Meet The Post-Soviet Athletes Whose Countries Are In Putin’s Crosshairs (PHOTOS)

Sochi's post-Soviet athletes. Meet the competitors whose countries are in Putin's crosshairs.

Radek Petrasek

Sochi's Post-Soviet Athletes

Geopolitics have always provided a fraught backdrop to the Olympics—from the 1936 Berlin Games on the eve of the Second World War to the Cold War boycotts of '80 and '84 and China's global coming-out party for Beijing in 2008. This year, as athletes and dignitaries start arriving for the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia's relations with its post-Soviet neighbors will be the proverbial elephant on the ski slope—from tussles over the fraught Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to the riots wracking Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin's bid to bring the former Soviet Socialist republics into a 'Eurasian Customs Union'. Here's a brief rundown of some top competitors from Russia's former satellites and current attitudes back home towards their former Moscow overlords.

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Armenia

Arman Serebrakian (Alpine Skiing)

Though 26-year-old Arman Serebrakian grew up in California, the ethnic Armenian (whose family fled Iran after the fall of the Shah) will be skiing under the country’s flag for the Sochi Games. After a torn ligament derailed Serebrakian’s U.S. Ski Team dreams, the Armenian Ski Federation approached him in 2009 to compete for the former Soviet Republic. (His sister also raced for Armenia in Vancouver.) He may find a built-in fan base at Sochi—the Black Sea region houses between 300,000-500,000 ethnic Armenians.

Meanwhile, Armenia’s rapprochement with Russia—President Serzh Sargsyan opted out of an EU free trade agreement to join Putin’s Eurasian Customs Union, the same scenario that has set off violent riots in Ukraine—has caused consternation among other post-Soviet states, and triggered domestic protests.  At a recent speech in the capital of Yerevan, Putin made his intentions clear:  “Russia has never intended to go away from here,” he said. “We will be strengthening our positions in the Transcaucasus...drawing upon good relationships with all the countries of the region, including with Armenia.

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Azerbaijan

Alexei Sitnikov and Julia Zlobina (Figure Skating)

Azerbaijan has a tradition of using foreign athletes as opposed to home-grown talent in the Winter Olympics and Sochi is no exception. Of the four sportsmen and women competing for the country, two are former Russians: Alexei Sitnikov and Julia Zlobina, a figure-skating duo.

Even as Azerbaijan welcomes ice dancers Sitnikov and Zlobina into its Sochi fold, however, the country’s government has expressed concern over Putin’s coziness with neighboring Armenia. The two states are in a heated dispute over a territory called Nagorno Karabakh, and last fall, the commander of the main Russian base in Armenia hinted that his country “may join in the armed conflict” if Baku tried to take the region back by force. On the occasion of Putin’s visit to Yerevan, one Azerbaijani parliamentarian fumed, “With this visit and by increasing the number of Russian troops in Armenia, Russia is stimulating the regional arms race…this is a threat to the lasting peace of the region.

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Belarus

Alexei Grishin (Freestyle Skiing), Sergey Novikov and Darya Domracheva (Biathalon)

Belarus’s skiing team made a strong showing in the Vancouver Games, with Alexei Grishin taking the gold in freestyle skiing and Sergey Novikov and Darya Domracheva (pictured here) winning silver and bronze respectively in the biathlon. But relations between the leaders of Russia and Belarus are a little more slippery. Putin pledge a $2 billion loan to the repressive republic in December, and its dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko has long been accused of being a lapdog of the Kremlin. However, Lukashenko has resisted Russian pressure to recognize the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and he’s forged stronger ties with Beijing in recent months, in an apparent move to find a new sugar-daddy empire to prop up his police state.

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Georgia

Iason Abramashvili, Alex Beniaidze and Nino Tsiklauri (Alpine Skiing), and  Elene Gedevanishvili (Figure Skating)

Georgia’s Olympic team suffered a serious blow in Vancouver with the death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in a training run on the first day of the Games.  Four years later, Kumaritashvili’s teammates are back to honor his memory, including his hometown compatriot Iason Abramashvili, who will be competing in the alpine skiing competition along with Alex Beniaidze (not pictured) and Nino Tsiklauri.

Of all the former Soviet republics attending the Games, Georgia has suffered the most fraught history with Russia. The two countries went to war in 2008 over the contested territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia—which Russia now occupies militarily and which are only recognized by five countries worldwide, including Venezuela and the Pacific atoll nation of Tuvalu—and the breakaway republics continue to cause massive amounts of friction between Tbilisi and Moscow. Sochi is mere miles away from the Abkhazian border, and Georgia has protested Russia’s pushing of its Olympics security perimeter into Abkhazian territory as an “illegal expansion.”

Raven-haired beauty Elene Gedevanishvili is a three-time Olympian and two-time European bronze medalist in figure skating—and she might have been skating for Russia had the country not revoked her mother’s visa in 2006 on a technicality. Given 10 days to leave the country, the Tbilisi-born Gedevanishvili headed to Estonia to train. Eventually, she ended up in New Jersey, where her mentors have included former coach of Olympic gold medalist Oksana Baiul. A win for Gedevanishvili on the ice would certainly be a black eye for her former host country.

Estonia

Warren Cummings Smith (Alpine Skiing)

At 21 years old, dual citizen Warren Cummings Smith (known as “Trace” to his family and Dartmouth pals) is about to make his Olympics debut as one of two Estonian alpine skiers to race in Sochi. The Massachusetts native told his college paper that he’s enjoyed learning about Estonia’s history from his teammates: “It’s been really cool to hear those firsthand accounts of the history of the country and what it was like there, especially during the Soviet years, and the skiing has just afforded me that opportunity that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

Putin may not be so eager to remember Estonia’s history with the U.S.S.R.—according to a confidential 2009 cable leaked by Wikileaks, the Russian President has a “personal gripe” with the country and has sought to make relations “difficult at the political level.” The beef? Estonian farmers allegedly betrayed Putin’s father, a Red Army soldier, to the Nazis during World War II after her parachuted into the country for a secret operation. Putin pere managed to make a getaway, but was injured during the escape.

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Estonia

Karl-August Tiirmaa and Kristjan Ilves (Nordic combined)

Estonia is also sending a banner roster of homegrown athletes to the Games, including Nordic Combined skiers Karl-August Tiirmaa and Kristjan Ilves. At 25 and 18 years old respectively, the two young men are seen as forces to be reckoned with on the slopes.

Yves Herman/Reuters

Kazakhstan

Alexey Poltoranin and Nikolay Chebotko (Cross-country skiing) and Elena Khrustaleva (Biathalon)

Kazakhstan’s ski bunnies are no strangers to the medal podium: the team of cross-country competitors Alexey Poltoranin and Nikolay Chebotko won bronze at the 2013 World Championships in Val di Fiemme and biathalete Elena Khrustaleva (not pictured) received a silver medal for her performance at the Vancouver Games.  

Of all the athletes from post-Soviet states, the Kazhakhs may find a warm welcome in Russia—despite declaring independence in 1991 (the last of the former Soviet Socialist republic to do so), longtime president Nursultan Nazarbayev—now in his 24th year in power—has been pushing for a Eurasian Union with Russia since 1994. “Kazakshtan and President Nazarbayev personally have always stood for closer economic integration with Russia and other countries of the former USSR,” a Kazakh foreign ministry official told the Daily Telegraph in 2011. That's gotta be music to Putin's ears.

Bob Strong/Reuters

Kyrgyzstan

Dmitry Trelevski (Alpine Skiing)

The chromosome-shaped nation of Kyrgystan is only sending one athlete to the 2014 Games—Dmitry Trelevski, who competed in Vancouver in the slalom and giant slalom—but the country itself holds strategic importance for both Russia and the United States. America has stationed troops at the Manas military base during the war in Afghanistan, though Kyrgyzstan declined to extend the Americans’ lease past this summer. Meanwhile, Russia has dangled the promise of more than a billion in military aid before President Almazbek Atambayev—and Putin is expected to use the economic leverage to pressure Kyrgyzstan into allowing Moscow more influence on issues of Central Asian security.

Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

Latvia

Martins Dukurs (Skeleton) and Andris and Juris Sics (Luge)

Latvia’s athletes netted two silvers for the country at the Vancouver Games, thanks to Skeleton racer Martins Dukurs and the sibling luge team of Andris and Juris Sics. If they medal at Sochi, they’ll represent a nation that rang in 2014 by joining the eurozone in a decided turn towards Europe and away from the old Soviet bloc. Riga and Moscow have been known to exchange snipes, with Putin claiming that Latvia wants to “glorify the Nazis” and with the Latvian government suggesting that Putin should apologize for the “Soviet occupation.”

Jennifer Virskus/Kalnu Ereliai Ski Team

Lithuania

Ieva Januskeviciute (Alpine skiing)

For titillating tweets and sassy selfies from Sochi, look no further than Lithuanian alpine skier Ieva Januskeviciute, whose twitter feed overfloweth with such English-language gems as: “Just bought the cutest underpants ever...and the same for my sis :) #twinsies #striped #underpants” and topless pics atop spectacular mountain ranges. Her country’s relationship with Russia is decidedly less sunny—President Dalia Grybauskaite has announced she will not attend the Games because she did "not see a political possibility" to do so considering Russia’s “human-rights violations, as well as an attitude towards and treatment of Eastern Partners, including Lithuania.”

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Tajikistan

Alisher Qudratov (Alpine skiing)

Tajikistan’s only Sochi competitor, alpine skier Alisher Qudratov, held his own at the most recent Asian Winter Games and has the chance to win a medal for his nation, which borders Afghanistan to the north. Officials in Dushanbe and in Moscow are both focused on the future of Russian military bases in the country, and Putin has promised to help modernize the Tajik military and station troops in the country in preparation for NATO’s Afghan pullout this year. Meanwhile, according to Gallup, some 94 percent of Tajiks approve of “Russian leadership.”

Hakon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix, via Reuters

Ukraine

Andriy Deryzemlya (Biathalon)

Ukraine is sending a host of athletes to the Games, including Andriy Deryzemlya, who has medaled at the Biathalon World Championships. But when the country’s athletes take to the slopes and the ice, it will be nearly impossible not to note the tense standoff in their capital of Kyev, where police and anti-government protesters have been locked into a Hunger Games-esque showdown for the past few weeks. President Viktor Yanukovych plans to attend the opening ceremonies, just weeks after his prime minister resigned in a bid to quell the chaos and as reports emerge of activists tortured by official ‘death squads’. Kremlin analysts, meanwhile, have taken to speculating about the possibility of annexing parts of eastern and southern Ukraine—uncanny timing, as Moscow staged a similar intervention in Georgia during the Beijing Games.

Mark Blinch/Reuters

Uzbekistan

Misha Ge (Figure Skating)

Meet Misha Ge—Twitter handle “Sk8Prince”—Uzbekistan’s best and only hope for a figure-skating medal in the Sochi Games. The colorful aristocrat of the ice, who describes his personality as “nice but crazy,” is based in Beijing and has been skating since the tender age of three. Ge will surely be entertaining for audiences at Sochi—far more entertaining than the state of politics back home, where strongman Islam Karimov has ruled as the country’s first and only post-Soviet leader. Relations between Karimov and the West are bad, but ties between Moscow and Tashkent are hardly warmer, as Karimov has sought to forge a third way between Western influence and Soviet history.