This January Russia Direct published a special report dedicated to the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Contributing author Ivan Timofeev, who is also the program director at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), spoke with Russia Direct about Sochi’s impact on Russia’s image abroad, and what could keep the country from enjoying future benefits from hosting the Games.   

 To what extent will Russia benefit from the Sochi Olympics. Photo: Getty Images / Photobank

As the 2014 Winter Olympics kick off in the Black Sea coastal resort of Sochi amid controversy over the city’s readiness and the cost of the Games, Russia Direct spoke with Ivan Timofeev, program director at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), to learn how the event might influence Russia’s image abroad.

Timofeev believes Russia will benefit from hosting the Games in the long run if it can use new infrastructure to bring long-term economic gain, especially from tourism. Failure to do so will make any benefits short-lived, Timofeev says.

Video by Pavel Inzhelevsky

Russia Direct: In what way is Russia different from previous nations that have hosted the Winter Olympics?

Ivan Timofeev:  For Russia, the Olympic challenge is much more complex than it was for countries that hosted the Games in previous years. This is a complex task for Russia due to at least three reasons. First, the image of Russia is still quite contradictory abroad. So Russia is by the task of improvement of its external image. That was not actually the problem for Italy, Canada, or the U.S.

After the Cold War, the image of Russia remains quite controversial. It is an image of extremes. The Games provide us a chance to improve, at least a bit, our image abroad. This is quite a tricky task.

The second challenge is the foreign policy challenge because the Olympic games are a big international event. Naturally, it is a part of international politics in terms of soft power, in terms of public diplomacy, etc. You name it.

Again, Russia’s role in the world is quite complex. Russia is getting back to the club of great powers, in a good sense. The international context of these games is very important for Russia. If you compare the context of the Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980, you’ll understand what I mean. At that time the international environment was much less comfortable for the Soviet Union than for Russia now. This time the situation is better but still there are challenges. It was a challenge for Russian diplomacy to provide comfortable foreign policy conditions for these games.

The third challenge is a long-term challenge. It is the challenge of developing the Krasnodarsky Region, where Sochi is situated. For Russia, this is not a one-event project. This is a long-term task of regional development. It is the development of the entire Caucasian region. If Russia manages to make Sochi a globally attractive city, the task of the Olympics will be fulfilled. The Olympic games are, in this sense, only the first step in the long road toward making this region globally attractive of this transition from the region of challenges to the region of opportunities for the world.

RD:  Let’s go back to the idea of Russia’s image before the Olympics. Late last year, President Vladimir Putin released former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot’s members from prison. Many say this was done specifically before the Olympics to improve Russia’s image abroad. Why is it so important for Russia to improve its image right before the Olympics?     

I. T.: I won’t sign on to the idea that Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot were released just for the sake of the Olympic games and for the Olympic image. Yes, improving Russia’s image is an important task, yet it’s constantly important task. It is not related just to the Olympic image. I wouldn’t be so focused on this correlation between Khodorkovsky’s and Pussy Riot’s release and the Olympic games. This is a part of the Russian political process, which is partly related to Olympics.

RD: How will the image of Russia change after the Sochi Olympics?

I.T.: Again, it will depend on the future prospects of the development of the region. If the Olympic Games stimulate the development processes, and if the city of Sochi becomes a center of international tourism, if the whole region benefits from economic processes and development, then the image of Russia abroad will naturally change for the better. And, of course, If Russian journalists and Russian press promote the real situation abroad properly.

However, if we get white elephants after these games, if this huge infrastructure is not utilized after the games, if we fail to utilize it for the sake of Russian sports, then, we will not benefit at all, no matter how good the publicity may be. It is clear that the image impact of these games will be closely correlated with the prospects of the development for the region, the economic development and social impact of these games on the region. 

RD: You also write that the Olympics will be a symbol of how relations between Russia and the world have changed over the last decade. Can you elaborate on this idea?

I.T.:  In my view, to answer this question one needs to look at the articles and books about Russia that were published in the 1990s. For instance, take the forecast of the American National Intelligence Council, which published scenarios for the future development of different countries. In the end of the 1990s, analysts looking at Russia were very negative about the future. They thought Russia was an empty spot of the map, Russia a fragile state. At that point in time, they were right probably.

But, apparently, Russia returned. Russia demonstrated significant economic growth and became confident on the international arena. And what has been even more important is that Russia’s international behavior has not been similar to that of the Soviet Union.

Yes, Russia returned to the club, to the big game. It returned as a partner, not as a foe. Of course, there are contradictions with other partners. Some of our interests do not intersect. This is natural for international politics. This is natural for other countries.

I would stress two fundamental features of the international context. First, Russia is quite confident in the international arena, and it has the potential to bolster this confidence. Second, Russia’s interactions with its international partners are not a zero-sum game. It’s not a zero-sum game, but rather something else. This is a very important point of context, I think.            

Ivan Timofeev is program director at Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and associate professor at Moscow Institute of International Relations (MGIMO).

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