In early 2013 we attend the Skating Championships in the new Olympic Stadium. The sports journalists, athletes and managers present look around in disbelief. Building materials still cover the high-tech rink. Outside, the Olympic site is a mud pit. Hotels are run-down and poorly located and it seems impossible to find a normal meal. The Russian chansons, charming sanatoria and family hotels have all been swept off the table by this sporting elite. The Olympic legacy is one of the key reasons to award the Games to a region and one of the most important arguments to defend them. The 2008 Games in Beijing, China are – it becomes apparent this evening from conversations with the Dutch Olympic Committee – regarded as a success, both for the way in which China opened itself up to the world and the way in which human rights issues were addressed. The mass relocation of residents and critics of the Games and increasing censorship since are conveniently ignored.
Russia expects positive long-term socio-economic changes.
It remains to be seen what Sochi’s legacy will be. The website of the Organising Committee speaks enthusiastically of the tangible and intangible legacy of the Games, including positive long-term socio-economic changes. Sochi 2014 will be an example of corporate, cultural and ecological governance that Russians will remember for years to come, according to the site. The Organising Committee also points to the stadiums, some of which can be dismantled and erected in other parts of Russia. The Olympic Coastal Cluster will become a Formula 1 race track and the remaining ice rinks will be used as convention centres. The venue for the opening ceremony will host the FIFA World Cup in 2018.
Investment in Russia
Despite criticism from opposition politicians such as Boris Nemtsov, who has accused the Russian government and oligarchs of creaming off $30 billion of the $50 billion spent on the Games, Putin still stands behind his project, as he did in 2007. The south of Russia is now more attractive, he said in early September. Russians should holiday in Russia again, not Turkey or beyond. Moreover, he said, a host of sporting events held here in the future will keep Sochi and Russia firmly on the map. The money has been well spent, he defended the exorbitant price tag and allegations of corruption.
Yet activists in Sochi question the Games' legacy. They point to polluted rivers, uncontrolled landfills, dwindling nature reserves in the mountains, sewage systems that do not work properly and green energy that is not as green as promised.
A tumultuous start
2013 was not the dream year the Organising Committee had hoped for. The test events were officially successful, but behind the scenes disbelief prevailed about the chaotic state of the preparations. In mid-2013, many hotels were still not finished. Earlier that year the scene described in chapter V took place, when Akhmed Bilalov – who was later fired – was publicly scolded by Putin for the construction delays and soaring costs. According to reports by the security forces, a growing number of Caucasians are being trained and fighting in the Syrian civil war. Other reports on Kavkaz Center, the mouthpiece for Islamic resistance groups, claim that they are being urged to return to the Caucasus to fight their own war at home. It is one of the reasons that Putin gives for his continued loyalty to the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Assads opponents are the same terrorists fighting Russia in the Caucasus, he says.
The anti-gay propaganda law
They had been creeping into provincial Russian cities for years: conservative new laws primarily targeting homosexuality and homosexuals. In 2013, a year before reborn Russia was due to present itself to the world, the laws reached the capital. In late June, Putin put his name to a bill that makes it illegal to spread information about non-traditional sexual behaviour to minors. The laws are in keeping with the conservative-nationalist leanings of Putin’s government and the vague wording makes them widely applicable. Russia's unifying element is increasingly being sought in Christianity, the Russian Orthodox Church and its moral values. But this is the first law that – potentially – discriminates against an entire social group. That is not the case with human rights violations in the Caucasus or large-scale corruption cases. Although certainly significant, they do not specifically and legally target a single group of people. Led by organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, many countries have unleashed a storm of protest. Putin's regime, all too often regarded with suspicion, had finally crossed a moral line. Russia initially struggled to explain the policy. That this was even necessary is remarkable. But the vague wording of the laws and the fact that a large enough number of gay athletes, fans and other supporters are likely to visit Sochi for the Olympics, the international community and the IOC needed assurances. Was their safety guaranteed? The arrest of four Dutch documentary makers in Murmansk made it clear that this was not necessarily not the case. Russia began to backpedal. Senior officials promised the IOC that the Games would not be affected. But the Sports Minister, Vitaly Mutko, soon put a spanner in the works by saying that athletes and visitors would have to respect local laws. In an official letter, Russia eventually promised the IOC that no one would be discriminated against during the Games, in accordance with the Olympic Charter. Within weeks, however, Putin had declared Sochi to be a demonstration-free zone, with the exception of a few areas.
In August 2013, Putin signed a presidential decree aimed at eliminating every major threat to his Games. The decree prohibits demonstrations against the regime, laws or human rights violations, making it difficult or impossible for them to tarnish Putin’s private project. In addition, Sochi has become a fortress. The border with Abkhazia has been closed to all but registered vehicles. This effectively prevents Abkhazia from benefiting in any way from the Games. It is virtually impossible for tourists to visit Abkhazia for the day, while Abkhazians in turn are more or less trapped in their country. The only way they can be certain of getting to Sochi is on foot. In the North Caucasus, the military security zone extends to the border with Kabardino-Balkaria, which will be closely guarded. Far into the mountains around Sochi a ‘restricted zone’ has been imposed, where people and vehicles are subject to stringent controls and possible restrictions.
Since we started The Sochi Project in the autumn of 2008, we have said to everyone who has heard our story and is astonished to find out that the Olympics are being organised in this region, that everything is bound to turn out fine. More than that, they will undoubtedly be the most glamorous Games ever. Although there may be a bridge somewhere held together with sticky tape, and visitors will likely witness plenty of hilarious scenes in Sochi's restaurants and service industry – as any visitor to Russia will recognise – the Games will go on.
Sochi is Putin's own Potemkin village.
By then, Sochi will have been transformed from a somewhat neglected Soviet resort into Putin's own Potemkin village, a glittering array of high-tech stadiums that serve the greater glory and honour of Putin's 15-year reign. The 2014 Olympics are the most expensive in history, staged on the doorstep of a violent and impoverished hinterland. But that will be kept carefully out of sight. The Russia presented to visitors, athletes and television viewers will be the folkloric Russia of crystal-clear rivers, wooden dachas, English-speaking girls in headscarves with baskets of blueberries and raspberries, and the Russia of Putin and the oligarchs, where everything gleams with a veneer of wealth and modernity. That opens the door to a much broader discussion about Russia in 2014 and how the decision was ever made to hold the Games here. It may be too late to point fingers anyway, if one considers sporting events such as Beijing 2008, Argentina 1978 and Berlin 1936. Even so, at the end of eight chapters, it seems fitting to sum up the peculiarity of this choice. May they be great Olympics for the athletes, but let’s not forget that Games like these contradict the values for which the Olympics and the IOC claim to stand: in the true spirit of sportsmanship.
The Winter Olympics in Sochi will be the most expensive ever. Not only because they are being held in a subtropical resort where, until recently, there were no IOC/Olympic-approved facilities and everything had to be built from scratch, but also because these Olympics are the product of an infinitely corrupt economy. With few exceptions, a handful of Putin's cronies are the only ones to have benefited from the event.
These Olympics are the product of an infinitely corrupt economy.
The Olympics were largely built by workers imported from Central Asia, who were subjected to low wages, no contracts and appalling conditions. Numerous protests have broken out in recent years and international inspections have been conducted, but in most cases the attitude was: for every troublesome employee, there are two others who will keep their mouths shut. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch published a dramatic report on the subject.
The Olympics have been built in a resort where brute force (intervention by police and security forces) has been used to establish landfills in vulnerable, protected areas. Rivers have been diverted or polluted and ski resorts have been built in UNESCO World Heritage sites. Greenpeace has regularly sounded the alarm. The Caucasus is still incredibly clean and unspoilt compared to the Alps, for example, but the damage has been done. The Organising Committee agreed to concessions after the UN environmental organisation UNEP made recommendations.
The Olympics are being staged on the edge of a conflict zone: Abkhazia. Since Sochi was awarded the Games in 2007, Russia has taken steps to ensure that Abkhazia is no longer a conflict zone but a country recognised by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Vanuatu and potentially Tuvalu (following the August War between Russia and Georgia in 2008). In the eyes of the UN, however, Abkhazia is still a province of Georgia and a diplomatic solution seems a long way off. The border with Georgia is stable, thanks to a large Russian military force. But internally Abkhazia is less peaceful. Political and professional assassinations are commonplace.
The Olympics are being organised on the edge of another conflict zone: the North Caucasus, a chain of seven autonomous republics within the Russian Federation. The North Caucasus has never been peaceful under Russian rule. Read Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy and then a modern Russian such as Babchenko. Russia has done everything in its power to subdue the region: relocating entire peoples to Turkey, Kazakhstan and even further afield, attempting to colonise and repopulate the region with Cossacks and Georgians, bribing or killing local leaders, destroying an entire republic as in the two Chechen wars, and yet it has never been peaceful. Remember those attacks in Moscow? Beslan? Vladikavkaz? They were all instigated by separatist groups from the North Caucasus. The security operation around Sochi 2014 is expected to cost €2.5 billion. Hardly surprising, given the many separatists and insurgents on the other side of the mountains who would like nothing better than to disrupt Putin's party. Incidentally, both the Russian FSB and the US have warned of North Caucasians fighting for the rebels in Syria who may be inclined to try out their combat skills on the home front.
In the same North Caucasus, the human rights situation is deplorable. Cases from the North Caucasus are overwhelming the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Stories abound of disappearances, murders by (local) security forces, torture, unfair trials, nepotism and corruption. Entire villages in republics such as Chechnya have been rebuilt with money from the fines that Strasbourg has imposed on Moscow for these abuses. Federal and local security forces are virtually omnipotent in a region where large areas are under an almost permanent KTO (counter-terrorism regime, a sort of state of emergency), which ignore human rights anyway.
In recent years, another group has fought to boycott the Olympics in Sochi. They can be found on Facebook under No Sochi 2014. They claim that it was on the site of the Games that the Russians murdered the Circassian people in what they call the forgotten Circassian genocide of 1864. Indeed near Krasnaya Polyana, where the ski events will be held, a monument commemorates the Russian victory over the Circassians and thus Russian victory in the Caucasian War. In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands of Caucasians, including the Circassians, were killed or expelled to the Ottoman Empire where they now make up a fairly powerful diaspora in countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Israel, Egypt and Libya.
In Russia, voices of dissent are always silenced. Comparisons with the Beijing Olympics in 2008 are not hard to find. The media have more latitude here than in China, but only marginally so. Countless lawyers, human rights activists and journalists have died under dubious circumstances or were simply murdered in broad daylight. Remember Natalia Estemirova, Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasia Baburova and Hadzhimurad Kemalov. Pussy Riot, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Aleksej Navalny were not the only ones sentenced to forced labour following a political trial. Russia is, according to the title of a famous book about Putin, a virtual democracy, an authoritarian regime that uses quasi-democratic means to gain legitimacy.
Enough has been written about the anti-gay propaganda law, including the particularly eloquent plea by Stephen Fry. The comparison he draws with the Nazi regime is absurd, but since the introduction of the vaguely worded, broadly interpretable law, several local officials, politicians, prosecutors and, most visibly, extremist groups have successfully implemented the laws. Moreover, this law is discriminatory and goal-oriented, in contrast to the random chaos and misery Russians can encounter as a result of exploitation, corruption, violence, political trials or being born in the North Caucasus.
The Games become the anniversary party of Putin's 15-year reign.
The Olympics are Putin's private project. Like a modern Sun King, he has overseen their organisation and construction. He personally brought the Games to Russia. "The Olympic Family is going to feel at home in Sochi," he claimed during his speech to the IOC in 2007. Opponents of his regime, at home and abroad, find in his words reason for a boycott of the Games, which have become the anniversary party of Putin's 15-year reign. Under his leadership, Russia has risen from the ashes of the Soviet Union and the turbulent 1990s, but threatens instead to become a repressive regime, where the country’s billions of petrodollars largely stay in the hands of a few. Potemkin village Sochi will do little to change that, except to awaken momentary feelings of national pride. The contrasts between Sochi and Moscow and the North Caucasus and Russia's many other rural regions remain vast. As someone from Krasny Vostok (chapter III) said, "Imagine if they had divided those $50 billion between everyone in the Russian Federation. It wouldn't have been much, but it would have been the start."