sochi’s winning bid as a sign of Russia’s growing economic might and international standing.
But Sochi does not have the infrastructure for such a huge event and construction is complicated by logistical bottlenecks: the nearest big Russian port is over 100 km (60 miles) away and the sparse road and rail links are already congested.
The main site for the Games and venue for the opening and closing ceremonies will be near Adler, about 30 km (19 miles) from Sochi in the direction of Abkhazia.
Last month, Alexander Tkachyov, governor of the Krasnodar region that includes Sochi, traveled to Abkhazia’s resort of Gagra to seek the help of separatist leader Sergei Bagapsh.
“Our neighbors in Abkhazia have the materials needed for Olympic construction in abundance,” Tkachyov’s office quoted him as saying on the day of the meeting. “It is much closer than other regions, and that means it’s faster and cheaper.”
Dmitry Chernyshenko, CEO of the Sochi 2014 Organising Committee, said he saw no problems as long as the private contractors building the venues complied with Russian law.
“It’s up to them to decide whether they will use the neighboring country as the source for construction materials or the workforce,” he told Reuters in an interview.
Asked if that complied with Olympic rules, a spokeswoman for the International Olympic Committee said the IOC had no official information on Abkhazia’s role in preparing the Games.
Separatist officials in Abkhazia have told Reuters they can provide Sochi with gravel, stone, cement and manpower.
They also say a port in Abkhazia can be used to offload building materials, the mothballed airport near Abkhazia’s capital Sukhumi could be re-opened, and housing for Olympic workers could be built in Abkhazia.
Last month, Russia deployed 400 military engineers to rebuild a stretch of railway in southern Abkhazia. Georgia’s Western allies said the move would stoke tension, while Tbilisi called the deployment an act of aggression.
Mikhail Akulov, vice-president of state-owned Russian Railways, said the repairs would open up access to the port, quarries and cement works.
“That is necessary, in particular, for the construction of Olympic venues,” Russian media quoted him as saying.
But the International Crisis Group, an influential think-tank based in Brussels, warned in a report published earlier this month that Russia’s role in Abkhazia could put the Winter Games at risk.
“If Moscow contributes to ... (an escalation in tensions), the International Olympic Committee would have grounds to reconsider its decision to give the Games to Sochi,” it said.