But the drumbeat intensified markedly in June of last year after the State Duma had passed the so-dubbed "anti-gay” law, which prohibits the distribution of information about "non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. LGBT activists on either side of the Atlantic, backed by a bevy of publicity-seeking celebrities and politicians, called for boycotting "Putin’s Olympics”. Their calls resonated with long-standing Western criticism of the state of human rights and democracy in Russia. And it is against this background that prominent Western leaders – including Barack Obama, David Cameron, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel – have declared they have no plans to attend the opening ceremony.
Then came the terrorist attacks in Volgograd in December, which claimed the lives of 34 people and injured scores of others. Virtually overnight, the focus of the anti-Sochi Olympics campaign switched to security. While the leader of Islamist insurgents in Russia’s southern republics, Doku Umarov, had threatened last summer to do his best to disrupt the games, the attacks in Volgograd (which lies some 700 kilometres northeast of Sochi), provided the telling proof that the Jihadists can live up to their threats. And that proof has led to a barrage of commentary about security concerns in Sochi, prompted not least by reports that suicide bombers are infiltrating the venue of the games itself.
Much of this commentary may indeed seek to raise valid concerns about the safety of those who will attend and compete in the games, but some may have less than altruistic aims. Of the latter, the piece that stands out is that by Sally Jenkins in The Washington Post on 23 January. Titled "Sochi 2014: IOC jeopardized safety of athletes and fans in awarding Games to Putin’s Russia”, Jenkins paints a lurid picture of Putin’s "thugocracy”, in which, she argues, security in Sochi is being sacrificed for the sake of self-aggrandizement. She goes on to assert that the Sochi Games have become a "contest of wills between Putin and the insurgents, with innocents squarely in the crossfire”. And in her opinion, the International Olympic Committee is guilty of "colossal authoritarian branding” by conferring legitimacy on Putin’s regime.
Russia-watchers have long been accustomed to media outlets such as The Washington Post seizing any opportunity to "have a go” at Russia in general and Putin in particular. But arguably this latest outburst underscores that a new level of Russophobia is being reached as the Sochi Games approach. What appears to be taking place is, in effect, the forging of an unholy alliance of Western NGOs (who are peopled by traditional neocon critics of Putin), LGBT activists and Islamist terrorists, the ultimate objective of which is to derail "Putin’s Games”. Such a development is bewildering, to say the least, for even the most seasoned of those who report on and analyse what is happening in "Putin’s Russia”.
Meanwhile, more sober coverage of what is going on in Sochi can still be found away from the more hysterical mainstream Western news outlets. Some commentators have pointed out that most of the items making up the eye-popping bill for the 2014 Winter Olympics consists, in fact, of related infrastructure and thus contributes to the development of the region (according to one estimate, direct expenditure on the facilities for the games amount to just US$7 billion). On the issue of security, some analysts have highlighted the Russian agencies’ determination to create an impenetrable "dome of steel”, in which state-of-the-art technology is being used alongside no fewer than 40,000 security personnel. Others have noted that as at previous games, the FBI will have a presence in Sochi (albeit unarmed) for the duration of the event. While the likes of The Washington Post have suggested that the Russians have done their best to keep that presence to a minimum (see Adam Goldman’s piece published on 25 January), there are still some who prefer to applaud rather than seek to belittle such cooperation.
- Why are Western media and politicians apparently so uncomfortable with post-Communist Russia staging the 2014 Winter Olympic Games?
- The Olympic Games are, above all, about athletes from around the world competing against one another. Politics are not supposed to feature. Is there any truth in the statement that Russia is guilty of exploiting the event for the purpose of self-aggrandizement?
- Prominent US pundit Patrick Buchanan has urged US President Obama to attend the opening of the games to demonstrate America’s solidarity with Russia in the common struggle against terrorism. Should Obama (and other leaders) heed such calls?
The topic for the Discussion Panel is provided by Vlad Sobell,
Professor, New York University, Prague
Expert Panel Contributions
The Sochi Games and Their Enemies
By Martin Sieff
Martin Sieff is Chief Global Analyst for The Globalist and a senior fellow of the American University in Moscow
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, was a liberal-minded romantic idealist: He wanted his Games to spread, peace and mutual understanding around the world. That need has never been more pressing than today. Yet instead, international attitudes in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics Games are acting like salt in an open wound, making the dangerous chasm in popular attitudes between the West and Russia far worse.
There may indeed be terrorist attacks at the Games: No one can guarantee in advance totally that there won’t be: But that is neither unprecedented nor unexpected. After all, 11 Israeli Olympic athletes were brutally murdered by terrorists at the 1972 Munich Games, and those Games – shamefully – continued without a hiccup. Yet the Federal German and Olympic authorities of those days were disgracefully negligent about providing adequate security for their athletes. That is certainly not the case at Sochi: The Russian government has deployed 40,000 security personnel and has agreed to allow FBI agents to operate there in cooperation with them.
Claims that the bomb attacks in Volgograd in December that killed 34 people put the Games at direct risk are not true. Volgograd is 700 kilometers (420 miles) from Sochi. If the terrorists could get no closer than that in the run-up to the Games, then the prognosis for their security is excellent. Sochi is a far easier city – small and relatively isolated – to provide blanket security for than London was for the 2012 Summer Olympics. But those Games were a tremendous success and also a triumph for the British security forces. We have cause to hope and expect that the Sochi ones will be too.
By contrast, the United States was not able to prevent a minor unsuccessful terror bomb attack right in the city of Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics and a fatal one that killed two people during the Boston Marathon. Another 14 were so seriously injured they required amputations.
Much of the popular hostility to Russia in North America and Europe over these Summer Games has been motivated by the passing of the 2013 so-called "anti-gay” law. Yet this just echoed legislation that until recently was widespread throughout the West and that is still strongly supported in many regions, such as conservative Heartland America.
The 2013 Russian law prohibits the distribution of information about "non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. This shrinks to insignificance compared to China’s decades-long one-child per family population restriction problem. In 2008, that still applied to one third of the world’s most populous nation, enforcing compulsory abortion standards on more than 400 million people. Yet China was never subject to a fraction of the criticism that has been thrown at Russia over the so-called anti-gay law. Why then, have U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have declared they have no plans to attend the opening ceremony? President George W. Bush led the VIPs of the world to the opening of the Beijing Games.
It is certainly bewildering to see Gay Rights activists and extreme Islamic jihadists, American neo-conservatives and liberal human rights NGOs all on the same side, all apparently preparing themselves to gloat over any tragedy or mishap that might occur at Sochi. Yet Pierre de Coubertin envisaged his Olympic movement to generate mutual understanding, tolerance, friendship and joy among the peoples of the world. Russia in 2014 certainly still has far more human rights and openness than China did in 2008, yet the Beijing Games were a triumph for China and its continued engagement with the wider world. The Sochi Games should be welcomed and supported too.
Sochi Winter Olympics: Diversity of Frank Views Lacking Among the Higher Profile of Venues
By Michael Averko
Michael Averko, New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic
With Russia, the adage of "no news is good news" becomes more evident, when compared to how numerous other topics are covered. Dominic Basulto aptly refers to the Sochi Winter Olympic coverage as having a noticeable "disaster porn" element.
This kind of spin includes some of the more progressive of American political commentators, who frequently appear in mass media. Katrina vanden Heuvel's January 18 Nation piece has traces of what Basulto describes. In terms of governments with suspect human rights conditions, post-Soviet Russia does not come close to matching the Summer Olympic hostsNazi Germany in 1936 andthe Soviet Union in 1980. (The same can be said ofArgentina, when it hosted the FIFA World Cup in1978, without much of a protest.) It is therefore overly tabloid to flippantly mention the aforementioned prior Olympiads relative to Sochi, without noting the significant differences.
In the United States, the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) and its affiliates have exclusive rights to televise the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. As reported, that network has made it a point to say that it will not be "soft" on issues pertaining to the human rights situation in Russia, as well as other Russia related matters, where negativity can be applied. In contrast, there is little, if any caution against being negatively inaccurate on this stance. Therein lies the predominating slant among American media and political elites.
Judging by the way NBC and its cable affiliate MSNBC cover Russia, there seems like there might be a calculation of sorts that negative imagery against that nation is a good marketing position. There are flat out anti-Russian biases, which regularly go unopposed, in large partbecause of the lack of an influential pro-Russian advocacy - an aspect which has the potential to be noticeably improved upon.
Like other great historical powers, Russia has alienated some smaller nations. This circumstance does not fully explain the predominating anti-Russian biases. Russia has also been a victim of unjust attacks and has had some noteworthy moments of good ties with Western nations. Why should "Russification" be a considerably more popularized term than "Angloization", when the Ukrainian language in Ukraine has been more prevalent than the native Gaelic in Scotland and Ireland? Over the course of time, Russia has attracted many non-Russians, who have been well accepted by Russians at large. This reality tends to get downplayed, in favor of highlighting the unfortunate examples of ethnic strife - something which other multiethnic countries have experienced in varying degrees.
For many Russians, the upcoming Winter Olympiad is partly an expression of national pride. There are others, who carry on like this event is a chance to stick it to the Russians. How ironic is the ongoing and impressive mantra about Russia (Putin in particular), constantly seeking to tweak the United States. Never mind what has existed vice versa, including (among other things) the Magnitsky Act and then American President George Bush's provocative comments at a 2006 press conference in St. Petersburg, Russia. (The Magnitsky Act specifically singles out one country - Russia, unlike its predecessor, the repealed Jackson-Vanik Amendment.)
I am nevertheless optimistic that Russian-American relations can noticeably improve in the not too distant future. In historical terms, the Cold War is not so far removed from the present. In the United States, it took time for some Americans to feel more trusting of the Japanese and Germans. Post-Soviet era American and Russian attitudes of each other include mixed fluctuations. One of several examples come to mind.
In response to the 2012 Romney-Obama foreign policy presidential debate, MSNBC host Chris Matthew simultaneously chided Romney for being too negative of Russia, while lauding Obama for taking a more optimistic stance on that country. More recently, Matthews has carried on in a less upbeat way, during a segment with two guests, who added onto the negativity.
In that particular instance, Chuck Todd confidently characterized Sochi as a not so appealing place to visit. No mention that for decades going back to the Soviet period, terrorist free Sochi has been a tourist destination for vacationing Russians and other now former Soviet nationals. This reality serves as one example to explain why Sochi was selected as a candidate location to host the Winter Olympics. There is the hope that Sochi's infrastructure improvements will make it a more appealing place. Matthews' other guest, Evan Kohlmann, expressed ethical apprehension about joining Russia to combat terrorism. He noted the many innocents who have been killed in Russian involved military action. In comparison, it is downplayed (in some influential circles) that the same can be said of civilians killed over the course of time as a result of armed American and Israeli actions.
This last point is not intended to belittle American and Israeli security concerns. Rather, it is to highlight the seeming hypocrisy of some, who are prone to getting English language mass media slots over others, with valid and underrepresented points of view. (Todd and Kohlmann are employed by NBC. Kohlmann is utilized by NBC and MSNBC as a terrorism analyst. Todd is the chief White House correspondent for NBC, in addition to hosting a show on MSNBC.)
At this stage, it is unrealistic to expect Obama to change his mind about not going to the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Were he to suddenly change course, his chief detractors would highlight a flip flop move. I do not believe that Obama's absence from Sochi is such a big deal. Ditto the other Western leaders who have chosen to stay away. For countless others besides myself, the Olympics is first and foremost about the athletes and the events they compete in.
In response to Sally Jenkins' Washington Post article (mentioned at the top in Vlad Sobell's introduction), I forwarded to her attention two articles of mine from the past year: "Overview of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics", Eurasia Review, March 13 and "Gay Rights in Russia and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics", Global Research, September 16. She politely responded with a thank you note, inclusive of her intention to read these articles. I replied back with a reciprocal thanks and my differences with her article. To date, this has been the extent of that exchange.
Why is the West waging a campaign against the Sochi Olympics?
By Andrej Kreutz
Adjunct Professor, University of Calgary
Affiliated Expert, European Geopolitical Forum
I Even though the ideological and social systemic antagonism, which at least officially lay at the core of the old Cold War (1947 – 1987/91), ended a long time ago, Americans and their allies’ hostility and various forms of tensions with Moscow have persisted for at least three main reasons:
A) Since the end of World War II, the US has followed and still follows the traditional British policy of preventing one independent power center from dominating the rest of the continent and even less Eurasia as a whole . Russia, even if diminished in size and power, preserved the Soviet nuclear deterrent, and was seen as being able to form a core for a new Eurasian power center and thus represent a challenge to American global Hegemony. Consequently as a prominent American Neorealist Kenneth Waltz noticed, "rather than learning from history, the United States repeats past errors by expanding its influence over what used to be provinces of the vanquished. Despite much talks about the ‘globalization’ of international politics, American political leaders, to a dismaying extent, think of East or West rather than their interactions”.2 During the last few years because of the Russian opposition to the American ABM deployment in Europe, including Poland and Romania, and the internal struggle in Ukraine, Western attitudes to Moscow have been greatly aggravated.
B) The second reason is the fact that Russia has always been and still remains one of the richest countries in almost all natural resources, and yet, especially after 2000, remains a relatively independent nation. The American and multinational corporations do not have free unlimited access to its natural resources and whatever they had achieved during the Gorbachev-Yeltsin period was later limited or returned to Russian control. In this case the West can often count on support from some Russian oligarchs whose business interests are linked with the foreign companies or who located their money in Western banks and other investments. As those people control many media outlets and a substantial part of the economy in Russia itself, their influence could be very beneficial for the Western interests and harmful for the political regime in the country.
C) The Russian elites are divided and the "non-systemic opposition” which is mainly based on some being alienated from the state, Russian oligarchs, is extremely hostile to Putin and his statist bloc ruling the country.3 Its international importance is by no means negligible. It is largely due to their efforts that improving Russia’s international image is at present so difficult. As the Sochi Olympic Games, following the example of other mega-sporting events, might increase the soft power of the country and bring to it more prestige and foreign investments, it has become an obvious object of their hostility and a mass scale defamation campaign.
II In the modern era and as far as I know, even in Greek-Roman antiquity, one of the main reasons for the people to get involved in Olympic competitions was to increase the respect and importance of their countries (in the ancient Greece their cities). There have not been the direct political goals but a conscious effort to improve their international perception or as we can say now soft power for their countries such as China (2008), Brazil and even the well-established powers of Britain, Canada and the US won this way many new or additional success. Putin and the other Russian leaders want to follow the same commonly used and until now generally accepted way.
III From the moral point of view Patrick Buchanan was probably right. However, I do not expect that either President Obama or any other major Western leader would follow his appeal. The power of the anti-Russian lobbies is too strong and too much money has already been spent on the hostile Sochi Olympic Games campaign. At present Russian moral soft-power success, would be for them more difficult to accept than its direct political one.
One can be sorry because of that. Ancient Greeks were very bellicose and divided by many conflicts and yet they established the Olympic Games and respected their peace as a time for mutual meeting, reflection and at least temporary armistice of hostilities. Even if the differences between the West and Russia had some deep historical origins and were of systemic nature, the contemporary leaders could still follow this old good example.
1) The priorities of the geopolitical goals over the ideological considerations have been admitted even by some American scholars. See for instance James M. Goldgeier and Michael McFaul, Power and Purpose: US Policy toward Russia after the Cold War Washington, DC. Brooking Institution Press, 2003. For a thorough analysis of the developments see also Stephen F. Cohen, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives from Stalinism to the New Cold War/New York: Columbia University Press, 2011, pp. 162-222.
2) Kenneth Waltz, "Globalization and American Power”, The National Interest, Spring 2000, p. 55.
Shredding Sochi... in a Good Way
Western journalists have been in the business of dismissing Russian achievements and magnifying Russian failures ever since Putin drove them into a collective derangement syndrome - he even haunts their dreams, as recently revealed by the Guardian's Shaun Walker - so the preemptive besmirching of the Sochi Olympics can't have surprised anyone.
What is startling, though, is the unusually low competence of the effort, even by the standards of these people that are sarcastically referred to as "democratic journalists" in Russia.
The first and foremost attack revolved around the supposed corruption surrounding the Sochi Olympics. In 2010, the Russian magazine Esquire estimated that 48km of roads around Sochi consumed a cool $8 billion of taxpayer money, a sum that implied the asphalt might as well have been replaced by elite beluga caviar. Julia Ioffe cheerily transmitted these sophomoric calculations to the Anglosphere. The only problem with these actuarial wisecracks? Said road also included a railway, 50 bridges, and 27km worth of tunnels over mountainous terrain... which presumably made it something more than just a road, but were conveniently left out of the accounting. What was intended as a metaphor for Sochi corruption turned out to be, ironically, a metaphor for unfounded attacks against it.
There are incessant comparisons to the $8 billion spent during the 2010 Olympics in Canada. But this sidesteps the fact that Whistler was already a world-class ski resort, whereas Sochi's infrastructure had to be built from scratch and at relatively short notice. The actual event-related costs of the Sochi Olympics are $7 billion, of which only half was directly drawn from the state budget. This is not to say that there was no stealing - of course there was, as corruption is a real problem in Russia, and is especially endemic in the construction industry. Navalny has created an entire website about it, and coordinated a campaign against Sochi with Buzzfeed and The New York Times. But what's striking is that far from the pharaonic levels of misappropriation we might expected from the tone of the coverage, in most cases the markup was in the order of 150%-200% relative to "comparable" Western projects (and that's after selecting the most egregious cases). This isn't "good," needless to say, but it's hardly unprecedented in Western experience. In any case, a number of criminal cases have been opened up, so impunity is not guaranteed. (The most prominent "victim," Akhmed Bilalov, has fled the country and claimed he was poisoned - all true to the form of emigre oligarch thieves from the ex-Soviet Union).
The lion's share of the $50 billion investment in Sochi - some 80% of it or so - consists of infrastructure projects to make Sochi into a world-class ski resort that will provide employment in the restive North Caucasus, kickstart the development of a Russian snowsports culture, and draw at least some of the more patriotic elites away from Courcheval.
The second major angle of attack is Russia's "persecution" of gays. This, presumably, refers to Russia's new laws against the propaganda of homosexuality to children - no matter that very similar laws, in the form of Section 28, existed in the UK until 2003, and that sodomy remained illegal in some American states up until the same year. I bring these up not so much to engage in "whataboutism" as to point out that the moral standards that the West proselytizes so zealously have only been adopted (or dropped?) within the past decade. Furthermore, much of the rest of the world rejects those standards to a significantly greater extent than does Russia itself. As such, this campaign strikes such an absurd and nauseatingly self-righteous note that one cannot but suspect a cynical motive behind it. Snowden and Syria, in particular, come to mind.
The third, and by far the most repulsive, category of Western concern trolling about Sochi revolves around terrorism. After every successful terrorist attack in Russia, "experts" rush in to proclaim that it is an example of "Putin's autocracy not working for ordinary Russians" (Kathryn Stoner-Weiss), that they "cannot rely on the protection of their government" (David Satter), etc. By extension, the IOC is wildly irresponsible for "jeopardizing the safety of fans and athletes" by awarding the games to Russia (Sally Jenkins). In reality, according to the world's most comprehensive database on terrorism, the number of casualties in terrorist attacks in Russia has plummeted in the past decade, even as the jihadist movement has been reduced to a shadow of its former self; suffice to say that suicide bombing a bus in a second-tier city like Volgograd is now considered a great success among their ranks. I do not wish to tempt fate by ruling it out entirely, but with the "ring of steel," pervasive telecommunications monitoring, and cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies that characterize Sochi security, the likelihood of a successful terrorist attack is surely low.
Consequent criticisms become increasingly deranged and unhinged from reality, much like the murderous HAL supercomputer fading away into childish gibberishness after it gets turned off. Thousands of people got evicted, their land stolen from them... except that the average compensation per person was $100,000. Sochi is apparently built on the bones of Circassians... well, if it's a graveyard, I wonder what that makes the North American continent - a death world? The assertion that Sochi is an"unsuitable subtropical resort" with no snow... an assessment that would surely surprise the denizens of California's Bay Area, who go skiing in Tahoe up until late April, and where average February temperatures are significantly higher than around Sochi. If anything, conditions are looking right steezy. The metaphorical rock-bottom was attained by the BBC's Steve Rosenberg, who made a photograph of a pair of side-by-side toilets that were then splashed around the media - up to and including The New York Times - as evidence of the graft and imbecility that characterized the Sochi preparations. The only problem being that the photograph was taken in the middle of a renovation. But, hey, we wouldn't want to deny the Brits their toilet humor, now would we...
All this is not to say that the Sochi Olympics are some kind of pure monument to virtuous sportsmanship and international friendship. Of course not. From their origins in ancient Greece, they were always about money, competition, and prestige. Putin himself openly states that one of its goals is to showcase a new Russia. There are no rules preventing Western states from waging a media campaign against Sochi, and refusing to send their top leaders to the opening ceremonies - petty and unseemly, such actions only reflect badly on their authors. So be it... gapers won't be missed.
By William Dunkerley
William Dunkerley is a media business analyst and consultant based in New Britain, CT. He works extensively with media organizations in Russia and other post-communist countries, and has advised government leaders on strategies for building press freedom and a healthy media sector. He is a Senior Fellow at the American University in Moscow.
Situation: It is well known that each evening a certain bank leaves its front door wide open and the vault unlocked. Result: There are frequent robberies. Solution: Is it to (1) decry the presence of robbers in society, or, (2) lock the front door and close the vault? I say the latter. Russia is being robbed of its chances for a good international image all the time, be it over Sochi, Snowden, or sexual orientation policy. But the country is leaving the front door open and the vault unlocked. There exist effective professional techniques for thwarting reputation robbers. Experts warned the Kremlin about the impending Sochi PR disaster, but it didn't take heed.
By Patrick Armstrong
Patrick Armstrong is a former political counselor at Canadian Embassy in Moscow
Vlad has summarised some of the barrage of propaganda that has been unleashed on us about the past, present and future disaster of the Sochi Olympics. They open in a week and we will find out who’s been telling the truth: the Western MSM or the Russian authorities. My bet is that Gian-Franco Kasper will prove correct in his forecast that the Games will be good: As to cost, "We have to see that what we did in the Alps we needed 150 years and they had to do it in five years. If you see that then it shocks you”.
What interests me is what will be the effect of this propaganda colliding with reality. People are expecting to see half-finished crummy shacks, cracked and rutted roads, no snow, double toilets, poverty, homosexual persecution and all the rest. The Games will be covered by TV and millions will watch them for hours and hours. And in the background of this or that event, they will see things like this or this or this or this or this. That’s not what they’ve been told they will see.
Barring a disaster, Western propaganda will take a body blow from reality. Millions will see that they have been lied to. There will be serious cognitive dissonance. And that’s the part of these Olympic Games that I’m looking forward to watching.