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This year’s Winter Olympics held in a Black Sea resort are putting Russia’s record on human rights and corruption centre stage. Yet wanting though that record is, the Games will be the making of a more enlightened country, argues an experienced Moscow correspondent
The bad-tempered diplomatic prelude to the Sochi Winter Olympics offered a stark counterpoint to the months before the London 2012 Games. Then, the population of the host country seemed convinced that the whole undertaking would be a disaster. National politicians were reluctant cheerleaders. Even the host city’s irrepressible mayor, Boris Johnson, kept the volume down until the triumphant close.
Most of the early enthusiasm in 2012 came from abroad. Athletes seemed thrilled to be coming. Foreign dignitaries were so keen to put in an appearance that there was concern about the capacity of London airports to cope with all their planes.
Contrast Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, which were due to open on Friday. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who personally lobbied for the country’s bid, remained front and central to the point where the Games were widely seen as his personal vanity project. If ordinary Russians harboured doubts about the ability of their country to host the Games, they were not paraded for international consumption. The official tone was one of blustering self-confidence, even as much Western media coverage remained negative and foreign leaders queued up to stay away.
The cost was considered extortionate. Questions were asked about how much of the money had been lost to corruption and who had benefited; why on earth a semi-tropical resort had been nominated, let alone selected, as the venue for winter sports; and why anyone should have bet on Russians to have everything ready in time and to standard. The validity of that last criticism will be tested over the next two weeks.
These were not, though, the gravest complaints. Security was a bigger concern, given the proximity of the venue to a host of trouble spots, and fears were only exacerbated by the suicide bombings in Volgograd at new year.
Dominating everything, though, were the qualms about violations of human rights and civic freedoms in Putin’s Russia. The names Pussy Riot, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Sergei Magnitsky were already in the air, when last summer Russia scored a spectacular pre-Olympics own goal in the form of a new law imposing fines on anyone who provided information about homosexuality to under-18s.
As luminaries of Hollywood and liberal Europe joined forces to object, resentful Russians posed their own question. Recalling 1980, when Moscow’s Summer Olympics suffered a boycott over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, they asked why the West was so intent, even now, on spoiling Russia’s party.
But this did nothing to stem the protests. On the very eve of the opening ceremony, there were Russians who argued that Sochi should never have been chosen at all. Not just for the reasons noted, but because Vladimir Putin stood to be the chief beneficiary (in every sense). To a large extent, though, it is the West’s fault that the Sochi Games came to be identified so exclusively with Putin. Yes, as a long-time devotee of Sochi as a sporting destination, he was the venue’s chief advocate. He understood, as had Tony Blair with London, that a national leader’s support was crucial to an Olympic bid. He also knew that, in Russia, personal support from the top was essential to get anything done.
Yet terming these “Putin’s games” has politicised them by association and diminished their significance as the first truly global event to be held in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, of course, success is important to Putin, because failure, even defects, could undermine his position at a time when other pillars of stability in Russia – including political institutions and the economy – are starting to look shakier than for some time. But success is even more important for Russia as it embarks on its latest attempt to become a modern state.
And here it is worth looking a little more critically at the charges levelled against the Sochi Games. Take the cost. The US$50 billion (£30.6bn) figure bandied about abroad is fiercely contested by Russia. But even if it is more or less correct, it could still be money well spent, if it leaves Russia with improved infrastructure and a world-class resort, where there was precious little before. Take the ridiculing of Sochi as a winter sports venue: this reflects ignorance, pure and simple. Its alpine hinterland has long made it a winter resort for Russians, as well as a summer one. Why should it not capitalise on this rare combination? Take corruption. It is no defence of Sochi or Russia to ask how many Olympiads have been squeaky clean, but there can have been few illusions about the state of Russian business ethics when Sochi was awarded the Winter Games and it could be argued that outside Olympic scrutiny entails a measure of accountability.
Take the high-profile absentees. Winter Olympics have never attracted the number of national leaders as the Summer Games. To portray the supposed no-shows at Sochi as a quasi-boycott over the gay issue may suit the domestic political purposes of some, but would they have gone to Sochi otherwise? Probably not.
Then take security. Russia was damned if it did and damned if it did not. The very concept of a “ring of steel” around Sochi may be counter to everything the Olympics stand for, but it is hard to condemn this and in the same breath cite the risks from Islamic extremism emanating from Chechnya, or volatility in Georgia or Ukraine, as reasons why Sochi was always unsuitable. Remember the controversy over anti-missile defences deployed on housing blocks in east London and the 7/7 attacks, which took place just a day after London’s selection to host the 2012 Games. Alas, this is today’s reality.
But it is not the only reality to be considered. Any city that stages a global event exposes itself to outside influences that can be salutary. The Russian Duma’s amnesty, which included the Pussy Riot prisoners, may or may not have been connected with the Olympics; ditto Putin’s pardon for Khodorkovsky. But an element in both was surely the desire to improve Russia’s profoundly negative image before Sochi hosted the world.
And while the outcry over Russia’s law on gay “propaganda” has not (yet) forced its repeal, it did prompt a macho, bareback-riding, tiger-shooting president to state in public that he had nothing against homosexuals. Some will see this, as they will see the amnesty, as hypocrisy designed for external consumption. But in a country where anti-gay prejudice remains ingrained – as it is not only in Russia – the very fact that Putin expressly welcomed gays to Sochi was little short of revolutionary, even if his accompanying warning “just leave the children alone” was interpreted as an allusion to paedophilia and rather spoilt the effect.
In recruiting a small army of volunteers (à la London) and providing space for protests, Russia has opened itself in other ways, too. These are small openings to be sure, but openings nonetheless which, for a country long inclined to look inwards, carry elements of risk. Success over the next two weeks may indeed enhance Putin’s stature at home and put Sochi on the map. Just perhaps, though, it will show a Russia that is becoming reconciled to its post-Soviet borders and increasingly open to modernising influences from outside, in everything from methods of policing to tolerance of protest and other lifestyles.
Russia’s central objective at Sochi may be to change the world’s attitude to Russia, but this global festival of winter sport has the potential to change Russia even more.
* Mary Dejevsky is a former Moscow correspondent of The Times and is now a columnist for The Independent.