January 30th, 2014

Russia and the Olympics: a brief background


Political tensions and human rights are in the spotlight as athletes gather in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, Russia for the 22nd Annual Winter Olympics.

The route of the Olympic torch as it approaches Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games

The route of the Olympic torch as it approaches Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games

Russia has already come under heavy criticism from other Western countries for civil rights violations against the Russian rulers’ political opponents, migrant workers and gays, as well as rampant corruption that has made the Sochi Olympics the most expensive in history.

Russia is the largest country in the world by territory (almost twice the land size of the U.S.), with land stretching from Eastern Europe across Asia to the Pacific Ocean, and a diverse population of about 140 million people. Russia was a part of the Soviet Union, a single-party communist state, until 1991, when the union dissolved into 15 post-Soviet states and Russia took steps to democratize its government.

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Click above for a full scale map of Russia’s major cities and ethnic groups.

Sochi sits in a mountainous region between the Black and Caspian Seas known as the Caucasus. While the northern part of the Caucasus is controlled by Russia, other regions are famously autonomous, including the large Dagestan region and Chechnya, both of which have large Muslim populations.

Russian – Chechen tension high going into Olympics

Russia has been in conflict with Chechens, a North Caucasian Muslim ethnic group, for more than 200 years, when Russia started pushing its influence into the North Caucasus region. In recent years, separatists and radical Islamists fighting for Chechnya’s independence from Russia have staged large-scale public terror attacks, including the 1999 Russian apartment bombing, the 2002 Moscow theatre hostage crisis, the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis, the 2010 Moscow Metro bombings and the 2011 Domodedovo airport bombing.Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 3.21.06 PM

On the other hand, the BBC writes, “Human rights groups at home and abroad have accused Russian forces in Chechnya of widespread abuses against the public. Since the September 11 attacks on the U.S., Moscow has tried to present its campaign as part of the global war against terrorism.”

During the 2000 Russian elections, Putin ran partly on a platform of restoring order to the Caucasus region, and crushing the Chechen independence movement.

Now, Russia is on high alert for Chechen terror attacks going into the Winter Olympic Games. Chechen Islamic extremists took responsibility for twin bombings in the southern Russian city of Volgograd in late December as part of a renewed offensive against Russian targets. Because security at the games will be almost impenetrable, the focus on Sochi has taken security resources away from other parts of Russia, and as the Washington Post reports, “Islamist extremists have vowed to bring violence to the Russian heartland.”

Russia faces civil rights criticism from abroad

Russia’s relationship with the United States and other Western nations has been strained in recent years because of civil rights abuses against political enemies and members of minority factions.

In June, Russia banned the distribution of homosexual “propaganda” to minors, effectively making all expressions of homosexuality illegal, including gay pride parades or even mentioning homosexuality around young people. This ban earned the ire of the international community, which expressed concern that gay fans and athletes attending the games could be prosecuted under Russian law.

President Obama and Vice President Biden, along with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and French President Francois Hollande will not attend the games in protest of the policy.

Other nations and some Russian leaders have also criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin of moving the country away from democracy.

Mikhael Gorbachev, who led the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991, told the BBC in 2010 that Russia’s ruling party, led by Putin, “has been doing everything it can to move away from democracy, to stay in power.”

“I am very concerned, we’re only half way down the road from a totalitarian regime to democracy and freedom,” he said. “And the battle continues. There are still many people in our society who fear democracy and would prefer a totalitarian regime.”

In an effort to mend his reputation, Putin announced he would release several political prisoners that had gained international attention. One of those prisoners is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia’s richest man a political threat to Mr. Putin in the early 2000’s. He was arrested at gunpoint in 2003 on charges of embezzlement.

“Putin needs to improve his relations with the west . . . and Khodorkovsky was one of the lesser evils,” Sergei Aleksashenko, a former central banker and now an economist told the Financial Times.

“He also needs to improve his relations with business,” he continued. “I think many business people, even those loyal to Putin, said, ‘It’s been too long, you have to solve this.’”

Other released prisoners include two members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot, Greenpeace activists and opposition protesters arrested in Moscow after clashes with the police last year.

Putin faces charges of corruption

In the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics, Putin has pulled out all the stops to make sure the games run smoothly and display a modern and exciting Russia that isn’t typically shown in the media. However, this effort has led to the most expensive games in Olympic history at $50 billion, and has raised questions about the role of corruption in the construction of Olympic facilities.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that Gian-Franco Kasper, president of the International Ski Federation and a Swiss member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) told a Swiss radio station,”corruption appears to be an “everyday matter” in Russia, and that he estimates as much as $18 billion of Sochi’s vast construction and development budget was simply embezzled.”

Putin’s political opponents within Russia go further, saying that high-ranking officials involved in the preparation for the games may have stolen more than half of the $50 billion price tag.

“In preparing for the Olympics $25 to $30 billion was stolen,” Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov told reporters.

According to Reuters, Nemtsov later wrote on his blog, “Only oligarchs and companies close to Putin got rich…The absence of fair competition, cronyism… have led to a sharp increase in the costs and to the poor quality of the work to prepare for the Games.”

The Olympic Winter Games are scheduled to start February 6 and run through February 23. View the route of the Olympic torch as it crosses Russia in the interactive map here.

— Compiled by Allison McCartney for NewsHour Extra

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