News / Europe

Stakes High for Putin As His Olympic Dream Nears

A view of the Bolshoi Olympic stadium and accommodation complex in the Adler district of Sochi, Russia, Sep. 29, 2013.
A view of the Bolshoi Olympic stadium and accommodation complex in the Adler district of Sochi, Russia, Sep. 29, 2013.
Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a lighted Olympic torch during a ceremony to mark the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic torch relay in Moscow, Oct. 6, 2013.Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a lighted Olympic torch during a ceremony to mark the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic torch relay in Moscow, Oct. 6, 2013.
x
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a lighted Olympic torch during a ceremony to mark the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic torch relay in Moscow, Oct. 6, 2013.
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a lighted Olympic torch during a ceremony to mark the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic torch relay in Moscow, Oct. 6, 2013.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has staked his personal and political prestige on February's Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi, yet despite the $50-billion price tag the Games could still be an embarrassing flop.
 
If all goes to plan, the costliest Games in history will be a showcase for Russia's achievements under Putin, the vindication of a six-year vanity project on a truly Soviet scale.
 
But his dream could yet be shattered: if venues on the subtropical Black Sea are not ready on time; if protests break out over a new Russian law that critics say targets gay rights; if Chechen or other Islamist militants attack the Games.
 
Four months before the Games open on February 7, cranes still tower over muddy construction sites, freshly laid pipes lie exposed to the weather and walkways are churned up around them. At ski resorts above the seaside city, huge segments of metal piping and cable lie strewn around near hotels.
 
The blow to Putin's pride and political standing would be immense if the Games fail because he has invested so much personally in what some see as the folly of turning a palm-lined summer beach resort into a 21st-century winter sports hub.
 
“He considers this project his baby,” said Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee.
 
Of all the projects Putin has undertaken since he was first elected president in 2000, few have borne his personal stamp so clearly. He flew in person to Guatemala in 2007 to persuade Olympic chiefs to award the Games to Sochi. He even addressed them in French and English, a rarity for the former KGB spy.
 
Some Russian organizing officials call Putin team “captain”. He seems to have reveled in the difficulties, building venues from scratch, persuading wealthy tycoons to fund construction and coping with floods and mudslides around Sochi last month.
 
When the ski-jump venue fell behind schedule, Putin not only fired a senior official but went on television with him to humiliate the unfortunate bureaucrat publicly.
 
“Potemkin village"
 
After 14 years in power, Putin is looking far beyond the medal haul in Sochi. For him, a safe and successful Games will show the world how far Russia has come since the end of what U.S. President Ronald Reagan called the “evil” Soviet empire.
 
As he tries to burnish Russia's diplomatic and economic standing and rally domestic support after protests against his long rule, Putin wants to show Russia is a modern state capable of organizing events on such a scale and restore national pride.
 
Such notions are central to his search for a national idea to unite the country behind his view of Russian achievements as well as his conservative values. For the two weeks of the Games, Putin knows the world will be passing judgment on Russia.
 
The cost of failure could be far-reaching. Just as securing the Games for Sochi in 2007 was seen in Russia more as a personal victory for Putin than a national triumph, a disappointing Games would be seen as a personal defeat.
 
Though his grip on Russia's elites and most media has made him seem invulnerable, a major calamity could encourage challenges ahead of an election due by 2018 - either from existing opponents, or from within the Kremlin establishment.
 
Some opponents hope the Games will have the opposite effect to the one Putin seeks, showing Sochi to be an empty “Potemkin village”, a shabby mask for the lack of post-Soviet progress.
 
“The petty dictator will be humiliated for his bigotry and repression, as he should be,” said liberal opposition leader and former chess champion Garry Kasparov.
 
Putin still has no serious rival in opinion polls and state media are sure to portray the Games as a success, come what may.
 
But the Internet is beyond the Kremlin's control and any failure could reinvigorate dissidents who took to the streets in protest against Putin but have been discouraged since his comfortable election victory 18 months ago.
 
Grand ambitions
 
The scale of Putin's ambition is also seen in the 65,000-km (40,000-mile) torch relay, the longest in history; it will go to the North Pole, to the bottom of the world's deepest lake and into space, where the crew of the International Space Station will take the torch - unlit - on a spacewalk.
 
Yet the grandiose ambitions seem a distant vision in Sochi itself as workers race against the clock to be ready in time.
 
The International Olympic Committee has given its seal of approval. But at first glance, Sochi appears far from ready for the more than 120,000 spectators and 5,400 competitors and support staff expected to attend the two weeks of spectacle.
 
Power cuts are frequent, traffic jams block roads because of the construction work and not all the venues can be reached by public transport or road yet, residents say.
 
One employee involved in the preparations described chaos  behind the scenes which belied the outer calm of Russian officials. He suggested that even if the infrastructure was ready, the organization at facilities, public transport and media arrangements was likely to be disastrous.
 
“Unless there's a significant change of attitude, the Olympics are heading for an unprecedented meltdown,” said the official, who declined to be identified.
 
Putin acknowledged last month that a few glitches needed ironing out and made clear he would put up with no mistakes.
 
Also problematic are possible protests over a law he signed this year banning the spread of “gay propaganda” among minors.
 
The Kremlin says the law is needed to protect children but critics say it could be used to prosecute anyone voicing support for homosexuals and to snuff out protests. Some see it as proof that Russian values under Putin are out of step with the West - and that Russia is moving backwards rather than forwards.
 
Some hear echoes of the Berlin Olympics of 1936.
 
Stephen Fry, a British actor who speaks out for gay rights, has compared Sochi to Hitler hosting the Games after passing laws persecuting Jews: “Putin is eerily repeating this insane crime, only this time against LGBT Russians,” Fry wrote of the fears of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
 
Protests would embarrass Putin at a time when the world's eyes are on Sochi. But a crackdown by police could do even more damage to Putin's image than any demonstrations - not least as he will also be hosting the World Cup soccer finals in 2018.
 
Security concerns
 
Another threat to Putin's dream is the possibility of an attack by militants trying to carve out an Islamic state on the other side of the mountains, in the North Caucasus.
 
He has already tightened security around Sochi, Cossack militia have been patrolling the streets and from Jan. 7 until March 21 travel into Sochi will be limited and public gatherings not connected with the Olympics banned.
 
The Games are being held on territory that was once the homeland of Circassians expelled in the 19th century. Islamist leaders say this amounts to performing “Satanic dances” on the graves of Muslims killed fighting Russian forces.
 
Security analysts say attacks cannot be ruled out entirely but are unlikely to overcome the tight layers of protection.
 
“Security will not be noticeable. It won't be thrown in the faces of guests and it won't disturb guests and participants,” said Alexei Lavrishchev, a senior official in the FSB security forces, a successor to the Soviet KGB. But it will be there.
 
Alexander Valov, a Sochi blogger, says the city will be turned into a “concentration camp”, reflecting discontent among local people that is given little coverage in Russian media.
 
“In general, I'm ashamed that I live in this country,” said a librarian who gave her name only as Darya.
 
Some are unhappy with being evicted from homes that were in the path of the bulldozers, even though most of the 1,500 families were resettled in modern accommodation.
 
Others complain of damage to the environment, notably soil pollution from building work, or about low wages and poor conditions for migrant workers.
 
With costs already projected to be about five times the initial forecast, Putin also faces the risk of a backlash over  allegations of passing contracts to favored contractors.
 
“The absence of fair competition, cronyism ... have led to a sharp increase in the costs and to the poor quality of the work,” opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said. “Only oligarchs and companies close to Putin got rich.”
 
The Kremlin dismisses such allegations.
 
As the moment of truth approaches in Sochi, the pressure to put on a good show is mounting. And as Putin's words on his return from winning the Olympic bid six years ago in Guatemala made clear, this is not just about sporting spectacle:
 
“This is, without doubt, not just a recognition of Russia's sporting achievements,” he said. “It is, beyond any doubt, a judgment of our country.”

You May Like

Myanmar Fighting Poses Dilemma for China

To gain some insight into conflict, VOA’s Steve Herman spoke with Min Zaw Oo, director of ceasefire negotiation and implementation at Myanmar Peace Center More

Australia Concerned Over Islamic State 'Brides'

Canberra believes there are between 30 and 40 Australian women who have taken part in terror attacks or are supporting the Islamic State terror network More

Recreational Marijuana Use Now Legal in Washington, DC

Law allows adults 21 and over to privately possess and smoke 0.05 kilogram of pot, and to grow small amounts of the plant More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More