The Sochi Olympic Games shed light on the way Vladimir Putin’s Russia functions. Putin himself made the decision to apply for and invest in the Olympic Games. The preparations were carried out in a typically Russian way, giving insight into the power vertical in the country. To build the Olympic facilities, a state company, Olympstroi, was established. Putin’s close ally, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, was put in charge of construction. And the bill will be paid by Russian state companies and by the government. From the very beginning, the games were conceived as a top-down process: Russian society was never seriously involved in the decision to hold the games or the preparation for the event.
The absence of the Russian people became even more obvious during the construction in Sochi. Property was expropriated, often without proper compensation. Much of the infrastructure for the games was built in the Sochi National Park, a disaster for the environment and for Sochi locals. Local businesses have not benefited from the event; instead, the profits have gone to major Russian or international companies. A large part of the colossal $50 billion spend was lost through corruption. Because of the security situation in the Northern Caucasus, the Olympic Games are more or less cut off from the rest of the country. It is difficult to travel to Sochi and extraordinary security measures have been put in place. Since a terrorist attack would undermine Putin’s authority, the president believes that ensuring security is much more important than involving Russian society or even the people of the North Caucasus in the games. Putin is first and foremost out for prestige, so he is not concerned about the cost or the people involved.
Europe and the West’s reaction has also been typical: jokes about toilets (even if some the pictures spreading across the internet are from Austria, not from Sochi), unfinished hotels, massive corruption everywhere. Alongside all the Western Schadenfreude, a debate has opened up about the morality of travelling to a country that oppresses sexual minorities and abuses human rights. But did the absence of Western leaders from the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 help Tibet? Will their absence this time help Russian environmentalists or human rights activists?
However, there is another way to read the Sochi Games. Besides prestige, Putin wants Russia to be seen as a country that can deliver a successful Olympic Games even under difficult conditions. And Russia has delivered, even if the costs were high. Putin also wants Russia to be recognised as an equal partner with the West; Sochi reflects that old post-Soviet Russian desire to be accepted as part of the international community. Once again, Europe and the West have missed out on an opportunity to take advantage of the interests of Russian elites to build cooperation, and to give Russian elites the impression that we take their interests seriously. Russia’s leadership and society sees that Europe does not see Russia as an equal partner, but instead considers it a backward country that should be isolated.
Europe has again ignored an opportunity to show Russia that it is not only interested in Russian weaknesses.
Leading European politicians, including Germany’s President Joachim Gauck, wanted to send a signal by not travelling to Sochi – but the message to the Russian people is that the West has no interest in communication. European leaders should have used the games to open a discussion with Russian officials and civil society about what went wrong and what went right – and yes, some things went right. Why did the German president not travel to Sochi and talk with environmental activists about ecological destruction? Why did other European leaders not take the chance to speak with Putin about Russian tactics in the North Caucasus, which only serve to strengthen the cycle of violence? Why is the European approach towards Russia so focused on Putin and what he did wrong? Could Europe not have used Sochi to communicate with Russia rather than to talk about Russia and perpetuate stereotypes?
Europe has again ignored an opportunity to show Russia that it is not only interested in Russian weaknesses. It should have made it clear that it takes Russia seriously as an important neighbour with whom it often disagrees, but with whom it is prepared to cooperate where possible. Even worse, all the discussion about Russian failures and the possible isolation of the regime just strengthens Putin’s position. This is exactly what he wants. Russian society sees that Europe and the West are unwilling to take Russia seriously, instead propagating often invalid stereotypes and refusing to address the reality of a modern Russia. This kind of thinking will only lead to more isolation – and more Putinism.
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