The Kremlin is doing itself no favors in attracting negative attention and enflaming external critics in its preparations to host the 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi. The appearance of democratic institutions, pseudo-elections, and elements of press freedom have created a democratic façade that has long masked the Putin authoritarian model. But with all eyes now on the host country, a sporting event that was supposed showcase a modern and dynamic Russia has drawn international attention to the injustices of its crony capitalist system and provides an unforeseen opportunity for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to meaningfully enforce the human rights principles embodied by the Olympic games.
At a price tag of over $50 billion, the Sochi 2014 Games will be the most expensive in history. The transformation of Sochi from a secluded winter resort on the Black Sea to an Olympic host city and premier winter sports destination also comes with dire social costs at the expense of migrant workers, an already tabooed population. Over 16,000 migrant workers from Central Asia, Ukraine, and Turkey are earning between $1.80-$2.60 an hour working on corrupt pet projects. Sochi residents have been forcefully evicted from their homes as Olympic venues are erected in their back yards.
Historically, Olympic games have been and will continue to be unfriendly to CSOs. The lobbying of the IOC selection committee and the subsequent preparatory decisions are often made by a small group of players, a “politics as usual” operation for Putin’s United Russia party. Olympic games divert public resources with little public input as state and corporate interests dominate with the exception perhaps being the 1988 Seoul Olympics which proved to be the democratic undoing of South Korean dictator Chun Doo Hwan. Nevertheless, the Putin government has banned demonstrations and public gatherings in Sochi for the duration of the Olympics. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented systematic intimidations and silencing of journalists, foreign NGOs, and other activists who have spoken out against abuses during the preparations for the games.
Putin’s crackdown on civil society has been all but subtle since his controversial reelection to the presidency in May 2012. The timing of the recent passage of anti-gay propaganda laws and the new requirement of NGOs that receive foreign funding and conduct political activity to register as “foreign agents” is perplexing and contrary to basic Olympic Charter values. The law, complimented by other political prerogatives like USAID being forced to close its Russian offices and the prohibition of U.S. adoption of Russian children, serves to intimidate and stigmatize civic activism as inherently anti-Russian and paint the West as a perverse negative influence on Russian society.
But the Sochi games have the potential to be a catalytic event in an already formidable anti-authoritarian movement that President Putin—and the IOC—must take seriously. Miriam Lanskoy, the director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the National Endowment for Democracy in a talk entitled “Putin vs. Civil Society” spoke of the “Putin model” of governance: rely on passivity, grant a modest amount of personal freedom with no political freedom, and scare people into submission. The anchor of the “Putin model”—public apathy—was easily relied upon in 2000-2008 as the middle class grew voraciously and no other viable options existed to the tightly run United Russia political monopoly. The semi-authoritarianism that has characterized Russia for the last two decades had provided sufficient personal freedom, material stability, and access to the outside world to permit the emergence of new social movements. These movements are now demanding transparency, accountability, and political participation.
A global stage on which all eyes will converge this February has been built on a foundation of exploitation and corruption.
The July 2011 parliamentary elections, in which President Putin’s party retained majority control, were widely viewed as falsified and became a focal point for protest. In this new era of civil activism, President Putin’s grasp on domestic politics (and silencing of foreign NGOs) is slipping. Opinion polls site that Russians with an opposing view of Putin are now are at a sizeable 30% and 51% of Russians polled in April 2013 agreed with the statement that United Russia is the “party of crooks and thieves.” This anti-authoritarian civil movement has the potential to endure. The oppositional middle class minority that will continue to seek a voice in politics is young and highly educated. The claims made by this growing minority are rooted in a “strong moral and personal foundation and not only by specific instances of malfeasance.” It is a movement against de facto disenfranchisement and not just corruption and inequality before the law.
A global stage on which all eyes will converge this February has been built on a foundation of exploitation and corruption. With the 2016 Rio summer Olympics on the horizon, the IOC should harness the power of an increasingly formidable civil society movement in Russia and respond to the calls of human rights groups to make its commitments to prevention of human rights violations, unlawful seizures of property, and environmental damage have meaningful force when selecting future host cities. The IOC must protect the values of the Olympic Charter and take a strong stand against future human rights abuses during Olympic preparations. Sochi is the right place to start.