Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Russia’s Potemkin Olympic Village

MOSCOW – Remember the year 2007? Russia was starting to look like a world power again. Its economy was growing at a record 8.5% annual rate. Political life had stabilized. Support for President Vladimir Putin was stratospheric. The decade-long Chechen rebellion seemed to have been suppressed. And, to top it off, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2014 Winter Games to Russia’s Black Sea resort, Sochi.

In many respects, it was a strange choice of venue: sunny Sochi has beautiful mountains but little or no snow. It is also 850 miles south of Moscow, with few direct flights from Europe, while the trip from the United States can involve up to four legs.

But in 2007, Russians were becoming more optimistic about their future. Addressing the Olympic Committee, Putin argued that awarding Russia the Games would not only allow it to showcase its post-Soviet achievements; it would also help the country through its political and economic transition. Nothing seemed too difficult for Putin, even mouthing unnecessary democratic platitudes for an Olympic committee whose members had already awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics to Beijing.

But, once construction got underway, the realities of modern Russia could not be so easily hidden. The colossal project, which cost more than $50 billion – more than all previous Winter Olympics combined – was expected to turn Sochi into a sporting paradise, packed with arenas and a new airport. Instead, corruption and construction accidents have plagued preparations, with hotels still unfinished just days before the opening ceremony.

Delay and waste are common in Olympic preparations (Greece in 2004 is an obvious example, and Brazil in 2016 appears to be experiencing similar problems). But Russia is proving to be an unsuitable host for other reasons.

For starters, there are concerns about Putin’s own political legitimacy. His controversial and unconstitutional re-election to a third presidential term was condemned internationally and triggered anti-government protests across Russia.

Putin responded to those he considers political enemies by arresting and jailing protesters, including the all-girl rock band Pussy Riot, following “show trials” (with the Olympics approaching, there have been recent “show pardons”). Such episodes have contributed to a general air of intolerance across Russia, fueled in no small part by Kremlin-incited chauvinism. A government sponsored anti-gay propaganda law, which indiscriminately criminalizes same-sex couples, has caused outrage abroad. Local activists have even advised gay athletes not to display signs of their sexual orientation while in Russia.

Similarly, though the Olympics should be an occasion for national pride, foreign – and in particular American – athletes have been told to avoid showing their team colors when outside the grounds. In fact, they have been warned not to wander beyond Sochi’s “ring of steel” security perimeter and the watchful gaze of black-and-gray-clad police officers, even though Olympians typically like to explore local sights.

None of this engenders a sense of Olympic solidarity and international friendship. And it gets worse. The authorities must also contend with threats from Islamist insurgents from Chechnya, who are now operating in other North Caucasian republics, a mere 200 miles from Sochi. The “black widows” – wives of Islamist fighters killed in the Kremlin’s “pacification” campaign – are believed to be preparing retaliatory suicide missions at airports, train stations, and on buses.

The last time Russia hosted the Olympics – the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow – the US and its allies staged a boycott in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And yet the Soviet Union was a superpower, stagnant but stable. Its totalitarian secrecy, gargantuan military-industrial complex, ever-present KGB handlers, and apparent disdain for material comforts (at least for ordinary Russians) gave the Communist hegemon a perverse mystique that made even a simple visit to Red Square a trip to remember. However much the country was hated or feared, one could not deny that is was a major player on the world stage.

Not so today. Putin’s Russia is weak, tawdry, and corrupt – and underserving as an Olympic host. The atmosphere surrounding the Sochi Games reflects many of Russia’s worst traits. In the immortal words of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, describing the country’s economic transition of the 1990’s: “We hoped for the best, but things turned out as usual.”

Even assuming that the Sochi Games pass off successfully, and that, despite the security restrictions and official bigotry, athletes and visitors enjoy their stay, will Russia’s brief display of national pride really be worth the financial and political cost? Or will Russians wake up six months from now and say, “Yes, our country has a fancy ski resort – at the beach.”

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    1. CommentedLeo Arouet

      Gran artículo. Rusia quiere mostrarse al mundo como un jugador en la política mundial, quiere se le tome ne cuenta como una potencia económica mundial, algo que es difícil con la corrupción siempre presente. EL gas de todos los rusos sólo llega los extranjeros, y nunca nada para los mismos ciudadanos rusos que no tienen ni calefacción. Las provincias sufren mucho debido a estas carencias. El gobierno ruso es el mismo Estado dictador de antes, aunque más débil. Parag khanna ha resaltado las desigualdades de Rusia dentro de su propia casa.

    2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Fake villages were said to have been erected by Catherine the Great's favourite, Prince Grigory Potemkin in the 18th century, in war-ravaged regions of southern Ukraine to impress the visiting empress and foreign ambassadors.
      This window-dressing habit apparently continued in Soviet Russia. Regional authorities used to give their drab blocks of flats quick licks of paint or stock the shelves in usually barren shops ahead of VIP visits.
      Yet Sochi is no "Potemkin village". The Olympic venues are said to have cost over $50 billion and the buildings are no dummies. The event might be seen as a legacy of irrationality, vanity and megalomania. Corruption doesn't seem to bother Putin, but inefficiency, which no doubt has blemished Putin's image of a perfectionist.
      His choice of Sochi reminds the world of Peter the Great, who 310 years ago selected a spot on the Baltic Sea as the location for his grand new capital, St Petersburg. For Tsar Peter, moving the capital from Moscow to St Petersburg was an attempt to move Russia closer to Europe. Putin said he hoped the Sochi Games would help bring modern Russia and the West closer.
      Autocrats had in the past built mammoth projects, which later were seen as monuments to the absurd. Ceausescu's Palace of Parliament in Bucharest is a good example. It was a waste of money in a country that could not even provide a basic subsistence for ordinary people.