Putin’s Olympic Gamble

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Vladimir Putin 009

2013 was a good year for Russia's Vladimir Putin. He was generally seen as a peacemaker after he persuaded the Syrian regime to surrender its chemical weapons, heading off a US military strike, creating a buzz about a “resurgent Russia.” He provided a safe haven to Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, becoming the only leader to resist US pressure. He convinced Ukraine to abandon an association agreement with the Eureopean Union which would have brought Kiev into Brussel's orbit. Shortly before Christmas, he pardoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the leading Russian supporter of human rights groups until Putin imprisoned him for more than ten years, a move which led analysts to speak of a "Putin thaw". In October, Forbes magazine anointed Vladimir Putin as the planet's most powerful man, ahead of both Barack Obama and Xi Jinping.

In the same way, Russia's BRICS membership - and its active role in turning it in what the grouping is today - is a the result of Russia's diplomatic brilliance, considering that it is not really an emerging power at all. Quite to the contrary, Russia's social indicators are depressing (e.g., Russia's life expectancy is lower than that in Niger and Eritrea). In addition, Russia is expanding its diplomatic and economic presence yet again in Africa, a region which leaders in Moscow had largely abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Even economically, the country has weathered global turbulences rather well. The country has over 16.5 trillion rubles ($500 billion) of foreign-exchange reserves—nearly three times the size of its national debt. (Britain’s reserves are less than a tenth of its national debt). Growing access to gas, oil and other natural resources in Siberia and around the North Pole as a consequence of global warming may lead to massive economic benefits for Russia.

Perhaps most impressively of all, Putin frequently speaks of his goal to move Russia up the World Bank’s annual “Doing Business” rankings. As The Economist writes, early results are impressive: Russia advanced 19 slots, to 92nd place this year, largely by reducing bureaucratic hurdles. Russia improved more in this year’s report than any of its BRICS peers. Further progress to reach Mr Putin’s stated goal of 20th place by 2018 will require profound reforms to the courts and law enforcement. China, by contrast, has fiercely criticized the ranking, and India, Brazil and South Africa seem to be incapable of undertaking necessary reforms to increase their competitiveness.

Yet Putin’s latest project – proving that Russia can host an Olympics as successfully as Beijing – is a risky gamble and could easily backfire. Russia’s many world-class athletes are likely to excel and strengthen national pride. Yet global attention to Russia's human rights abuses may put growing pressure on the President. In addition, the Olympics offer an opportunity for terrorist groups to increase their bargaining power against the government in Moscow. Some argue that the risk is that the greater the Olympic's success, the more likely it is that Chechen and other insurgents will seek more targets, at an even more terrible human cost.

Doku Umarov, the self-proclaimed emir of the northern Caucasus and a Chechen terrorist leader, pledged to disrupt the Sochi winter Olympics and lifted a moratorium on civilian targets in Russia that he had imposed in the wake of anti-government protests in December 2011. As a consequence, security measures will be extreme. The border with Abkhazia will be closed, and control checkpoints have already been installed on the roads. Road traffic in the city will be limited, as will be sailing on the Black Sea. Recent attacks killed 30 people in Volgograd, an important transportation hub 400 miles away from Sochi.

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Source: The Economist

“I can tell you with certainty that if we hadn’t restored territorial integrity, if we hadn’t put an end to the turmoil in the Caucasus, if we hadn’t fixed the economy and the social issues, there wouldn’t be any Olympics,” Putin said in 2007. He became President in 1999, in the midst of the second war in Chechnya, and Putin has since severely reduced the region's autonomy and curtailed political freedoms in the context of this war on terror.

Yet the Caucasus is not at peace. To the East the Republic of Dagestan is infected by civil war. Kabardino-Balkaria and the region around Stavropol are plagued by Islamist groups. At least 700 people were killed in the Northern Caucasus in 2012 alone. The crisis has mutated from a fight of separatists into a global jihad aimed at establishing Islamist sharia law across the region. One of the suicide bombers in Volgograd bombers was an ethnic Russian man who had converted to Islam.

Similar to India's Kashmir problem, the separatists are not the only ones to blame. Rather, the Russian government's use of violence against civilians in their pursuit of terrorists, economic stagnation and the failure to provide decent public services have all led to radicalization, Islamist fundamentalism and a notion that Muslims are not seen as full Russian citizens. In fact, efforts of ethnic minorities to assert themselves in Russia are routinely dimissed by Putin as the criminal behavior of “ethnic mafias.” In Dagestan, even the modest attempts by state authorities to establish a dialogue with moderate Salafists have been discarded: their mosques and schools have been closed down and their spiritual leaders persecuted. Perhaps most worryingly for Putin, the problem will not go away on its own. While Russia's overall population declines, the country's Muslim population, mostly in regions affected by the conflict, is growing rapidly. Furthermore, one day hundreds of Russian battle-hardened jihadists will return from Syria, eager to rejoin the fight against the central government.

Very few people are aware of the fact that Russia faces such a potent and long-lasting internal threat. President Putin will try everything to avoid that jihadists will use the Olympic games as a stage to put their struggle in the global spotlight.

Photo credit: Reuters

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For those interested in reading more about the Caucasus, I recommend Thomas de Waal's excellent "The Caucasus: An introduction".
 

Read also:

Why the anti-BRICS hype is overblown

What is Russia’s role in the BRICS?

Russia goes to Africa

Photo credit: Barcroft Media/Itar/Tass