The Sochi Games have already brought a lot of attention to shameless corruption and gross violations of human rights in Russia, all the while revealing the deterioration of state institutions. Thus, as a political prestige-boosting enterprise, the 2014 Winter Olympics are already a failure.
– Pavel K. Baev, for the Jamestown Foundation
The Olympics have become a prism through which Russia amplifies its message to the world, while downplaying the assaults on humanity, the environment, and the law that have become necessary to achieve the show everyone expects to see.
– Brett Forest, for National Geographic
Putin can try to distract the global community by releasing members of Pussy Riot and political prisoners like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, but even these high profile announcements can’t take away from the shameful human rights violations that built Sochi – literally. They can’t distract from the fact that Putin tried to push out his chest and declare dominance over the Caucasus when he didn’t have it. The recent suicide bombings, shootings, and terrorist attacks in Volgograd and the autonomous regions belie this bombastic puffery.
Putin’s vain bid for the Olympics shouldn’t have happened for a dozen reasons: human rights violations ranging from the migrant workers forced to work relentlessly to the flagrant discrimination against the LGBT community; environmental concerns from almost every site the Olympics are building on; the destruction of Sochi’s surrounding areas; the fact that the Games are hosted on the site of a massacre; and lets not forget the Games’ ties to organized crime. Every Olympic Games comes with its share of controversy and issues, but with Putin’s Games already the most expensive ever and the implementation of an unspoken gag order on reporting, Sochi deserves more criticism. Here’s why:
1. Human Rights violations
- Migrant workers
- The Sochi Games and the attendant infrastructure are built on the backs of abused, under-or-unpaid workers from Central Asia, the Caucasus and other areas. They have been detained, harassed and forced to work endless hours in horrific conditions with no pay, little food and in overcrowded housing. Passports were taken to coerce people to stay. Serbian migrant workers spoke of running from the police to avoid detention. They said they lived in housing with no heat or running water, and when they asked about their compensation, were told there was no money.
- While Human Rights Watch reported on January 13 that some workers would receive (some) back-pay, this doesn’t make up for the physical abuses that were widespread over the past five years, nor does it help any workers who already left – or were forcibly expelled – from Sochi.
- Residents of Sochi
- Sochi was a quiet resort town (did we mention that Putin chose one of the warmest places in Russia to host the Winter Games?), balmy and subtropical, that was extremely popular for Russian tourists. When the IOC awarded the Games to Sochi in 2007, construction and the forced eviction of families living on and around ‘Olympic’ land became a regular occurrence. This is sadly common with Olympic Games, and Sochi is no exception. Many of the residents were forced to sell their land for less than the value assessed for property taxes. While there is some official token paperwork involved, these forced evictions are land grabs by the Russian government from its own citizens for Putin’s vanity project.
The presence of corruption relating to Sochi should come as little surprise, even less so to hear that it’s Putin’s friends who are the primary beneficiaries of inflated prices for Olympic equipments. After all, for the last Winter Olympics, Vancouver spent around 9 billion. For the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China spent 43 billion. Sochi is estimated to cost around 50 billion dollars, making it the most expensive Olympics in the world. Alexey Navalny, Russia’s most well known anti-corruption activist, recently released a report where he and his colleagues attempted to detail the graft and inflationary spending related to Sochi. Buzzfeed did some great comprehensive coverage in English here. Some of my favorite examples include:
- A 28 year old regulatory agency director who’s already run 65 companies – many of which he was in charge of regulating;
- A Gazprom-owned power station built specifically for the Games costing around 450 million dollars over market value that still won’t provide enough energy to power the Games;
- The allegations that Russia’s state development bank – taxpayer money – accounted for 96% of the cost of the games. What’s disgusting about that is that 30% of that money is accounted for in offshore bank accounts whose owners are unknown.
3. Ties to organized crime
Many of the billionaire business men profiting from Sochi are in bed with, or directly run, organized crime. In Russia, many of the most profitable gangsters are “vory v zakone, or “thieves-in-law” – a once hard-won status bestowed upon the highest ranks of Russia’s criminal underworld.” Vory v zakone usually own no property themselves, but possess cloes ties to a number of businesses. Russia is known to have a deep interdependence between the mob and the state, so there’s almost no way organized crime wouldn’t be integral to the construction and production that went into Sochi. However, as this is broadly known, it’s yet another reason the IOC shouldn’t have award the Games to Russia in the first place.
4. Environmental concerns
Let’s start with the bulldozing of a UN World Heritage Site forest in 2010 to create a road for the Olympics that wiped out the local population of bear and deer. Additionally, Sochi is surrounded by marshlands, which are already very delicate ecosystems. The construction has been haphazard and messy, with officials even stating that if it’s not finished in time, they will let the snow cover up what’s unfinished. Russia’s World Wildlife Fund stated that Sochi was one of the most biodiverse areas in Russia, but the Olympics preparation wreaked havoc on the surrounding land. There is no indication that environmental impact studies were conducted prior to construction of any of the Olympic Structures, and if they were, they are not public. More to the point, it is extremely difficult to construct on soft wetlands ground – which could pose a danger for the structural integrity of the hastily-constructed buildings.
5. Disrespect to the Circassian peoples
Frankie Martin, writing for CNN did a great article on this and why it’s an issue – so I’ll let him take over:
The Circassians, who are mostly Muslim, resided in Sochi for millennia. In the 19th century, an expanding Russian Empire coveted their territory — which is south and east of Russia proper — and used overwhelming force to defeat them. Russia killed around 1.5 million Circassians and expelled a similar number, mostly to the Ottoman Empire, with many dying of famine and disease. Entire tribes were decimated; for example, the Shapsugh tribe was reduced from 300,000 to 3,000 people.
The bloodiest battle of all, which Circassians refer to as their “last stand,” occurred in the vicinity of Sochi, the Circassian capital, in 1864. The Circassians describe the catastrophe that befell their people as the first modern genocide.
Human remains were found at construction sites in Sochi, but it hardly slowed the relentless progress of Putin’s Games.
6. Security concerns
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace states that the North Caucasus are perpetually in a state of latent civil war. Many of the most restive regions are less than a day’s drive from Sochi. There are multiple separatist conflicts and Islamist insurgencies in the Northern Caucasus, and some groups have pledged to attack the Games to make their political statement. In the minds of those waging war against Russia, for free territory or to establish an Islamic caliphate, what better way to make their point than to ruin his dream of successful Olympic Games in Sochi? As our quotes leading the article demonstrated, everyone knows that these Games are a manifestation of Putin’s ego, and no more. Which feeds into the next point:
7. Censorship of all negative media coverage
For their own safety, Russian journalists are reporting that everything’s going well. They are self-censoring. The domestic news agencies only paint a positive picture of the coming games, out of fear of reprisal. International media is able to be more objective, but access is limited. To illustrate the pervasiveness of the media gag order on reporting, a 3.5 magnitude earthquake occurred in Sochi on the night of January 29, 2013. It remains to be seen if any of the Olympic structures were damaged or compromised.
The Olympic Games are known to be a foreign policy tool. They’re similar to a debutante ball for countries or cities. Beijing in 2008 was a clear statement by China that they were a presence, a force to be reckoned with, a global manifestation of China’s rise. The incredible buildings and successful games were material and figurative symbols of China’s prowess in the global order. London’s 2012 Games reminded the world that London is still a vibrant city and international player, despite the waning importance of Britain in the world order.
Has anyone said anything about Russia gaining something from these Games? Does anyone really think this is anything other than one man’s attempt to show his control over a restive region? There will be no interest in the Caucasus when this is done. Our region of interest will return to a few sentence stories in the back pages of the NYT World section. At best, this will be remembered as Putin’s Games, another of his stunts with the ego inherent to that name. At worst, it will be remembered as an environmental and human disaster.