Friday, July 26, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Sochi Countdown -- 28 Weeks to the Olympiad in the North Caucasus

Note:  This is my 22nd special Window on Eurasia about the meaning and impact of the planned Olympiad on the nations in the surrounding region.  These WOEs, which will appear each Friday over the coming year, will not aim at being comprehensive but rather will consist of a series bullet points about such developments.  I would like to invite anyone with special knowlege or information about this subject to send me references to the materials involved.  My email address is  Allow me to express my thanks to all those who already have. Paul Goble

‘Mounting Concerns’ in Moscow about Impact of Anti-Gay Law on Sochi.  The Moscow Times reports that “concerns are mounting” in Moscow over the impact on the Olympics of Russia’s new law against “homosexual propaganda.” Some fear that an international boycott is a possibility while others are concerned that there will be some LGBT demonstration at the games(

Putin Won’t Back Down on Anti-Gay Law Because of his ‘Self-Promoted Masculinity,’ US Coach Says. Charley Sullivan, an American rowing coach, says that Putin won’t reverse Russia’s anti-gay laws because “to acquiesce would call his significantly promoted masculinity and power into question. Even if the laws were changed, by some miracle, we would still need to keep in mind the possibility of this being temporary and for show, a modern Potemkin Village of tolerance.” Consequently, there are only two possible responses: not a boycott but a demand that the games be “removed from Russia entirely,” and a program to “take the gay to Sochi,” sending openly gay diplomats and politicians and … openly gay elite athletes and coachs … to press this question” inn Moscow and using the games themselves to demonstrate international support for LGBT rights ( Moreover, the Russian president knows that the new law enjoys overwhelming support among Russians and among conservative groups in the US and elsewhere (

Olympians Should Demonstrate Support for Russian LGBTs at the Games.  Tom Ziller says that Olympians can give Russia “a big ol’ dose of reality” that “being homosexual is not a sin.”  The games themselves “provide a stage for individual athletes and teams. There's really very little that Putin can or would have the stomach to do to censor Olympic champions from making their statements about gay rights, however subtle or obvious those statements may be.It strikes me that the best way to protest a ban on gay pride parades is to turn the Parade of Nations into an hours-long message of support to the Russian gay community. If it's pervasive enough, there's nothing Putin's regime can do to stop it from reaching the very kids his government would like to quarantine from anything to do with homosexual acceptance.” (

Olympic Committee Must Demand Repeal of Anti-Gay Laws, NY Times Writer Says. In an oped in the New York Times, Harvey Fierstein, an actor and playright, says that “the Olympic Committee must demand the retraction” of anti-LGBT laws.  He notes that “In 1936 the world attended the Olympics in Germany. Few participants said a word about Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. Supporters of that decision point proudly to the triumph of Jesse Owens, while I point with dread to the Holocaust and world war. There is a price for tolerating intolerance” (

Canadian Writer Warns of Repeat of 1936 Games at Sochi.  Sarah Connor, who writes on hockey and other sports, says “Sochi, we have a problem,” adding that the question now is “Will we see a repeat of 1936, in which the Olympics in Germany ignored the huge issue occurring right under their noses, or will we actually see some sort of heinously unjustifiable action taken against Olympians and their supporters? Either way, it's disgusting and in direct violation of the Olympics' mission statement, and it's a shame that it has to be a focal point of worry for certain athletes rather than what they SHOULD be focusing on -- representing their country to the best of their ability. There's no NHL boycott, but maybe there should be” (

Canada Must Consider a Sochi Boycott, Writer Says. Russia’s new anti-gay law “is an affront both to the people in that coutry and around the world,” a Canadian writer says. “It’s been condemned by the European Union and by groups such as Human Rights Watch, but for Canada, it stands in direct contrast to the values for which we are internally lauded.”  And consequently, while Canada failed to stand up for Canadaina values at the time of the Beijing games, “in this case we must give serious consideration to our participation at the Sochi Olympics in2014” (

Reasons for Sochi Boycott Seen Mounting.  Moscow’s behavior in the Snowden case, its treatment of political opponents and NGOs, its inability to pacify the North Caucasus, and its support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad are all being cited by Western and Russian outlets as reasons for boycotting the Sochi Games, according to one Olympic portal (

Russian Officials Raid Rights Group in Sochi … Police raided the Sochi offices of Memorial the day after that office handed in complaints about serious violations of worker rights by Olympic contractors. “Instead of bullying the messenger,” a senior Human Rights Watch official said, “the Russian authorities should investigate the allegations of abuse” (,  and

… And Threaten to Close Environmental Group. Meanwhile, Russian prosecutors warned Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus that it would be closed unless it registers as “a foreign agent” (

Online Petition Calls for Boycotting Sochi Games.  An online petition to world leaders is gathering signatures calling on them to boycott the Olympics in Sochi because of “the anti-human anti-democratiic, homophobic policies, acts and politically motivated court cases by Vladimir Putin’s regime” (

Putin Says Critics of Universiade Should ‘Take Viagra.’ Upset that so many people have criticized the Kazan Universiade where Russian professionals defeated amateurs from other countries and where the Kremlin’s public relations campaign was in overdrive, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that those doing the criticism should “take viagra” and find happiness some other way ( and

Kazan Universiade Leaves Sports Writers, Athletes, and Fans Upset, Disappointed.  Putin’s comment came as reports surface that the fake and boring quality of the Kazan Universiade has infuriated and disappointed sports writers, athletes, and fans (,,, and

Sochi Residents Angry about Electricity Shutoffs, Watermain Breaks, and Potholed Roles. As Olympic construction continues with little attention to the needs of the local population, residents of Sochi and environs are increasingly upset by daily electricity shutoffs, construction-related breaks in water mains and impassable roads and are turning their anger against both local officials and Moscow itself ( and

Illegal Drugs Sold So Openly in Sochi that Standard Prices are Now Published. A broad range of illegal drugs are now so readily available in the Olympic city that residents say there are standard prices for different kinds; they further complain that they have no confidence that the police are doing anything about this plague (

Without Being Asks, Tatarstan Not Moscow Paid for Universiade and Part of Sochi Too, Editor Says.  Rashit Akhmetov, editor of the independent Zvezda Povolzhya, says that the people of Tatarstan not the central government in Moscow paid for the Kazan Games because their republic for years has sent more taxes to the center than it has received aid back. And he says that this pattern is continuing with Sochi as well.  Consequently, Akhmetov says, Tatars and Russians should not be expected to be grateful to Moscow given that it is spending their money (

Sochi Costs Continue to Rise. Despite costing more than five times what was planned and becoming the most expensive Olympic competition in history, the Sochi Games are online to cost even more as costs for medical services and other support activities that Moscow did not originally budget for come in (

Some Sochi Gold Medals Will Contain Chelyabinsk Meteorite Fragments.  Russian officials say that they will embed small pieces of the meteorite that fell on Chelyabinsk last February in the gold medals awarded at Sochi to honor the 1600 victims of that event (

Prosecutors Send Case against Crusading Sochi Journalist Back for Investigation.  In what may be nothing more than a bureaucratic snafu or an effort at delay, Sochi prosecutors have returned the case of journalist Nikolay Yarst for further investigation.  Police have charged Yarst, who exposed criminality and environmental depradation, with drug possession (

Russian Political Prisoner Backs Blocking Sochi Games By Any Means Necessary.  Boris Stomakhin says that the crimes of the Russian government and the failure of Moscow to respect the deaths of Circassians at Sochi in 1864 means that the Olympics must be stopped by any means necessary, including, he says, violence (

Moscow’s Problem: Even Upbeat Stories about Sochi Mention Enormous Problems.  An overwhelmingly positive story about Sochi in Men’s Journal highlights a problem Moscow faces in getting its version of events out.  Even journalists who write upbeat stories that reflect the Russian point of view feel compelled to mention all sorts of problems incudinig human rights violations, labor abuse and extraordinary costs (

Moscow Photoshops Picture of Russian and Georgian Patriarchs with Sochi T-Shirt.  Numerous viewers have concluded that Russian officials photoshopped a picture of the leaders of the two Orthodox churches to make it appear that they were holding a Sochi Olympiad t-shirt between them, conclusions that if true are the latest turn in the old story of “The Commissar Vanishes” (

Cossacks to Patrol Sochi Olympiad.  Three hundred Kuban Cossacks will be paid 25,000 rubles (800 US dollars) a piece to patrol Sochi during the Olympics, something their leaders say is appropriate because in their words the Cossacks are “representatives of the indigenous population” (

Kavkaz Uzel Sums Up Sochi Olympiad Problems.  The editors of the North Caucasus news agency sum up what has been reported so far about the ecological problems, the protests of the Circassians, spending and corruption, and the mistreatment of workers and the environment in and around Sochi (

Khloponin Says North Caucasus Federal District Will Remain Unchanged After Sochi.  Responding to suggestions that Moscocw is waiting until after Sochi to make fundamental changes, Aleksandr Khloponin, presidential plenipotentiary for the North Caucasus federal district, says that no changes will be made even then and that the idea has not even been discussed among officials (

Moscow Ministry Admits Money for Sochi Being Diverted and Misused.  The Regional Development Ministry says that funds for projects in Vladivostok and the Sochi Games have been diverted and not spent as intended, but it says that the fault lies not with its officers but with those in other bureaucracies, an indication that officials are now being forced to defend themselves and are seeking the usual cover of blaming others ( and

Artist Behind ‘Welcome to Sochi’ Series Defends His Work, Says Ban has Made It Profitable.  Vasily Slonov, the artist who produced the controversial and ultimately banned series of “Welcome to Sochi” posters, says he was entirely within his rights and that the ban has made his posters so popular that he could easily make a fortune licensing them for t-shirts (

Sochi Mayor Wants ‘Stability at Any Price.’ Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov has indicated that as the world famous mayor of the Olympic city, his task is to ensure stability regardless of what it takes, a message that is leading to violations of the law and increasing anger against him personally among Sochi residents (

Moscow Now Plans to Deploy 50,000 Troops at Sochi Games.  Nezavisimaya gazeta reports that Moscow is now planning to deploy 50,000 members of the Russian armed services in addition to police and FSB security officers, an indication of Russia’s security concerns and commitment to ensure that there will not be any violence there ( and

Russian Sports Minister Says Boycott Would be ‘Absolutely Stupid.’ Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s minster for sports, says that “sports should be separate from politics” and that it would be “absolutely stupid” for anyone to boycott the Sochi Olympics because of “the conviction of a Kremlin opponent or Mosco’s refusal to extradite fugitive Americann Edward Snowden” (,0,6356019.story).

Moscow Commentators Suggest Kremlin Released Navalny Because of Sochi.  Several Russian commentators have suggested that concerns about a boycott of the Sochi Olympics played a major role in the Kremlin’s decision to release opposition leader Aleksey Navalny (

Sochi Residents Demonstrate in Support of Navalny. Despite heavy rains, several hundred Sochi residents came out to a demonstration in support of Kremlin opponent Aleksey Navalny (

Sochi Olympic Chief Says Birth of Leopard Cubs ‘Proves Success’ of Sochi’s Environmental Plan. Dmitry Chernyshenko head of the Sochi Organizing Committee says that the birth of Persian leopard cubs in the Sochi National Park “for the first time in 50 years” demonstrates “the success” of his organization’s commitment to environmental protection,  PR Web reports (

Russian Athlete Accuses Foreigners of Planning to Cheat at Sochi.  A Russian bobsled competitor says that his team faces an uphill battle in Sochi because some foreign teams, including the Germans, have demonstrated that they are prepared to cheat to win (

New and Rushed Reconstruction of Sochi Infrastructure Highlights Lack of Planning.  Sochi residents are outraged that only a few months before the games, contractors are tearing up the city to rebuild the infrastructure of the city, a pattern, the residents say, reflects the absence of planning and the danger that in a rush to finish not everything will be done to a high standard (

Despite Official Promises, Sochi Still Far from Handicap Accessible.  Russian officials claim they living up to Olympic requirements and are making Sochi “the first city in Russia completely accessible for invalids,” but photographs posted online show that their claims are overstated and unlikely to be realized before the Sochi Games ( and

Moscow Not About to Change its Policy toward Circassians, Activist Says.  A Circassian activist says Moscow”will hardly change its policy toward theCircassians because the ‘Circassian issue’ is a moral question above all,” one that Russian officials have shown they do not want opened (

Official Malfeasance in Sochi Can No Longer Be Ignored. In addition to being corrupt, Sochi officials routinely violate the law in other ways, including impeding investigations into high-profile crimes, and that is leading ever more residents to demand that something be done, with many now planning to vote out the mayor at the next election ( and Many of them now say the only way out is for a wholesale restructuring of the city administration. Just replacing one set of criminals with another won’t be enough (

Sochi will be ‘A Harder Test,’ Medvedev Says.  At the closing ceremony of the Kazan Universiade, an event viewed as a test run for the Sochi Games, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that “Sochi is oing to be a harder test still.” He was referring to Russian prospects for victory in the athletic competition, but many are likely to see his words as having a rather broader meaning (

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Window on Eurasia: South Osetia Wants to Join Russia but Moscow Unlikely to Agree

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 25 – The president of South Osetia, which broke away from Georgia with Russian help in 2008, says that he wants to unite his republic with the Republic of North Osetia-Alania inside the Russian Federation. But while his statement reflects the views of many Osetins, Moscow is unlikely to agree given the problems such a move would trigger.

            South Osetian President Leonid Tibilov said yesterday that “for every Osetin, the issue of unification of the people is a priority” and that he “would consider his presidential mission fulfilled if South Osetia by the desire of its citizens were to unite with Russia and the reunification of the Osetins would occur” (

This declaration must be considered in the context of three other developments this week. First, South Osetia has declared that it will begin to unilaterally demarcate its border with Georgia with the help of Russian advisors, a step that would appear to presage even tighter relations between Moscow and Tskhinval (

Second, there were signals from Moscow and Tbilisi that the Russian Federation and Georgia may now be inching their way back toward diplomatic relations, ties that were broken when the Russian government invaded Georgia in August 2008 but that both sides now appear prepared to discuss the modalities of moving toward some kind of new normalcy.

And third, as Israeli analyst Avraam Shmulyevich points out, Moscow is increasingly critical of the independent-minded Abkhazian government, as suggested by recent articles in “Komsomolskaya Pravda” and “Moskovsky komsomolets” and wants to send a signal that from now on it will treat the two breakaway republics differently rather than in lock step as in the past (

Shmulyevich’s comments appear in the first commentary on Tibilov’s declaration, a commentary prepared by Ekho Kavkaza’s Murat Gukemukhov. The latter begins by calling attention to the South Osetin president’s acknowledgement that for the unification of his republic and North Osetia within Russia, many “political and legal obstacles” will have to be overcome.

Aleksey Mukhin, head of the Moscow Center for Political Information, told Gukemukhov that Tibilov’s speech certainly was pre-cleared by Moscow but that at the same time it represented an effort by the South Osetin leader to make sure that the interests of his heavily subsidized republic were not sacrificed by some deal between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Shmulyevich, besides stressing that this speech shows that the Kremlin will now treat South Osetia and Abkhazia in a “differentiated” way, also said the prospect of any concessions by Moscow to Georgia “cannot fail to agitate Osetins both in the south and in the north” and that Moscow is sending Tskhinvali a message that “’the unification of the Osetins is not far off.’”

            That may be Moscow’s message to Tskhinvali and Vladikavkaz, but there are at least three reasons why the Russian government is unlikely to act on it even if today the Kremlin finds it useful to remind Georgia that it could take such a step and thus put even more pressure on Tbilisi to reach an accord with Moscow.

            First, any move to incorporate South Osetia into the Russian Federation would set off alarm bells both in other former Soviet republics who likely would feel threatened given some recent Russian statements about the inadequacy of Soviet-era borders and in Western capitals who likely would see such a step as a clear sign of the rebirth of Russian imperialism.

            While Western countries were outraged by Russian behavior in Georgia in August 2008, most quickly found ways to look beyond what Moscow had done in order to maintain or even expand relations. Had Moscow absorbed either Abkhazia or South Osetia, they would have found it far more difficult to “reset” their policies.

            Second, uniting the two Osetias would from Moscow’s point of view set a dangerous, even explosive precedent.  Osetins are hardly the only nation in the region divided by a border. Among the others in the North Caucasus alone are the Circassians, the Chechens, and the Ingush, to list only the three largest and most cases.

            If Moscow agreed to unite the two Osetias, leaders of all these communities would step up their demands for national reunification, something that would destabilize the North Caucasus at a time when the Russian authorities are seeking to calm things down in advance of the Sochi Olympics in February 2014.

            And third, the Kremlin has other reasons not to make such a move closer to home.  An increasing number of Russians judging from polls and demonstrations would much prefer to let the North Caucasus go its own way than to take in yet another group within the borders of the Russian Federation and make it an even larger “problem” for Russians.

            Were Vladimir Putin and the Russian leadership to agree to the absorption of South Osetia, such a step would trigger even more anti-Kremlin attitudes and actions at a time when the regime is facing a rising tide of criticism.  Indeed, such a move would probably allow Aleksey Navalny to garner even more support in opposition to Putin.

            Five years ago, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia, many observers expected Moscow to absorb South Osetia if not Abkhazia. Moscow did not do so then, and the reasons for not doing so now are even more compelling. Consequently, Tibilov’s statement almost certainly represents a diplomatic faint rather than an indication of where things are heading.

Window on Eurasia: Baltic Countries Take Another Step toward Railroad Independence

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 25 –Lithuanian railways this week signed contracts to replace Russian standard width tracks (1520 mm) with European width tracks (1435 mm) between Sestokai and Marijampole, a project that represents the latest step toward railroad independence for the Baltic countries.

            Until now, most but not all of the tracks in the Baltic countries have been Russian width, something that eases transportation between them and the east but means that trains have to shift wheels in order to move westward. But by 2020, if current EU plans are realized, the main north-south line in the Baltics will be European, not Russian width.

            That will mean that the Baltic countries will be more integrated into the European system and more independent from the Russian one, although there remain two important reasons to think that even after that change is made, it will not be as complete as some reports this week have suggested.

            On the one hand, this shift in gauge involves the north-south route and not the east-west one because the three Baltic countries and the EU are likely to continue to use the broad gauge track in that region for trade between the Russian Federation and Asia and the countries of the European Union.

            And on the other, the Russian government is pushing hard for the expansion of broad gauge tracks to Riga and into Slovakia and Austria, something that could reduce traffic and traffic revenues elsewhere and cause one or more of them to drag out the EU-backed program – which is certainly something Moscow would like to see happen.

            But whatever happens, Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian officials are likely to continue to take part the Council for Rail Transport of CIS States, a body that organizes cooperation across the region and the only major CIS initiative the Baltic states have participated in since recovering their independence in 1991.

            Yesterday, the “Railway Gazette” reported that Lithuania’s LG rail company had signed contracts to extend the European standard gauge tracks from the Polish border to Marijampole (

            The latest part of the EU’s Rail Baltica project to create a European standard gauge line through the Baltic  countries, the Lithuanian effort to build 27.5 km of new tracks an replace 28 km of Russian standard line is expected to take about two years to complete, the railway newspaper said.

            The Rail Baltica project calls for the creation of a seamless European standard roadbed from Tallinn in Estonia through Latvia and Lithuania, bypassing the Russian Federation’s Kaliningrad Oblast, to Warsaw, Poland. It is expected to cost about two billion US dollars and will be financed through the EU Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T) program.

            (The first segment of this project was in Estonia and involved a shift to the European standard width on the 66 km of track between Tartu and Valga on the Latvian border. Lithuania’s segment is scheduled to be finished in 2015, and Latvia’s upgrades completed in the same year.)

            Oddgeir Danielsen, Director of the Nordic Dimension Partnership on Transport and Logistics points out that “railway infrastructure planners need to stop [fixating] on national borders, and start to see the big picture” and argues that if they do, they will recognize the complexities of what is at bottom a political project (

            The Baltic countries, he says, use the Russian tracks to handle cargo to and from Russia and Asia, and “this is a great market benefit for them since in the railway business the money comes from cargo, not passenger traffic.” But the Rail Baltica project at least so far appears to be more about less profitable passenger links.

            That being the case, he and other experts suggest, the three Baltic countries are likely to want to retain their Russian gauge tracks on east-west routes and possibly even welcome after the Rail Baltica project is finished, the construction of a new high-speed Russian gauge track from the Russian Federation to Riga.

            They will have all the more reason to do so if Moscow is successful in building a broad gauge track as far west as Vienna, a project that would dramatically shorten transit times to and from Asia and for which Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia and Austria agreed in April 2010 to conduct a feasibility study (