The success or failure of the Sochi Olympics will be the backdrop against which Russia later addresses more significant problems, such as fixing its policy in the North Caucasus, addressing the contours of its political landscape, and developing relations with foreign countries like the U.S.
The Sochi-2014 Olympic torch relay started from Moscow on October 7, 2013, and covered 90 percent of the territory of Russia. Source: RIA Novosti
Two days before the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, the general tone of the media and blogosphere includes massive doses of pessimism, sarcasm and even accusatory rhetoric. Only the laziest journalists haven’t written or spoken critically of the Games or the preparations.
There isn’t a single aspect of the event that has not yet been covered from all possible perspectives. One may even get bored reading these repetitive arguments. In recent months, the prefixes have gone superlative. “Most expensive,” “most corrupt” and “most controversial” are top choices. Critical focus has shifted over time from “the Circassian issue” to the “inhumane treatment of guest workers” to the “crackdown on the LGBT community.”
Every high-visibility event is a headache for local residents and authorities. It causes discomfort and requires beefed-up security. Big sports contests attract millions of people and turn the eyes of the planet toward the country that hosts them.
Whether by choice, chance or circumstance, the Olympics have recently become a tool of soft power used by the rising BRICS powers – China (the 2008 Summer Olympics), South Africa (the 2010 World Football Cup), Brazil (World Football Cup 2014 and the Summer Olympics 2016) and Russia (the Winter Olympics 2014 and the World Football Cup 2018).
They all rallied hard to get it. Once they did, these “emerging powers” struggled with emerging challenges.
While the events in the first three mentioned countries have a distant impact on Eurasian security, the Winter Olympics in Sochi have become a point of attention (and to a large degree a concern) because most of the issues associated with them are sitting ducks for the critics – be it the turbulent neighborhood, the terrorist threat, the sub-tropical climate, the tremendous expenditures, relations with Georgia, and dozens of other issues.
The general critical narrative says that the Kremlin is paying a high price for the Games because it believes them to be an excellent opportunity to improve Russia’s international image and to show the rest of the world that Russia matters. Therefore, by choosing Sochi, the politically ambitious organizers are striving “to make it better than anyone else,” raise organizational standards and improve security. By opting for the toughest path, Moscow raised the international stakes to the roof and hoisted the heavy cross it carries now.
Yet in this context, the PR aspect that everyone is focusing on is just a tip of the iceberg.
Russia’s ability to handle well-known upcoming challenges in a delicate manner with style and dignity does matter. Sochi 2014 may provide the context, or backdrop, against which Russia will then attempt to deal with other, more important issues.
How strong or weak Russia emerges from its Olympic challenge will define how much legitimacy and credibility Moscow has in its further foreign policy initiatives and domestic affairs. It will help determine which political toolkit Russia will use for each problem, and how the country will seek to position itself on the global arena. These are issues that matter far more in a long run.
There are crucial challenges ahead. To name a just few: Russia’s policies in the North Caucasus, the contours of the Russian political landscape, and Russia’s relations with its neighbors and the outside world, including the U.S. These issues are likely to undergo transformations after the Olympic halo fades.
Harry Truman, 33rd President of the United States, is often quoted as saying, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” To extend the metaphor, one might say that if Russia can stand the Olympic heat, it may prove itself a top chef of international cuisine.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.