A UBC prof looks at what the Sochi Games say about Russia’s past and its future
With the world about to set its attention on the Sochi Games, UBC Political Science Prof. Lisa Sundstrom, an expert on Russian politics, breaks down the thorny issues facing President Vladimir Putin and his government, including security challenges posed by homegrown terrorists.
How important are the Games for Russia?
Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the Games as one of his crowning projects. He wants to show off his country as a modern superpower on the international stage. Staggering levels of resources are going towards the Games, building venues, and security costs. The government says they are roughly on budget, while critics say it has gone way over. Recent reports put the cost at more than five times greater than the Vancouver Games.
What have the Olympics revealed about Russia’s government?
The Olympic glare has put a spotlight on some of the issues and weaknesses with Russia’s government. High levels of corruption, including government payoffs for construction contracts, have been exposed in investigations of how the venues are being built. The government is on the hot seat for their policies on gay rights and free speech.
Who are the terrorists who committed the recent bombings?
Several homegrown terrorist groups in the Caucasus region have vowed to target the Games. One major group is an Islamic radical movement led by Doku Umarov, who is based in Chechnya. He wants to create an independent Islamic state in Russia and has claimed responsibility for recent bombings. He has related groups in neighbouring Dagestan. Reports suggest he has followers fighting in Syria, who may attempt to travel to Russia during the Games. There have been dozens of recent attacks, many of them only a few hundred kilometres from Sochi, including small-scale ones that failed to make headlines in the West.
What security challenges do the Games face?
The geography of the region around Sochi makes it very difficult to police. For example, the new high-speed rail system that connects Sochi’s seaside venues to the alpine events runs through a very mountainous, forested region. Trains can be disrupted in many ways and the landscape will make it challenging to secure. Tens of thousands of security forces are policing the area, including Russia’s top security team, the Spetsnaz’s Alpha unit, which has been on site for months looking for explosives or suspicious people.
What are some of the historical roots behind the violence?
Russia has a long history of colonization and violence in the Caucasus region going back to imperial times. In 1944 Stalin packed hundreds of thousands of Chechens, as well as other ethnic minorities, into trains and deported them to Siberia and Central Asia for supposedly collaborating with Nazi Germany. This was a huge source of pain and resentment for Chechens.
Since then we’ve seen two wars in the Chechen republic – first under Boris Yeltsin in 1991, and then shortly after Putin took power in 1999. Chechnya has became a sort of lawless no-man’s land, with many local officials acting with impunity. Significant animosity remains towards Russia – including separatist rumblings – and militants have spread out into Dagestan and neighbouring areas.
Explain the recent amnesties granted to Pussy Riot and billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky?
Of course the recent amnesties are linked to the Games. The announcement happened just when Western global leaders were saying they would skip the Games. The Russian government appears to have gone into damage control to try to burnish its human rights reputation.
Russia and the Soviet Union have historically used amnesties to make space in their chronically overcrowded prisons. They release low-risk prisoners: first-time offenders, mothers, juveniles, that kind of thing. Pussy Riot fell into this category. It was only two months before their sentence was up, so it wasn’t like they were given a huge gift of time. But with the international attention they were attracting, releasing them before the Games was probably a smart move.
The presidential pardon that billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky received was highly unusual. Some reports suggest he was released after signing an agreement to leave the country and not return, while others, including Khodorkovsky, depict it as a personal decision not to return to Russia for fear of not being able to leave again. It was a very political decision to release him and it’s hard to imagine how this would have happened if it wasn’t for the Olympics.
How would you describe Russia’s current political climate?
Russia has become more authoritarian under Putin, especially since the 2011 election protests. The government is very concerned about opposition, passing numerous laws that constrain independent organizations and jailing protest organizers. This has put a chill on the political environment and made many people afraid to speak up.
At the same time, there are increasing signs of instability. Economic growth, which helped keep people happy, has declined, and the government relies excessively on increasing oil revenues as a source for growth. A weakened but still active political opposition movement remains in Moscow. The government is worried that, at some point, they won’t be able to control increased levels of dissent no matter how many laws they pass.