The Sochi Olympics on balance were a big success. The opening ceremonies proved a radiant display drawing on Russia’s most compelling cultural equity. This artful look back to Russia’s past greatness proved both a reminder and challenge to its own people to reprise their historical greatness going forward; but with the caveat, as for all nations, to not repeat past mistakes in doing so. Doing this will require concrete policies, but a vision is the place from which to depart.
In advance of the games American audiences were regaled with “Orange Alert” tales of impending doom from terrorist attacks. These proved overblown. Indeed, the Russian government’s ability to provide security for the games reminds us that the United States and Russia should intensify their efforts at cooperation in global safety. Both have demonstrated successes in this endeavor. Both should also work not to overreact to terror.
We should be reminded that it was Russian pressure applied to Bashar al-Assad in Syria that prevented an escalation of conflict there that could have rippled through the Middle East, thus providing fertile terrain for the expansion of the Al-Qaeda franchise. This both saved face for the United States, which had promised to intervene after “drawing its line in the sand,” but more importantly, prevented what likely would have been the escalation of violence and loss of life. In short, both the situation in Syria and Sochi should provide a real “reset” on relations between the US and Russia on matters of cooperation and security.
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Among other criticisms of the Sochi Olympics were advance reports from US media of failed infrastructure on the ground. These proved highly exaggerated, if not in many cases spurious. One must bear in mind the herculean logistical challenges represented by transforming Sochi into an Olympic Games site. Even the world’s most developed cities have faced massive logistical challenges when trying to create an Olympic “village,” which in fact is a full-blown city. These obstacles were magnified several times in transforming Sochi, which was terribly underdeveloped. The region represented near Third World conditions where Sochi even lacked potable water before the Olympic reconstruction began. In fact, unfortunately, it is just these kinds of conditions which are found in too many parts of Russia since the collapse of the USSR over two decades back. Sochi has been turned into a modern city in the making with infrastructure that will contribute to its potential to become a tourist destination. If this succeeds, it will bring money and development to the Caucasus, which would be the best tonic for the Islamic fundamentalist movements currently plaguing the region. In short, the Sochi Olympics success may prove more than symbolic. It may have provided the 1st step in showing the way to constructively and peacefully deal with terrorism in ways paying dividends for decades.
Sochi represents precisely the kind of development that should take place all across Russia. Russia should not waste money on sovereign wealth funds and holding hard currency (both of which can be wiped out by economic crisis). Instead, the money should be spent on infrastructure that will transform both Russia’s economy and living standards for its people. It’s not only much of Russia’s infrastructure that has collapsed the past 2 decades, but its middle class as well. Nothing would go further toward rebuilding Russia’s middle class than a national program to transform the country’s infrastructure. In short, Sochi shows the way forward.
Corruption was also leveled as a charge against the Sochi Olympics. To be sure, there was plenty of corruption in making this new city on the site of the existing Sochi. Big construction projects everywhere are notorious for corruption and we should do all we can to euthanize it. Yet, lack of corruption in construction at Sochi would have made it the exception to the general rule of misdeeds at big building sites. Let’s hope Russia becomes a leading actor in the struggle for clean government in the realm of big construction. If it did so, it would be among the world’s first nations to achieve it.
The most serious blemish on the games were the Cossack attacks on Pussy Riot. Cossack attacks are never good optics and against defenseless women proved particularly ugly, morally as well as physically. The US, unfortunately, has not been much better in this regard. At the peak of Occupy protests across the US 2 years ago, the defenseless (often women) were routinely pepper sprayed and beaten by cops. One would hope that both Russia and the US could learn to use best practices in dealing with dissent. One need not tolerate boisterous displays in churches; yet, neither do powerful states need to deploy violence to remove protestors. Peaceful removal of dissenters where they prove disruptive to the rights of others should be the order of the day. Where they do not present a serious challenge to the rights of others, they should be tolerated. The sooner that both Russia and the US learn this, the better.
The other major criticism of Russia as the games approached – and one that led to many Americans not attending the games – are Russia’s recent discriminatory laws against the LGBT community. These laws are mostly designed to pacify socially conservative elements in Russia, but really are not being enforced in any serious way. That said, pressure should still continue to be applied to expand the rights of this community. Currently, Russia’s challenge is to become more open and tolerant, while dealing with many who are still socially conservative and feel under stress. We see this in the US, for example, which socially is still a divided nation with its North & South having sometimes quite different laws and norms on social issues. The more serious human rights challenge in Russia is that of racist vigilante groups who, unfortunately, take real action against their targets as they once did in the US. In this instance, however, both in law and symbol, the Russian government has moved aggressively to thwart this dangerous trend in Russia.
In short, the Sochi Olympics were impressive in showing that Russia could pull off world-class projects on the global stage. The Sochi games also proved rich in examples for how Russia could transform much of its country through infrastructural improvements, and in the process rebuild its middle class while simultaneously starving religious and racist fundamentalist groups of the discontent on which they thrive. Russia (and the US) have a long way to go in adopting best practices for engaging dissent for sure, but hopefully both will develop the means by which to achieve this aim. The US has a tendency toward simplistic dichotomies, heaping endless praise on undeserving figures and endless scorn on others. We saw the former with Boris Yeltsin, who unleashed tanks on the country’s elected parliament in 1993 and turned the country’s wealth over to criminal oligarchs. We see the latter in their treatment of Putin, who, while not a democrat, has shown himself a potentially valuable partner for the US in foreign affairs and who may sincerely wish to see Russia’s middle class and viability as a nation restored. It’s too early to conclusively render this assessment, but his place in history would be well served if he moved further in this direction. The world will be a much better place with a developed and thriving Russia. Let’s hope it gets there.