Moscow views next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi as a chance to improve Russia’s image, but analysts say the event is unlikely to stifle Western criticism of its poor record on rights.
Like other big sporting events to be held in Russia — such as its first Formula 1 Grand Prix next year and the soccer World Cup in 2018 — the Sochi Olympics are a pet project for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Nestled between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea in Russia’s south, the resort city of Sochi was chosen to host the Games in a year’s time thanks to Putin’s vigorous efforts.
However, his bid to use grand international events to promote Russia’s image as a modern country and a major global power faces serious obstacles, including security concerns and endemic corruption.
“We will try to do something special, full of Russian mystery. Russia is a new, modern, very open and transparent country,” Sochi 2014 Olympic Organizing Committee president Dmitry Chernyshenko said last year.
Chernyshenko said that everything would be done for the Games to be held “in the safest environment” — a challenge, because Sochi is close to Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region, where deadly attacks by Islamist rebels are frequent.
Chechen Islamist leader Doku Umarov claimed both the 2011 bombing in Moscow’s Domodedovo airport that killed 37 people and a twin attack in the Moscow subway in 2010, which resulted in 40 deaths.
When Moscow in May said it had arrested near Sochi a group of Islamists armed with surface-to-air missiles who were preparing attacks during the Olympics, it became clear that the militant threat to the Sochi Games was more than just hypothetical.
Another headache for organizers is the widespread corruption. Several criminal cases have already been launched into public agencies and local enterprises working on Sochi construction sites.
Two companies in charge of building the main stadium and a bobsleigh track are being probed for allegedly embezzling more than 200 million euros (US$271.5 million).
The scandal went further when the judge who revealed fraudulent land distribution schemes was arrested. He later said he was tortured and threatened with death in custody.
“The Games will be a great event, a two-week celebration for sports fans, but it has been preceded by a period of theft on a colossal scale,” Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center said.
Like other analysts, Lipman does not believe the event could significantly improve Russia’s image.
“Relations with the West have deteriorated in recent times, especially with the United States. And even wonderful Sochi Olympics won’t suffice to make things better,” she said.
The Russian authorities have come under harsh Western criticism for the recent adoption of several controversial laws that the opposition says are restricting civil liberties.
Russia’s relations with Washington have also recently been strained by the adoption of a law prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian children — the Kremlin’s retribution for sanctions imposed against Russian officials accused of rights violations.
“The Olympics will have a positive effect on the country, but only in the short term. And there will be no effect abroad whatsoever,” said political analyst Mark Urnov of Russia’s Higher School of Economics.
Russia has a problem with its image, German Gref, the president of Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, said last month in Davos.
“What we need, is to improve our image, because we are better than what [they] think we are,” he said.