There was no shortage of good reasons for President Obama to cancel his scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, but most of the attention went to Russia granting asylum to the American fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden a few days earlier. The coverage reflects the short attention span and limited interest in Russia in the Western press, but it may also be accurate. After all, the list of ways Putin has worked against American and European interests was quite long already, with Syria, Iran, and missile defense on top, but previously Obama had been content to sit down across from Putin and spout the usual blather about cooperation and friendship. Nor has the U.S. administration paid much mind to Putin’s increasingly brutal and widespread crackdown against human rights and civil society.
If it took a personal jab over the inconsequential figure of Snowden to at last rouse Obama to begin stand up to Putin, then doing the right thing for the wrong reason is better than nothing at all. As recommended by U.S. Senator John McCain on a Sunday television appearance, Obama should now put some real pressure on Putin by aggressively expanding the Magnitsky Act legislation that sanctions Russian officials and others who commit crimes under Putin’s protection. Properly implemented and expanded to Europe, where so many of Putin’s cronies enjoy spending their time and money, such legislation could truly shake Putin’s power structure.
There is a parallel to be found in the recent outburst of international condemnation of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games scheduled to be held in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi next February. The numerous protests, both online and in crowds in the U.S., Europe, Australia and elsewhere, are in response to the harsh anti-gay law passed in my country in June, a law with broad and open-ended powers to punish and discriminate against gays and anyone who would defend or even talk publicly about homosexuality. Its passage was of a piece with the constant encroachment on free speech and other constitutional rights in Putin’s Russia, and also in keeping with the Kremlin’s politically convenient, and quite unholy, alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church.
This “homosexual propaganda” law is only the broadest and most recent of many similar ones in a Russia where gays are the routine victims of both official and unofficial discrimination, harassment, and violence. That Russia is a signatory to various European and international conventions that forbid this sort of discrimination has been largely ignored by the EU and its so-called leadership. So it is very welcome to see artists, activists, and regular citizens stepping into the gap to stand up for Russian human rights, which of course are what gay rights are a subset of. Figures as diverse as Tilda Swinton, Lady Gaga, and Stephen Fry have made public statements, including Fry’s eloquent letter to the International Olympic Committee and Prime Minister David Cameron to propose moving or boycotting the Sochi Games.
There were already many reasons Sochi should never have been awarded the Olympics. That it is a sub-tropical summer resort with weather rarely nearing the freezing point is the most obvious. That Sochi was entirely without the required facilities when the Games were awarded on July 4, 2007, over Salzburg and Pyeongchang, added to the surprise. It was clear from the start it would be a human and environmental catastrophe for the delicate region. Sochi also borders the North Caucasus, a hotbed of both Islamicist terror and Russian military brutality, infamous for terror attacks in Ingushetia and regular bombings in Dagestan and for the horrific Chechen wars of the last decades.
The Kremlin invested more than money into the Sochi project during the brief 2008 war with Georgia when it annexed the territories of Abkhazia and North Ossetia by force of arms. Sochi lies 30 miles from Russian-occupied Abkhazia—still Georgian territory, by the way—an opportune way to secure a weak flank and to supply the massive Olympic construction effort. The athletes’ Olympic Village is located just five miles from the Abkhazia border and is built next to an ancient cemetery for good measure. Many Sochi citizens have had their homes and businesses destroyed and the surrounding area has been turned into an ecological disaster zone that will only worsen once the area is abandoned a few minutes after the Olympic torch is extinguished.
The Putin regime is and always has been about one thing: money. Specifically, about how to move it into the bank accounts of Putin’s allies. I long ago described our government as a perverse combination of Adam Smith and Karl Marx in which the costs are nationalized and the profits are privatized. Hosting the Olympic Games, a first for Russia, as the 1980 Games in Moscow was in the USSR, is a perfect way to shift tens of billions of dollars from the treasury and state-owned banks into private hands. Everything from infrastructure to venues and hotels to catering is being done by companies hand-picked by the regime and it’s no surprise to find the names of many of Putin’s closest pals “going for the gold” a bit early in Sochi. The price tag has soared far beyond the promised $12 billion to an estimated $50 billion, more costly even than the lavish 2008 Beijing Summer Games. According to The Economist, the companies of Putin’s old judo buddy Arkady Rotenburg alone have received $7.4 billion in contracts. The entire 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympiad cost $6 billion.
Hosting the Games in Sochi would be a dubious effort even if the classic old resort town were being turned into Xanadu with Putin as Kubla Khan. But due to epic levels of corruption, most of the money will never even make it to Sochi. The construction that is being done is shoddy and many of the ambitious projects aren’t scheduled to be built until after the Games. That is, they will never be built at all. It is fair to say that Switzerland will win the most gold from Sochi regardless of the success of their team.
The IOC members must possess tremendous faith to entrust the Games to Sochi in the face of such obstacles! Many of my colleagues in the opposition and I protested the bid from the start. When the degree of the chaos and corruption became evident, we petitioned the IOC to move the Games before it was too late. It is now impossible for such a relocation to happen, but this does not mean it is time to give up the fight. In fact, this new wave of Sochi protests over the anti-gay law illustrates that this is a perfect opportunity to turn Putin’s dreamt-of showcase into a spotlight that exposes his cruel regime on a global stage.
As a lifelong professional sportsman, first for the Soviet Union and then for Russia, I cannot endorse a boycott of Sochi by the Olympic teams. Such maneuvers unfairly punish athletes with no regard for their personal views. I was nearly a victim of “sports politics” myself more than once as a young man. In 1983, I was told I could not travel to Pasadena, California, to play a world championship candidates match against Soviet defector Viktor Korchnoi. The Soviet Sports Committee was already planning to boycott the 1984 Summer Games in nearby Los Angeles in retaliation for the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow. I was initially forfeited for failing to appear and I was fortunate that eventually the match was relocated to London, where I won and continued my ascent to winning the crown in 1985. It is impossible to know what might have happened to my career had the forfeit stood and had I been forced to wait another three years to challenge Karpov.
I believe strongly in the power of sport to break down barriers and to cross borders. The athletes will go to Sochi and I wish them all the best. May they break many records and provide joy to sports fans around the world. The focus should be on sport and the athletes, first and foremost. But sport is part of culture, of life, and there is an opportunity for the athletes and visiting fans and media to have a real impact on human rights in Russia. Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko and several Duma members have reiterated in recent days that despite the IOC’s confused assurances, the “homosexual propaganda” law stands and Sochi athletes will “face consequences” if they violate it. I seriously doubt, however, that the militarized police forces in Sochi will dare to harass any foreign guests with the world watching.
Everyone remembers the “Black Power” salutes raised by American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the medal podium in Mexico City in 1968. Sochi will be ripe for similar gestures. So I hope the visitors will wave rainbow flags and speak in favor of free speech and against hatred and bigotry. The television networks should discuss the law and what it means to be gay in Putin’s Russia. Sponsors should include LGBT individuals and human-rights themes in their Olympic advertisements. Of course the decision to act is up to each individual, but in the West, unlike in Russia, politicians and sponsors still listen to the people!
The Sochi boycott that is required is a boycott by world leaders, by celebrities and sponsors, by CEOs and fans. Do not come to Sochi to sit next to Putin in his stately pleasure dome, pretending it is a world apart from the police state he has created. Let the stadiums sit vacant, especially the VIP sections Putin hopes to fill with presidents and prime ministers. As Stephen Fry’s letter pointed out, the world’s embrace of the 1936 Berlin Games gave Adolf Hitler a huge boost of confidence. (It is politically incorrect to speak of today, but the entire French Olympic team raised their arms in a stiff Nazi salute as they passed by the führer during the opening ceremony.) By 1936, Hitler’s government had spent years persecuting Germany’s Jews. The Nazis also attacked homosexuals, the handicapped, gypsies, and political opponents, a model of oppressing the most vulnerable that Putin is following by going after immigrants, gays, and the opposition. Giving dictators what they want in the hopes of getting on their good side always fails. It drags you down to their level and makes you an accomplice to their crimes.
Putin seeks similar adulation in Sochi and he must not receive it. Let him fill the seats at his side with the oligarchs and flunkies he pays so well and not the leaders of the free world. Shun him and shame him for his bigotry and cruelty. Politicians must not be allowed to use the athletes as shields for their own cowardice. The world will be watching.