Vladimir Putin’s Russia successfully bid for the 2014 Winter Games, and subsequently spent tens of billions of dollars to bring them about, because it wanted to show the world how far the country has come since the end of Communism. So far, the experience has been a fair bit more revealing than Mr. Putin probably would have liked. For all its modernizations and its pretense of embracing free markets, the Russia on view in the weeks before the opening ceremony is a repressive, violent and intolerant country that is also now in the midst of a terrorism crisis. Mr. Putin, it seems, is getting the Olympic Games he deserves.
The latest setback came on Monday in the form of a video purporting to show the two young men who were behind recent suicide bombings in Volgograd that killed more than 30 people. The two doomed men boast to Mr. Putin that “we have prepared a ... present for you, for you and all those tourists who will come over” to the Sochi games. The Volgograd bombings had forced the Russians to tighten security measures that were already stringent; the threat made in the video, posted by an Islamic terrorist group in Dagestan, will increase the tension and the security in Sochi to a degree that will make the two main sports venues feel like military encampments in hostile territory.
Since the video’s appearance, Mr. Putin has vowed to “do whatever it takes” to protect the Games and the visitors they were designed to impress. Of that there can be no doubt. The Russian President has a habit of doing what it takes, and then some. He is known for his ruthlessness and his indifference to the international outrage his actions provoke. Mr. Putin has been waging a viciously cruel anti-terrorism campaign in the republics of Chechnya and Dagestan, where government forces are accused by human rights groups, as well as the European Court of Human Rights, of being complicit in the torture and disappearances of thousands of people. Mr. Putin installed an ally, Ramzan Kadyrov, as President of Chechnya, and turned a blind eye as Mr. Kadyrov turned the republic into an Islamic state that forces women to wear headscarves – an act that violates Russian law and has led to attacks on women with uncovered heads.
And then there are the excesses that Russia has gone to, to pay for the Games. It’s been another case of Putin overkill. Last year, the state media service RIA Novosti said the Olympics were costing US$50-billion. That’s not only many times the budget of the Vancouver Games of four years ago, it’s more expensive than the Beijing Olympics, which until now held the record as the most expensive sporting event, ever. Sochi has led to a gross misdirection of the country’s limited resources. The choice Mr. Putin has made is particularly illogical given that Russia, for all its size and oil wealth, still has an economy barely larger than Canada’s, despite having four times as many people. The average Russian has a considerably lower income than a Canadian. There’s widespread poverty. As one way of showing how far behind its more developed European neighbours Russia still is, a Russian’s life expectancy is only 70 years – that’s more than a decade shorter than a Canadian. Remarkably, Russia has fewer citizens today than it did in the early 1990s.
What would Canadians say if their governments poured $50-billion into a vanity project? They’d protest. They’d speak out. And they’d vote against the people who wasted their money. That won’t be happening much in Russia.
Since Mr. Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, the country at large has brought in a series of draconian laws that, as Human Rights Watch tallies up, “place restrictions on public assemblies, re-criminalize libel, criminalize religious insult, introduce additional restrictions on Internet content, expand the definition of treason, and... ban ‘propaganda’ for ‘non-traditional sexual relations.’”
The imprisonment of the members of the band Pussy Riot (and their cynical release just prior to the Games), as well as the government’s active repression of the LGBT community, are the most visible examples of an autocratic regime that controls the lives of its citizens to a degree not far removed from the era when the last Olympic Games were held in Russia, in 1980. Communism is officially dead, but the state led by Mr. Putin has preserved and resurrected many of its worst characteristics.
Add to this shameful litany the large-scale exploitation of migrant workers who helped build the venues and infrastructure of the Games. There are numerous reports of abuse of vulnerable workers by Russian companies, including documented cases of non-payment of wages. Not only will visitors to the Games be surrounded by soldiers and required to pass through endless security checks, they may well end up watching events in arenas built by what amounts to slave labour.
Russia today is Mr. Putin’s Russia. The Olympic Games are his Games. They are testament to his ambitions, and also to his abundant failings.