Political Prestige of President Putin and Sochi Outcome

03.03.2014

The Games are a good opportunity for Russian human rights defenders or local ecological NGOs to get their voice heard internationally, but they are not a frame for states to pressure Russia. It will be badly seen as, after all, everybody wants to enjoy the Olympic Celebration, including the French, the Americans and the Germans, whatever their displeasure with Mr. Putin.

Hosting the Olympics games is always very prestigious for both the nation that hosts them and the government of that country. Sochi has undergone unprecedented critics in the international press for its pharaonic costs, its sub-tropical climate and its location so close to the border of an unresolved conflict (Abkhazia-Georgia) and a politically unstable region (the North Caucasus). But in spite of all these difficulties the games went very well and the beauty of the images from the competition in Sochi shown on the international TV channels are pushing these controversies behind. But the economic outcomes for the region will be measurable only in one or two years time. Either the huge investments put in Sochi will make of it a sustainable growing resort, attracting a lot of tourists every year to compensate for the huge sums invested there and this will help attract this touristic industry to the rest of the Caucasus; or Sochi will end up in financial difficulties, will look as an economically unsustainable project that will then remain as a stain for all the organizers: the Russian government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

President Putin has been seen very much on the front line of the organizations of the game. He put all his international political weight in the balance at the IOC meeting in Guatemala which attributed the games to Sochi. He was seen constantly on the sites, either firing bad “chinovniki” or testing the facilities himself. During the competitions he openly visited the athletes, drank beer in the Dutch “Heineken House” with the King of Holland, hugged publicly at least one lesbian athlete. All this contributes to his international prestige after all the controversies on his restrictive legislations. His prestige, nevertheless, does not seem to be at stake at home, as Russians seem to care much less about where their public monies go than Western European citizens would... The controversy about the pharaonic costs of the Sochi games that has triggered so much criticism in Europe was just dismissed as “western propaganda” by most of the Russian medias.

Since the time of their creation in ancient Greece, the Olympic Games have always had a political dimension attached to them. President Obama was not alone not to attend Sochi opening ceremony. President Hollande of France, President Gauck and Chancellor Merkel of Germany did not attend either. Russia is seen as being particularly unconstructive on a series of issues running from Syria – Russia raised four vetos in the UN Security Council against resolution drafts that contained any coercive language towards Assad’s government - to Ukraine, where Russia has pulled all its economic strings to prevent President Yanukovich to sign an association agreement with the EU. President Putin is seen as moving back on all democratic freedoms that most European countries now enjoy with the only exception of Belarus. It is seen as being much friendlier to Central Asian dictatorships than to the Baltic democracies. Not attending the games for elected Western leaders was a public display of discontent with Mr. Putin’s politics. As President Xi Jinping’s attendance was a show of deep Chinese satisfaction with Russia’s present political course…

The Russian government has removed itself some of the most visible irritants for its image on the international scene before the games: it freed Mr. Khodorkovsky and the young women of the Pussy Riot group. These were gestures that came down well with the international press, but none of the restrictive laws on NGOs, on the press, on minority rights have been reviewed. The Games are a good opportunity for Russian human rights defenders or local ecological NGOs to get their voice heard internationally, but they are not a frame for states to pressure Russia. It will be badly seen as, after all, everybody wants to enjoy the Olympic Celebration, including the French, the Americans and the Germans, whatever their displeasure with Mr. Putin.

The pharaonic costs, the damages to the environment and the lack of respect for the neighbors living next to the Olympic Sites certainly make of Sochi a bad example not to be followed by others. An Olympic project should also be a reason of rejoicing for the direct neighbors, capable of finding new employment opportunities. In Sochi unfortunately this necessary meeting between central planning and the local people has deeply failed. The situation of the village of Akhshtyr[1] , left without direct access to its usual road and without water, the way thousands of illegals were employed on the sites, the destruction of the River Mzymta from which the Black Sea salmon has now disappeared and the harsh hand the police used against local environmentalist activists[2] , all this leaves behind a chain of angry people[3] among those who should have enjoyed the Games most: the very inhabitants of the region…

[1] http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/12/29/russia-olympic-construction-devastates-sochi-village
[2] http://www.echo.msk.ru/news/1259920-echo.html
[3] Too Far, Too Fast, Sochi : Tourism and Conflict in the North Caucasus, International Crisis Group Europe Report N° 228, 30 Janvier 2014. http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/europe/north-caucasus/228-too-far-too-fast-sochi-tourism-and-c...

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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