Sunday, February 23, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Overshadowing Sochi

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 23 – Many were afraid that a terrorist incident would overshadow the Sochi Olympiad. Fortunately, that has not happened, although the absence of such an incident is hardly sufficient to declare Sochi a success for Putin. That is because three other developments have cast dark shadows on what he had hoped would be a celebration of Russia and his rule.

            First among these are the events in Ukraine.  Not only did the drama of the contest between the Ukrainian people and its Moscow-backed authoritarian regime capture the attention of the world, driving coverage of the Olympics off the front pages and after the first commercial, but the heroism of the Ukrainian people redefined how people will view the Olympics.

            As Vitaly Portnikov points out, “the Moscow Olympiad of 1980 will forever remain overshadowed by the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the boycott, and the collapse of détente.”  Now, it is clear that “the Sochi Olympiad [already] shares the fate of the Moscow one” because of what has taken place in Ukraine (

            The Ukrainian story is not over, although one hopes that Putin will not follow Brezhnev in using military force to seize Crimea, dismember Ukraine, or re-subordinate the Ukrainian people to Moscow’s dictates. Before he does, he should remember the ways in which those actions led directly to the end of the USSR.

            But even if Putin is restrained by the Ukrainian people, by Western pressure, and by concerns about what such actions would mean to the Russian people and the Russian Federation, he has done enough to guarantee that in the minds of most people, Sochi and Ukraine will be forever linked.

            The second shadow on Putin’s parade was the mass of reporting on the nature of his system, its corruption, venality, authoritarianism, suppression of dissent, incompetence, dishonesty, and reactionary attitudes on gays, to name but a few of the stories that attracted the most attention.

            Putin clearly believed that the world would follow his script and see only what he wanted it to see. That the “bread and circuses” he was putting out for television would be enough. But he failed to understand that by inviting attention from journalists he could not threaten or otherwise control, he was going to lose control of the situation. 

            He and his aides made many mistakes in this regard, but perhaps the worst was inviting thousands of journalists to show up for the games a week before the competition had started and when most of the hotels and other facilities were far from ready.  There are other ways to paint a target on oneself but perhaps none more self-destruction. 

            Moreover, and this is what Putin clearly has not understood, few journalists were going to accept his version of reality that there may have been small “shortcomings” in Sochi but that his Russia is just fine.  Instead, they were going to explore the ways in which what has gone wrong in the Sochi project reflects what is wrong with Putin’s regime.

            That is all the more the case because increasingly the Russian people are reaching the same conclusion.  Putin can spend billions for a show, but their pensions are being cut, their schools and hospitals are being closed, and their infrastructure is becoming worse. That a Russian admiral had to commit suicide because he couldn’t get pain medicine is symbolic.

            As Putin appears to have forgotten, Mikhail Gorbachev began his rise to power by denouncing “gigantist” projects of the kind that Putin seems committed to.  Gorbachev made many mistakes, but this wasn’t one of them: At a minimum, his objections to such projects killed Siberian river diversion which would have destroyed the Russian environment.

            And the third shadow, albeit one that has still not attracted as much attention as the other two but that is certain to prove to be at least as important, involves the Circassians.  Angry that Putin should organize an Olympics at the site where Russian forces killed and expelled their ancestors and on the 150th anniversary of that genocide to boot, the half million Circassians who remain in the North Caucasus and the more than six million abroad have been newly energized.

            Only two or three years ago, few in the world had heard of the Circassians and their sad fate at the hand of the Russian state, and many Circassians both in their homeland and in the diaspora felt that they had been fated to assimilate and disappear from the map of history and humanity.

            But Sochi changed all that: Now Circassians are a real national movement.  And they are because of Putin’s policies.  Had he made different decisions or even the most minimal concessions, many Circassians might have concluded that they could find a place for themselves in the Russia of the future.

            Now, that is most unlikely.  The Circassians have become a nation while Putin has been putting on a show.  This week, Putin’s police have been rounding up and torturing some of the most active Circassians in the North Caucasus. In his lights, that will be enough to stop the Circassians in their tracks.  He could not be more wrong.

            Some of the Circassians now being tortured in Russian jails are singing the songs of their heroic ancestors ( Their actions recall those of the Lithuanians who sang a hymn after Soviet soldiers shot and killed some of their number at the Vilnius television tower on January 13, 1991.

            Eight months after that, Lithuania recovered its de facto independence. And four months after that, the Soviet Union was no more.  Whether events will happen with equal speed during this round remains to be seen, but beyond doubt, the Putin Games are going to be remembered as a triggering event and not as the celebration of a new stability he had hoped.

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