Opinions - 09.01.2014 - 00:00 

Managed winter games in Russia

The terrorist attacks in Volgograd have damaged Putin’s campaign for Russian prestige. University of St. Gallen Professor Ulrich Schmid looks at the developments surrounding the managed Winter Olympics. <br/>


13 January 2014. The Olympic Games will get under way in the southern Russian city of Sochi in less than a month. Before it has even begun, this mega-event has smashed all records: it will certainly be the most expensive games ever. Russia is spending approximately US $50 billion for its two weeks of fame in February. The original budget was $12 billion – the rest of the money leaked away into an opaque quagmire of corruption and poor planning. Putin has repeatedly declared the Olympic Games to be a top-level priority: he has invested a great deal of personal prestige in the games, which will serve as a platform for demonstrating Russia’s organizational and economic strengths.

Prestige at an all-time low
The president sorely needs international recognition. Although he is seen as a victor in foreign policy – after pushing his own interests in prominent arenas such as Syria, Armenia and Ukraine – his nation’s prestige is at an all-time low. Russian intellectuals are already speaking of a new “stagnation” (a term they applied to the gerentocratically administered Soviet epoch under Brezhnev). Internationally, Putin is at risk of becoming a pariah – the German and French presidents have already declined to travel to Sochi.

However, you have to give one thing to Putin. He has an excellent sense of timing. It was sheer coincidence that the 20th anniversary of the current Russian constitution fell on 12 December 2013. Putin used the occasion to simultaneously end two prominent cases that have been repeatedly cited as evidence of political interference in Russia’s judicial system: Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot. Pardoning these prominent prisoners sends a signal that will be received beyond Russia’s borders, where it also will convey a very different meaning than the one at home.

Terror follows release

The majority of Russians sympathize with neither Khodorkovsky nor the female punk rockers. That all of them have young children is irrelevant. Khodorkovsky belongs to the much-hated class of oligarchs that became wealthy on ill-gotten gains; Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina are seen as hooligans who make fun of Russians’ religious beliefs. In the West, the amnesty is rightly seen as part of a political plot in the run-up to Sochi: no sports commentator should find ammunition to make snide observations about Russia’s detained “political prisoners” during the Winter Olympics.

Putin hadn’t reckoned on a counter-plot coming from his greatest adversaries. Naturally, the terror attacks in Volgograd were as carefully planned for the run-up to the games as the amnesty was. It is possible that there will be further attacks – not necessarily in Sochi itself, which has been turned into a fortress by security staff – but in the areas surrounding the venue. The Islamist followers of Doku Umarov are not only a challenge to the military, but also to the geopolitical identity of the region: Moscow avoids the word “Caucasus” in matters relating to the games in Sochi; instead, it uses the term “multinational Russia.”

Detour of the Olympic flame
It is an ever-present concept: the official design for the games in Sochi is a patchwork of various examples of folklore. The Olympic flame will be carried along its complicated route mainly by Russians, but also by Chechens, Nenets, Tuvinians and other ethnic minorities from across the nation. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the emphasis on multiculturalism might even pave the way for a discourse on the reintegration of the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – Sochi is a mere 40 kilometers from the border with Abkhazia.

Such propositions are diametrically opposed to the views of Doku Umarov. Precisely 100 years ago, the indigenous Circassians lost their fight for independence from the Russians. As early as last summer, Umarov released a video message threatening to attack the games, justifying action on the basis that the Olympic Games in Sochi would take place over the bones of his Muslim forefathers.

Terror undermines planned symbolism

For the terrorists, it’s all about reversing the triumphal pride of victory that permeates the entire Russian Olympic project. This is why their attack took place in Volgograd, the city previously known as Stalingrad – and to this day, a symbol of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Sochi is supposed to tie in with this military success and demonstrate the sustainability of the Russian model for a society. This is why, from the perspective of the Kremlin, the actual winner of the games is already clear: Russia. However, it remains to be seen whether a sporting event can be controlled as easily as a democracy.

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