The medal count at the 2014 Sochi Olympics will be less important than how Russia handles new instability in the North Caucasus region.
Russian World Champion in ice dancing Ilya Averbukh, left, and Olympic Champion in ice dancing Tatyana Navka present the Olympic torch for 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, in Moscow. Photo: AP
Even though the Sochi 2014 Winter Games will not begin for another six months, they have already presented Russian President Vladimir Putin with some impressive wins and some equally disturbing losses. Which of these will prove the more important seems certain to depend less on what the athletes in that competition do than how the media in both Russia and the world treat the many issues the Games have raised, most notably the danger that there could be a terrorist attack in that resort city adjoining the North Caucasus.
The wins are obvious and, to a certain extent, already in. President Putin made getting the Winter Games for Sochi a central part of his agenda. They are already paying clear dividends. A recent poll found that one of the few post-Soviet developments that Russians say gives them a sense of pride is the Sochi Olympiad, and preparations for the Games themselves have not only attracted international investment to the region, but also allowed Putin to solidify his position with key members of the elite by directing contracts to them.
And the Russian leader is certainly pleased that international media outlets and advertisers are seeking a large role at the games. For him and for many Russians, the Sochi Olympics are an indication that Russia is back.
Moreover, Putin has deftly used recent events like the Boston marathon bombing to line up international support from the United States and other countries to help ensure that the Sochi Winter Olympics will be safe. This is even more relevant, given the newest terrorist threat from the region to disrupt the 2014 Winter Olympics. This is the kind of cooperation that reinforces, at least in the minds of many, Russia’s return to the world stage.
However, the losses - some already clear and others more uncertain - may ultimately prove to be more serious not only for Putin personally but also for the Russian Federation more generally. Three of them are particularly noteworthy.
First, the decision to hold a Winter Olympics in a subtropical zone has already drawn criticism from Putin’s political opponents such as Boris Nemtsov, sparking negative reactions about what he and his government think they are doing. Stories about Russians having to store snow from this year to ensure that the competitions can take place next year are the kind of media story that everyone can understand.
The 2014 Sochi Olympic Games are expected to be the most expensive. Source: Mikhail Mordasov
Second, Russia is spending vastly more on these games than any previous Olympic host. Sochi simply did not have the necessary facilities to host such an international event, and estimates are that Moscow will have spent more than 50 billion U.S. dollars on it when all the costs are added up, some 12 times more than Beijing spent on its recent coming out on the world Olympic stage. The cost guarantees that Russian taxpayers, who will pick up the tab, are not getting everything they thought they were paying for at a time when they have many unmet needs. Not surprisingly, Putin’s opponents are playing that up as well.
And third, the games have attracted media attention to continued instability in the North Caucasus. President Putin has pledged to make these the safest Olympics in history. But Russian and Western coverage has focused on the reality that the North Caucasus is still a violent place and one from which terrorist threats have emanated – and continue to emanate.
The Boston marathon attack may have helped Putin build bridges with other governments, but they are a constant reminder that such attacks could happen again. Moscow is doing what it can to impose order on the region, especially and most prominently in Dagestan, and is putting in place an enormous security apparatus. However, each of these positive steps has the effect of calling attention to what Moscow has not achieved: a situation in which no one in the North Caucasus would be planning to gain attention by launching an attack on the Winter Olympics.
Another issue that has attracted widespread media attention involves an entity few people had heard of before the Games were announced. This is the Circassian nation, which includes a million in the North Caucasus and more than five million in Turkey, and other parts of the Middle East. They oppose the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics because it is slated to take place at exactly the place, where 150 years ago, the tsarist authorities expelled their ancestors from the North Caucasus to the Ottoman Empire at the port of Sochi.
Many died in the process, and Circassians today argue that it is wrong to hold any athletics competition on the site of a genocide. Moscow, not surprisingly, rejects that characterization, but it is finding it far more difficult to counter the Circassian arguments and to prevent them from reminding others about Russia’s division of that nation.
Just how these wins and losses add up for Putin and for Russia is difficult to predict this far in advance, but one thing is already certain: They - and not the medal count - is what the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics are going to be remembered for.