In 2007, when the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2014 Winter Games to the Russian city of Sochi, it raised hopes that the Kremlin was open to liberalization and reform. President Vladimir Putin did his best to charm the committee, and it seemed to work. “The Games will help Russia’s transition to a young democracy,” said Dmitry Chernyshenko, who led the successful bid.
Lately, there have been surprising developments in Russia. Putin indulged the Christmas spirit by granting clemency to 30 Greenpeace activists, two members of a punk protest band and dissident tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He helped secure a deal with the Syrian government to give up its chemical weapons arsenal.
But you’d have to ignore a lot to believe the Olympics will work to moderate Putin’s taste for repression at home and abroad. He was able to release all those prisoners only because his regime had put them behind bars on transparently bogus pretexts. He was able to get cooperation from Bashar Assad only because he’s such a loyal ally of the savage Syrian dictator.
Putin’s stern response to the horrific suicide bombings in Volgograd this week may be seen as understandable and justified. But when a Russian strongman threatens terrorists with “complete annihilation,” the words suggest he will not be terribly discriminating about meting out punishment. Reuters reported that though 87 people were detained after the attacks, “there was no sign any were linked to the bombings or suspected of planning further attacks.”
Ham-fisted police tactics are just another day at the office for Putin. When he was inaugurated in May 2012, hundreds of protesters were arrested, and some were beaten. Other Muscovites were locked up merely for wearing the white ribbon that symbolizes opposition to Putin. His press secretary expressed regret: “From my point of view, the police acted mildly ― I would have liked them to act more harshly.”
“Harsh” could be the president’s middle name. Over time, his policies have gotten more punitive and paranoid, not less. What Russians are enduring today, says the pro-democracy organization Freedom House, is “the most severe crackdown against human rights since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Putin has harassed advocacy organizations under the guise of protecting Russia from “foreign agents,” under a law that carries a two-year prison sentence for failing to register with the government. “Over a thousand nongovernmental groups were subjected to aggressive and intrusive inspections,” says Human Rights Watch.
Some of these organizations were intimidated into shutting down. Others are being forced to expend resources fighting in court. None has gotten the idea that Putin wants to encourage debate on the country’s political future.
Putin also showed his disdain for freedom by pushing through legislation effectively making it a crime to advocate gay rights in the presence of minors ― what the Kremlin calls “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations.” That law has drawn rebukes around the world ― including a clear one from President Barack Obama. He pointedly said he and the first lady would be too busy to attend the Games, while naming a delegation that included openly gay athletes.
Putin may have thought hosting the Olympics would boost his stature in Russia and elsewhere. The actual effect, though, has been to focus more attention on his thin skin, contempt for Western values and unquenchable need for control. So even his gesture of charity toward the prisoners he freed merely underscored the arbitrary, secretive nature of his rule, while reminding everyone that those people should never have been jailed in the first place.
The Winter Olympics could have been Putin’s opportunity to show the world a country far more humane, democratic and open than it was when the Soviet Union hosted the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. Instead, he is likely to face protests, overt or oblique, by athletes and spectators. He will find foreign news media examining how he steered Russia off the democratic path it took after the collapse of communism.
Unlike the regime that held power in 1980, Putin has avoided a mass boycott of the festivities by other nations. But he won’t avoid a spotlight that reminds the world of his abuses.
(MCT Information Services)