Friday, 11 January 2008

Russia’s Olympic Marathon

By Oksana Antonenko Special to Russia Profile

Putin’s Legacy May Hang on How his Government Solves the Problems in the North Caucasus

On July 7, 2007, in Guatemala City, the Olympic Committee granted an unexpected victory, giving the 2014 Winter Olympics to Russia’s little known Sochi. The Black Sea resort overtook South Korea’s Pyeongchang, the early favorite, by just four votes in the second round. The reason was simple – on the eve of the vote President Vladimir Putin flew into Guatemala and charmed the Olympic committee. According to Jean-Claude Killy, a French member of the International Olympic Committee and former ski champion, “Putin being here was very important. He worked very hard at it. He was nice. He spoke French – he never speaks French. He spoke English – he never speaks English. The Putin charisma can explain four votes.”

This victory will undoubtedly constitute a major part of Putin’s legacy. Cynics in Russia may view Russia’s Olympic project as a mere money-making opportunity for the elites and their businesses. Nationalists will view it as proof of Russia’s growing international power. Pragmatists could see it as a sign, however tentative, that the Kremlin, which has failed to achieve good foreign policy results by exercising its hard power, including its “energy weapon,” is learning how to win friends by using soft power instead. Indeed, the Olympics have the potential to reshape Russia’s image in the world, from a country associated with economic collapse, corruption, and business without rules, to a modern power with money, vision and national pride. Sadly, it also has a chance to do the exact opposite.

Olympic spotlight

In the race to change attitudes through spectacle, Russia will be following in China’s footsteps. China has invested much of its political capital in the 2008 Summer Games. It has presented the Games as a vehicle to recast China’s image abroad and showcase its infamous Peaceful Rise, which has stirred apprehension around the world. The Olympics are designed to place China firmly in the league of great international powers without making it look threatening. This meant, among other things, that China had to make concessions both in terms of its domestic and even foreign policy.

Even now, a year before the start of Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government is already feeling the heat of international pressure. Powerful international NGOs are using the Olympics, and China’s sensitivity anticipating its success, to pressure the government in Beijing to improve its human rights situation, increase freedom of the press and change its policy in Darfur. Some NGOs have branded them the “Genocide Olympics,” in the wake of Chinese unwillingness to stop genocide in Sudan and Burma. Even Steven Spielberg who was hired as an Artistic Adviser to Beijing Olympics threatened to resign if the Chinese government did not reconsider its position on the UN resolution on Darfur.

Although the official line from Beijing is that the Olympics should not be politicized, it has recognized the fact that there is a price that China could pay if its does not get the politics of the Games right. Therefore, the Chinese government has already hired a Western PR firm to make its case to international media. But more importantly, it has been forced to change policies like lifting restrictions for foreign journalists to travel in the countryside in China and, in foreign policy, by supporting the UN resolution on Darfur and issuing an uncharacteristically strongly worded statement expressing concern over a crackdown on protestors in Burma. Now China is gearing itself up for the fact that among thousands of guests travelling to Beijing, some will represent political activists who could stage protests that would be potentially embarrassing for the government.

Olympic Neighborhood

Russia’s major challenge will be handling external pressure which comes alongside the Olympics. Even some democratic states have not escaped it. In Athens, Greece came under intense pressure over its near failure to complete infrastructure projects on time. Later, the residents of Athens – seeking disprove a national stereotype – ended up with a huge Olympic bill, which they are expected to pay for years to come.

In Russia, neither the cost nor the scale of Olympic construction is expected to present any problem. The government commission headed by Semen Vainstok is showing its determination to throw a lot of money at the project, which will undoubtedly deliver spectacular facilities constructed not merely for the sake of utility, but as a matter of national pride and as a demonstration of Russia’s new wealth. Local people might bristle at the violation of property rights, but in the spirit of Russia’s new patriotism, their individual plight will not stand on the way of the “national project.” As for press freedoms and human rights, these have long been the center of discussions between Russia and the West, with few practical outcomes. If Russia’s G8 presidency is any indication, these issues, along with the overall state of Russia’s democracy, will not deter the international community from embracing Russia’s leadership once again. After all, even the Soviet Union played host to the Games in 1980.

In the regional context, however, the Sochi Olympics might constitute both a challenge and an opportunity for Russia. The games are taking place in a region that: borders on Abkhazia, one of the most protracted regional conflicts in Eurasia; is close to the North Caucasus, a region with a legacy of war, inter-ethnic conflicts and Islamic radicalization; and is on the shores of the Black Sea, which has recently become an area of growing interest and involvement from major powers and international institutions like the EU and NATO.

Russia’s Olympic strategy should not ignore these realities. If addressed strategically, they, rather than new hotels and stadiums, can become the real legacy of the Games. Conflict resolution, opening up and developing the North Caucasus and leading the region-building initiative in the Black Sea could help enhance Russia’s international profile, eliminate both internal and external security threats and make it a much more attractive partner.

If ignored or mishandled, these challenges could present a formidable obstacle for Russia’s new image-making project. In the worst case scenario, Russia’s Olympic dream would coincide with an escalation of major regional conflict, a rise in instability and inter-ethnic violence or even a major terrorist attack. Any of these would be too high of a price for any Olympic project to pay.

The strategy for preparing for Olympic Games should therefore have three important inter-related strands.


First, it should use the interest in the region and potential economic benefits from the Olympics to help advance the conflict resolution agenda in the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia. Sochi is just some 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from the border with Abkhazia, or what the international community recognizes as the Russian-Georgian border. As a result of the Georgian-Abkhazian war, the two communities are now separated and engaged in an on-going protracted conflict. At present, the peace process – including official and unofficial negotiations between the sides – is deadlocked. At the same time, the number of violent incidents involving hostage taking, intimidation and murder continues. Georgia has been accused Russia of supporting Abkhazian separatism. It wants Russian peacekeepers stationed in Abkhazia to pull out and be replaced by an international force that would, among other things, guarantee the return of more than 200,000 internally displaced Georgians. Abkhazia, on the other hand, sees Russia as the only guarantor of its survival. They view Georgia’s actions as deliberate and consistent attempts to deprive Abkhazians of their basic rights, including using force to bring the territory back under their control. The conflict has not advanced towards resolution since a ceasefire was signed over 13 years ago. Now it is facing a major test of wills in the context of forthcoming decision on Kosovo’s status, which could give the Abkhaz a new hope for recognition while making Georgia even more vulnerable and eager to prevent this from happening almost by any means. Regardless of whether the conflict remains “frozen” or escalated, Russia cannot fail to notice that its dynamic, or the lack thereof, is bound to have a direct and immediate impact on the Sochi Olympics. Hence Russia cannot merely stand aside and pretend that Abkhazia is not its problem.

In September, President Vladimir Putin addressed the question of the Abkhaz conflict in the context of the Sochi Olympics during a meeting with the Valdai Discussion Club at his residence in Sochi. He said that the resolution of this conflict will take generations and Russia will be prepared to accept the outcome. This implies that Russia is somehow a distant player, that its peacekeepers are not stationed on the Inguri River, that its tourists are not spending time at Abkhazia’s resorts and that the Olympic gold rush has not generated high demand for property as well as construction materials in Abkhazia. In other words, Abkhazia has already become an extension of Sochi’s Olympic village, and this is being done without any reference to conflict resolution that could guarantee the rights of all its residents – past and present – and give Abkhazia a real chance of international attention and investment in the context of reconciliation and peace-building efforts.

If Putin’s answer was sincere, it signals that Russian policymakers do not understand what’s at stake in Abkhazia. Russia’s attempts to exploit the legality gap in Abkhazia have translated into growing resentment among its population.

In Georgia, too, the resentment is mounting and could result in attempts to reverse what they see as Russia’s take over of Abkhazia through military action. Russia’s hands-off mercantilist approach, which demonstratively ignores realities on the ground in Abkhazia, is short-sighted, dangerous and counterproductive. Instead, Russia should think carefully about how to translate new economic opportunities into confidence-building projects, reconciliation initiatives and true development for the region. It should involve both Abkhazia and Georgian communities as well as others, such as the Armenians. In this, Russia should co-operate with or even learn from the EU experience, which has been implementing exactly such strategies in its reconstruction projects in Abkhazia. The Olympics could and should present an opportunity for genuine EU-Russia cooperation on conflict resolution.

The North Caucasus

The second component of the regional Olympic strategy is the North Caucasus. The proximity of Russia’s most unstable and underdeveloped regions to the Olympic sights is obvious, yet there is an impression that Russian officials will seek to separate the Olympic paradise from the post-war mess by constructing a mental or possibly even physical wall (more checkpoints and travel limits). It is important to understand that such separation will not be possible, even if all the troops available to the Ministry of Defense, the Interior Ministry and the secret services are charged with this task. Without correcting some of the problems in the North Caucasus, the security of the Olympics cannot be guaranteed. And if the current trend of instability, violence and corruption continues across the Northern Caucasus region as whole, the conclusion will be obvious, not only for the Russians, but for the rest of the international community as well.

Instead, the North Caucasus challenge should be seen as an opportunity for developing a new strategy and a comprehensive modernization plan for the region. This can be done only under three preconditions. First, the Olympic economic boom must be shared with the people of the North Caucasus by prioritizing their companies and workers, which would require retraining and an enhanced labor mobility scheme that would transcend ethnic boundaries, in major construction projects as well as services before and during the Games. The aims should be to generate economic projects that could provide tangible and sustainable social and economic benefits to the North Caucasus regions, particularly to its ethnic republics.

Secondly, this can be done only if the North Caucasus is finally declared an open region. The openness would mean removing limitations on travel to the region, developing and implementing new education initiatives, new tourism development projects alongside Internet and technology proliferation programs. It also means encouraging foreign investment, as well as international expertise on how to help such a vast and specific region modernize and develop, not in isolation, but within the increasingly globalized economic context. This will also require improving the capacity of regional governments to deal with these tasks as well as to implement drastic measures against corruption and the abuse of power among some regional militias.

Finally, all these regional modernization goals, and hence security for the Olympics, can be achieved only if inter-ethnic peace and tolerance become the norm in multi-cultural regions such as Krasnodar Territory. The Olympics cannot coexist with xenophobia. At present, however, the interethnic violence and anti-migrant rhetoric is increasing around the key Olympic sites, with no clear response from the government.

The Black Sea

The Olympic Games provide an opportunity to focus international attention on the Black Sea region, which remains little known in the world compared to the areas surrounding the Mediterranean or Baltic Seas. Russia’s policy has been very cautious so far in response to demands coming from some Black Sea states to develop regional cooperation and links with other institutions such as the EU.

Despite Russia’s position, the EU adopted a Black Sea synergy strategy in 2006 and has sought closer ties with the region. Other organizations are likely to follow, as will individual states whose energy supplies depend on transportation via the Black Sea. Yet, the recent tragic environmental accidents have highlighted how vulnerable the Black Sea is to potential crises. Therefore, the Olympic Games should serve as a catalyst for reconsidering Russia’s attitudes towards cooperation both within the Black Sea. The Black Sea Economic Cooperation pact (BSEC) should extend further into security matters and learn from EU and other similar regions like the Baltic Sea which have long-standing experience on how to handle similar problems.

While Russia’s previous opposition to opening up the Black Sea to outside powers and institutions could have been linked to the sense of isolation and vulnerability it has felt in the face of EU and NATO enlargement, now Russia has a chance to help reshape the regional agenda as a leader, whose Olympic projects could offer clear benefits to the region as a whole.

Russia’s victory in the contest for the Olympic Games is a clear signal that the international community has confidence in its newly acquired self-assurance and international profile. Now it is Russia’s turn to show that it can approach the task in a way that brings not only money and medals to its businessman and sportsmen, but also stability, security and development to the entire region. If this strategy is not thought through now, Russia’s Olympic dream can never be realized.

Oksana Antonenko is a Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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