Sochi’s Bitter Medicine

Why the controversy around the Sochi Olympics could turn out to be a good thing for Russia.

Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government organized the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi in a way that draws international attention to the most serious problems in Russian politics. None of these problems is new. In fact, for many years these exact issues have been the focus of democracy promotion work by Russia’s beleaguered civil society. While Olympic press coverage to date has focused on the potential for catastrophe, there is also the possibility that the Games will have a significant positive impact. In a best-case scenario, the Olympics will bring global scrutiny to Russia’s greatest political shortcomings and energize Russian organizations working on those issues, pressuring the Russian government to begin a more open dialogue with its citizens and, eventually, to address its long-suppressed challenges.

Most prominently, the Sochi games have highlighted Russia’s ongoing failure to find a solution to the deadly conflict in the North Caucasus. As police scoured Sochi last week for a suspected suicide bomber, and after the recent deadly terrorist attacks in Volgograd (a major railway hub for Russians traveling to the Olympics), the problem of unresolved ethnic and religious violence looms the largest. Following two wars between Russia and Chechnya in 1994-1996 and 1999-2005, an armed resistance movement has spread throughout Russia’s North Caucasus Federal District, which is adjacent to the city of Sochi. Insurgent fighters in this region, professing a jihadi ideology, have mounted attacks resulting in hundreds of casualties among Russian security services each year, and have claimed responsibility for several major terrorist attacks, including the Beslan school massacre in 2004, the 2011 suicide bombing in a Moscow airport, and the bombings last month in Volgograd. Despite the massive resources the Russian government has devoted to counterinsurgency efforts, casualties remain high as brutal counterterrorist tactics, extreme poverty and unemployment, and official religious persecution continue to motivate new insurgent recruits.

The Olympics’ timing seems almost designed to exacerbate these tensions: 2014 is the 150th anniversary of the Russian empire’s forced expulsion of the local Circassian people, and the Feb. 23 closing ceremonies mark to the day 70 years since Stalin government’s ordered the deportation of Chechens and Ingush. (Both of these incidents caused mass deaths and are widely considered acts of genocide.)

When Putin selected Sochi for an Olympic bid in 2006, the intent behind choosing such an unsuitable site — a subtropical resort town with minimal infrastructure in place — was to send the confident message that Russia had pacified the North Caucasus. Subsequent events have shown the opposite to be true. Putin’s strategy of resolving Chechnya’s conflict through the massive use of force merely displaced the violence to neighboring regions. Now, as tens of thousands of soldiers and police turn Sochi into a fortress, the result is the same, with terrorists instead striking targets outside the Sochi security perimeter.

This is just one of many examples of how the Olympics have cast a bright light on problems they were intended to overshadow. Construction for the Games — which included a new, 31-mile road between the two Olympic complexes, built at a cost of $8.7 billion — has created evocative symbols of Russia’s pervasive corruption. The corruption has been so blatant and extensive that even a member of the International Olympic Committee felt compelled to publicly speculate that a third of the Games’ record $51 billion tag has gone to lining the pockets of Russian government officials and their cronies.

Such kleptocratic behavior is complemented by the Russian government’s apparent disregard for its citizens’ wellbeing, already on full display in Sochi. In building the Olympic infrastructure, the government has seized private homes, devastated the local environment, and left communities without access to regular supplies of electricity, heat, and clean drinking water. Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of construction workers building stadiums, hotels, and roads have been subjected to abusive working conditions, cheated out of wages, and in the case of thousands of migrant workers, summarily deported once construction was completed.

The Russian government’s response to these criticisms demonstrates yet another underlying problem: namely, its lack of respect for freedom of expression. Russian authorities have jailed environmental activists exposing Sochi’s massive ecological damage, and targeted NGOs seeking to document human rights abuses connected to Olympic preparations. Fearing pushback over its recent laws institutionalizing homophobia, the government restricted permits for protest activity to a small zone in a village seven miles from any Olympic event. This repression has not been limited to Russian citizens. In November 2013, local police detained and threatened a Norwegian television crew reporting critically on Sochi, and the American journalist David Satter was banned from entering Russia for five years, a decision he attributes to his investigative reporting on wrongdoings by the Russian security services.

Much of the coverage leading up to the Olympics has questioned whether these Games, originally intended to boost Russia’s reputation internationally and Putin’s reputation domestically, will instead turn out to be an embarrassing failure. In fact, they could already be considered an embarrassment, given the extent to which they have highlighted the Putin regime’s diverse and pervasive failings.

Yet that same embarrassment comes with some upsides: the Games have energized Russian civil society groups and given them a platform from which they can tell the world about Russia’s problems, from the exposé by Alexey Navalny’s organization detailing specific incidents of corruption, to the work of local environmental activists from the Sochi region. The political controversy surrounding the Games is a tribute to the hard work and courage of activists who have made these Olympics about politics as well as sports. International attention to the issues raised by Russian civil society is already yielding results: in the months before the Games, the government has pardoned some of the country’s highest-profile political prisoners (including the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned members of the punk group Pussy Riot, and several defendants in the so-called "Bolotnaya Case"). The increased exposure may yet help Russian activists bring about still more tangible improvements in the future.

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