Sunday 16 June 2019

Olympics provide the perfect stage for Putin

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin

ON December 29 a suicide-bomb blasted through Volgograd 1 train station.

A day later another ripped open the 15A bus in the same city. Eighteen people were killed in the first attack. Fourteen in the second. Terror had returned to the streets of Russia. If the object of the exercise by the Islamic terrorists suspected of carrying out the attacks was the weaken the Russian state – and by extension president Valdimir Putin – then they failed and failed utterly.

The bombs have provided Putin with the prefect opportunity to strut not just on a national stage, but an international one too. With less than a month to go before the Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, the former KGB agent gets to play the hard-man.

This week Putin ordered increased security measures in Sochi for the games. Movement in and out of the resort has been restricted. This is all but certain to be the most security conscious games in the history of the modern Olympic movement.

That's what the focus will be on, not on violations of human rights and the increasing homophobia of the Russian state. It'll be harder for visiting delegations of journalists, officials, politicians and athletes to be critical of Putin's authoritarianism while they benefit from it.

Will they criticise the security measures as overweening, ostentatious and largely unnecessary? Would you if you were in their boat? Would you not be glad of whatever precautions were being taken, be they necessary or not?

It's not as though there isn't a serious threat to the games. The Chechen separatist leader, Doku Umarov, has called for "maximum force" to be used in a bid to derail the games. Music, one would assume, to Putin's ears.

The stakes raised, he gets the opportunity to play father of the nation. The only way it could possibly go wrong for him is if an attack succeeded and even then it could play to his advantage just as the 1999 bombings – when he was Prime Minister – presaged his elevation to the presidency.

The Olympic movement is keen, on paper at any rate, to avoid any entanglement with politics. Chapter 5 of the Olympic Charter states that, "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

These Olympic games will, no doubt, comply with that aim, but is their very presence in Russia not a political statement? A statement that Russia has, at least, parity of esteem with every other nation on earth. A statement that there's nothing about its political or civic society worthy of concern.

Not unless you count the muzzling of the free press, the oftentimes violent clamp-downs of opposition demonstrations, the jailing of dissidents and the occasional punk band, which has the audacity to mock the ruling elite.

The recent release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the members of Pussy Riot was little more than a sop by Putin to international criticism ahead of the games and should fool nobody, the International Olympic Committee especially, about the nature of the regime in the Kremlin.

You'd really have to wonder what the IOC was thinking when they awarded the games to Putin's Russia. Or maybe not. They have their criteria and political freedom is obviously not very high on the list. What venue can provide the most spectacular games, what venue provides the best opportunity for profit, that's what they seem to value above all else.

The question of who should or shouldn't get to host the games is a thorny one. Should only western liberal democracies get the opportunity? That may well be the preference of people in those same western liberal democracies, although that does leave one open to the charge of cultural imperialism.

Leaving one to ask: is that such a bad thing? Are the values of a free society, a free press, a pluralist democracy not superior to those of Russian authoritarianism? Most people – including a sizeable number of people in Russia – would surely agree that they are.

Whether it's intentional or not – the IOC would argue not – allowing Russia to host the games legitimises its government. As does FIFA's decision to allow it host the World Cup, the same goes for the World Cup in Qatar (the stories coming out of that country about the treatment of foreign construction workers have been truly shocking).

The counter-argument to a lot of this is that it's better to engage with these countries, expose them to our values and hope to encourage gradual change... you're not convinced? Us either. There's a reason why we were left feeling more than a little queasy as we watched Putin, and his buddy Alexander Lukashenko President of Belarus, play the role of hockey star at an Olympic venue this week.