Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Ten Reasons -- And Counting -- Not to Go to Sochi

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 15 – A month ago, after the German president announced that he would not attend the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympiad, Yuliya Smirnova, who writes regularly on Russia for “Die Zeit” published a list of “Ten Reasons Not to Go to Sochi.”  Since then, support for each of these has increased, and additional ones have come to the fore.

            Smirnova’s enumeration nonetheless remains a useful checklist of the problems associated with the Sochi Games that all people of good will should be concerned about.  Below is that list, as summarized on, together with some more recent developments that add weight to her arguments (

            First, as she points out, many are horrified by the implications of Russia’s new law banning “propaganda” of homosexuality to children.  While President Vladimir Putin insists that it won’t affect visitors to Sochi, the new law has in fact opened a wave of anti-gay violence in the Russian Federation. Staying away from Sochi is a useful means of protesting that.

            Second, Smirnova says, is the law treating Russian NGOs which get some funding from abroad as “foreign agents.”  As she points out “No one wants to call himself that because in Russia already from Soviet times, this term is associated with the words spy and wrecker.” In the last month, this crackdown has continued, violating Russia’s promises to Europe.

            Third, under Putin, freedom of the press has been increasingly restricted.  According to Reporters without Frontiers, Russia now ranks 148th in terms of media freedom. The situation has gotten even worse in recent weeks with Moscow seeking to impose tight controls over the blogosphere and refusing to give a visa to David Satter, the distinguished American journalist.

            Fourth, the Sochi Games have not only been the most expensive in history but also the most corrupt.  Russian activists like Boris Nemtsov last summer suggested than one-third of the 50 plus billion US dollars Moscow has spent went into the pockets of oligarchs and officials. Last week, an IOC member admitted almost as much.

            Fifth, Moscow’s approach to its neighbors like Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine has been anything but that of an international good citizen. The Russian government has continued to throw its weight around and demands that these countries and the world community recognize its right to do so.  That has only intensified over the last weeks.

            Sixth, according to Smirnova, violence in the North Caucasus continues as does the threat of terrorist actions at or at least during the Olympiad.  Since mid-Decembeer, there have been terrorist actions in Volgograd and Stavropol, and despite unprecedented security efforts, few experts think Moscow will be in a position to block all moves by Islamist groups.

Seventh, Smirnova points to Moscow’s restrictions on public meetings by opposition groups and a ban on protests at Sochi. Since December, Russian officials have continued to ban protests, most recently by a group in Moscow which sought to demonstrate against xenophobia, but Putin has gotten credit for lifting a total ban on protests at Sochi.

In fact, Putin’s actions do not restore the rights Russians are supposed to enjoy under the constitution. In the name of security, his government will restrict any protests to a place far removed from the competition, and anyone who wants to engage in protest will have to get permission from the FSB, an unlikely possibility in the best of circumstances.

Eighth, as Smirnova notes, the Putin regime has imposed almost total control over the courts, employing the telephone justice of Soviet times to give the appearance of legality to the political use of the court system against anyone who opposes the Kremlin.  That situation has continued, even though Putin got a boost when he released a small fraction of the country’s political prisoners.

Ninth, Smirnova observes that Russia’s penal system does not correspond to international standards either in terms of safety or hygiene. Those shortcomings have been reported more often in recent days by some of those released by Putin as part of his pre-Sochi public relations effort.

And tenth, she reports, there is increasing evidence of the use by Russian officials of torture and forced confessions, a violation of international law and of Moscow’s commitments. Evidence of these violations of human rights has continued to mount over the last weeks, again in many cases precisely because of the amnesty and pardons Putin extended.

            What is disturbing about Smirnova’s list is not its length, but its incompleteness. There are many other reasons that no political figure should attend the Sochi Games because of Moscow’s behavior and that if athletes do take part, they should be supported by their own governments if they want to protest what the Russians are doing.

            Among these other reasons, three are especially compelling: Russia’s destruction of the environment and its attempts to conceal what it is doing in that sector, its selection of Sochi for the Games despite the fact that that city was the site of a genocide conducted against the Circassians 150 years ago, and the killing of homeless animals despite Russian promises not to.

            Preparation for the Sochi Olympiad has led to widespread environmental destruction of one of the most beautiful and fragile regions of the North Caucasus. Individuals and groups like Ecological Watch on the North Caucasus which have tried to document that have been harassed, and their leaders arrested and sentenced to prison, including in the last several weeks.

            The Circassian case against Sochi has been made by Circassians in the region and abroad since the IOC awarded Russia the games.  It has taken on added urgency because Moscow has restricted the return of Circassians to their homeland from war-torn Syria and because Olympic organizers have scheduled the closing ceremony on the anniversary of Stalin’s deportation of peoples from the North Caucasus.

            And most recently, and again despite promises not to do so, Sochi residents report that Russian officials are rounding up and killing homeless animals in the city.  Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov had promised to build a pound, but he hasn’t and the killings of innocent animals appear to be increasing (

            The case for a boycott of the Sochi Games by senior officials of other countries has always been compelling, even if one involving athletes has been disputed.  What is truly appalling is that Putin and his regime have made this case stronger in recent weeks, even as they have denounced those Western leaders who have already made the decision not to go.

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