By Katie Morris

In 2014, Russia will host the Winter Olympic Games in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi. Potentially an opportunity to project a strong image of the country and develop international partnerships, the Games also run the risk of drawing attention to a number of issues Russia might prefer stayed hidden.

As a subtropical seaside town, preparing Sochi to host the Olympic Games was always going to be expensive. In addition to the construction of designated Olympic buildings, the preparations also require a total overhaul of the region's Soviet infrastructure. In many respects, this is the appeal of hosting the Olympics: an opportunity to attract investment and develop regional infrastructure projects to remain in use long after the Games themselves have been and gone. The country has also won the bid to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Russia certainly hopes to seize this opportunity to attract much-needed foreign investment and to recast the country as a safe environment for international business.

The preparations for the Olympics are, however, dogged by rumours of soaring costs, financial mismanagement and allegations of corruption at the highest level. Having originally promised a budget of twelve billion dollars (already a staggering sum, given that costs for the Vancouver Winter Games totalled two billion dollars), speculation now abounds that the real cost may be closer to thirty billion dollars, as funds are eaten up by incompetency and financial kickbacks. In the face of slowing economic growth and an increasing government deficit, private investors will be needed to pick up the shortfall; however reports of corruption threaten to drive away foreign sponsors and investors.

The Vladimir Putin-Dmitry Medvedev duo are working hard to dissipate such claims and offer guarantees of a safe investment climate. President Medvedev has personally intervened in the most high profile case concerning Valery Morozov, a Russian tycoon, who claimed that he had to pay a leading government official 12.5 percent bribes on an investment of 1.5 million roubles to secure a Sochi contract. By thrusting corruption issues into the international spotlight, the Games may offer an opportunity for Russia to step up its fight against corruption. Whether Russia is willing to do so will have implications for how the Games are remembered and its potential to muster future foreign investment.

Security Concerns

From terrorism to hooliganism to violent protest, security risks are inherent in any major sporting event; however, securitising the Sochi Games will arguably be a more challenging task than most. Located in Russia's southern Krasnodar region, Sochi neighbours the turbulent North Caucasus, home to numerous nationalities and ethnic groups. The Kremlin (although often using this situation as an excuse for its hardline behavior) has long battled with separatist, ethnic and Islamic militant threats emanating from the region. Despite officially declaring the end of a ten year anti-Terrorism campaign in the region in 2009, the last two years have seen a deterioration of the region's security profile.

The situation today has been described as a civil war by both western analysts and Russian officials and it is clear that unrest cannot be contained in the region. Terrorists from the North Caucasian Republic of Dagestan are believed to be responsible for the Moscow metro bombings in March 2009 in which forty people were killed; then, in November 2010, a bomb exploded in a train station just outside Sochi. Stabilising the region has been identified as an important priority of Russian domestic policy and 2010 saw a major shake-up of policy toward the region; however, worryingly, Moscow remains unable to get a grip on the situation.

The Games are also likely to attract protest groups, seeking to profit from the global attention to thrust their cause into the spotlight. The Circassians, an ethnic group originally from the North Caucasus, object to the Games on the grounds that Sochi was the site of the unrecognised genocide of 300,000 Circassians by the Russian Imperial army in 1864. Coincidentally, the 150th anniversary of the genocide falls in the same year as the 2014 Olympic Games and Circassian groups are lobbying for Russian recognition of the genocide.

Georgia, which has repeatedly called for the relocation of the Games, will seek to use them to protest at Russian recognition and support of Abkhazia, the breakaway region just 30 km from Sochi, as well as the ongoing presence of Russian troops. Demonstrations from environmental groups, protesting the degradation of the Black Sea Coastline caused by the Olympic preparations, and human rights groups objecting to the forced resettlement of local inhabitants to make way for Olympic buildings are also expected.

Russia insists that it will provide a safe and enjoyable Games for all and in May 2010, President Medvedev signed Federal Law 594 on 'Providing Security during the 2014 XXII Winter Olympic Games and XI Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi.' The law envisages 'strengthened security measures' from January 7 to April 16 and the formation of an emergency operations centre to deal with the increased security threat.

This opportunity to profit from international experience is a particular attraction of hosting the Olympics. Russia is currently working with partners from London, Vancouver and Guangzhou (host of the recent Asian Games) to share security knowledge and best practices - a real opportunity from which Russia can hope to profit. And yet, given the prolonged difficulties the Kremlin has experienced in bringing peace to the region, Russia may well struggle to implement adequate security guarantees whilst remaining unintrusive.

Testing The Field

On hearing that Russia had secured its bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, Vladimir Putin stated that the decision was 'not just a recognition of Russia's sporting achievements, but... beyond any doubt, a judgement of our country.' A matter of great pride for any country, hosting major sporting events offers emerging markets especially the opportunity to consolidate a global identity and leave a lasting impression as significant international players, be that positive or negative. Thus, for Seoul, hosting the Winter Olympics in 1988 provided an opportunity to confirm its transition from a developing to developed country, while India found out the cost of negative attention when its lack of preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games invited unwanted international scrutiny of the country's corruption and poverty levels.

Having also won the bid to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Russia seems to be placing the hosting of worldwide sporting events as a major component of a foreign policy designed to attract much needed foreign investment and knowledge, while portraying Russia as a powerful global player. Putin's close association with the Games adds a further dimension. Having lobbied hard to secure both bids, a failure to deliver will be interpreted as the failure of his personal project. Accordingly, money will be poured into the Games to avoid this eventuality. Nevertheless, the Games will bring to the forefront issues upon which Putin and his successor Medvedev have built their rule. If dealt with well, this could be an opportunity for Russia to strengthen its international reputation; on the other hand, disruption may lead to an unfavourable characterisation of the project as a whole.

Either way, it looks as though once again the Olympics are shaping up to be about more than just sport.

(Katie Morris is working with the European Friends of Armenia.)


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