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Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks with Prince Albert II of Monaco (R) at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President's Gala Dinner in Sochi, on 6 February, on the eve of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games opening ceremony. 36 billion euros!? At such a pricetag the Sotchi Games stand to be the costliest in Olympic history. Had the true goal of this event been to develop a once neglected region and offer a sporting event that celebrates the spirit of friendship between peoples, this resource debacle might be justifiable.

In reality however, the drive behind the organisation of this event, appears instead to be to render Vladimir Putin front and center on the international stage. A diversionary Olympics – what better means to minimise the former-KGB agent’s oppressive internal policies restricting public freedom, and his diplomatic role in aiding Syria to perpetrate crimes against humanity? 

A year of  “success”

December saw the Times elect the Russian president “Man of the Year” – a distinction that sounds more like provocation: the conservative British newspaper can hardly be suspected of bias towards Moscow. Nevertheless, one finds oneself forced to agree. 2013 has surely been a year of multiple successes and polemics for the Russian Premier.  

On the international stage, he joined Iran in offering unrelenting support to the Bashar el-Assad regime. Furnishing it with arms and playing a cynical diplomatic role at the United Nations Security Council, President Putin was certainly successful in aiding to frustrate any hope of an end to the ongoing conflict that continues to ravage the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians. Indeed, these efforts proved most fruitful when in December last year he signed a juicy contract with the Assad regime for oil and gas exploration in Syria’s territorial waters. A successful strategy indeed! What better time to engage a State’s right to permanent sovereignty over its natural resources than when it is in conflict with the very people from whom it derives that right? 

In the Ukraine, where Europe is seen as naïve, not very generous and somewhat condescending, our “Man of the Year” had little trouble convincing President Yanoukovitch to stay with the Russian heartland.  Success again: EU/Ukraine treaties were swept aside. Facing discontent from pro-Europe citizens, Yanoukovitch was supported by his Russian neighbor in provoking a crisis that has transformed the centre of Kiev into a veritable battlefield. 

Civil society action

But it is of course within that one must look for the true measure of success. And internally, President Putin has triumphed in stifling democratic rumblings, securing the closure of Russia’ principle anti-discrimination civil society organisations, including the Memorial Centre. Forced to disband or register as “foreign agents” with the Ministry of Justice, the plight of these civil society actors echoes those all too recent somber days when dissidents struggled against the suffocating hand of a cold and implacable monstrosity of a regime – a monstrosity of which Putin himself was a most zealous member. Indeed, our “Man of the Year” has retained the means and logic of this era, staying faithful to the doctrine he himself has cultivated over many years: “the dictates of law”. Journalists, social activists, artists, intellectuals, ordinary demonstrators, and all those deemed to be some sort of threat to the rulership are under surveillance, legally harassed, detained, or physically assaulted. There is absolutely no doubt that Russia is experiencing a wave of the most severe repression since the end of the cold war. 

Among the most repressive measures currently being deployed are those within the State’s anti-terrorist and anti-extremist arsenal. This arsenal has been developed as part of a larger network, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which includes China and four other central Asian countries in its membership. As such, it affords Russia’s abusive use of anti-terror measures vast geographical reach, and offers those engaged in such abuses total impunity. These are measures that are not only dangerous but ineffective, given the recent attacks in Volgograd in December 2013. Indeed, such events remind us that, contrary to the official propaganda, the Caucus region in which Sotchi is situated, remains far from "pacified" today.  

Nothing, it seems, can scare Putin now. He will, one can wager, capitalise on the latest terrorist threat to justify his policy of repression. After all, this is an exercise in which he excels. The recent release of Mikhaïl Khodorkovski, Pussy Riot and Greenpeace activists are further proof of his PR prowess. It is naïve to think that criticism expressed by the international community motivated this move, or that it constituted a political retreat. Pussy Riot and Khodorkovski had only a few months of their sentences left to serve, having been imprisoned – particularly in Khodorkovski’s case – for years. What better end to these sagas of injustice for Putin than to see these jail terms virtually served in full and then showcase the grace of his might by granting amnesty? 

Beneath the brilliant snow that blankets Sotchi, behind the universal Olympic values of excellence, friendship and respect, there stands a dark regime that does not share the ethic of tolerance and freedom. Just like China and the Peking Games, these costly Olympics remain, first and foremost, a means for an autocrat to strengthen his position before the international community. That is their goal in the eyes of those responsible for their organisation. 

Putin will probably celebrate the opening ceremony at the Games without his European counterparts. Not a surprise. Sarkozy, for example, did not go to Vancouver in 2010 and indeed state leaders have never traditionally been obliged to attend Winter Olympic Games. But in the case of Sotchi, the absence of certain European leaders may send a political message. One thing is certain, however: this message is not – and nor has it ever thus far been – forthright. Timidity has particularly characterised the EU’s stance on Russia. We can only hope that the EU will shed this timidity in the name of hundreds of thousands of Syrian victims and a stifled Russian civil society. Certainly, much like his presidency, Putin’s “success” is already too long lived.

Karim Lahidji

Image: Mikhail Klimentyev / AFP / Lehtikuva