The opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games (February 7) was just about picture-perfect, and the sizeable legion of critics, including most of the home-grown disbelievers in the ability of the ruling plutocracy to organize this mega-event, had to eat their words. It is indeed time to focus on superior athletic achievements—and to acknowledge the efforts that so many Russians have put into ensuring a spectacular celebration of the Olympic spirit. Commentators now prefer to drop the tired topic of these games as the pet project of President Vladimir Putin, particularly as his role in the super-high-tech ceremony was reduced to a minimum, perhaps with the exception of granting his alleged girlfriend Alina Kabayeva the privilege of running with the torch in the arena (RBC Daily, February 8). The main theme of the show was the cultural richness of Russian history, and what impressed many spectators was the emphasis on the openness of this tradition—from the ancient Greeks to the hipsters of the 1960s—rather than on the typical “patriotic” juxtaposition of Russia against the decadent West (http://www.besttoday.ru/subjects/1773.html).
This cultured “Europeanness” stands in sharp contrast with the severe mistreatment by police of gay rights activists or fans of the independent radio station Dozhd, who staged symbolic actions at Red Square in Moscow (http://lenta.ru/news/2014/02/07/contactinredsquare/). Nevertheless, the vast majority of Russians want to take pride in the excellent preparation of the sport venues and to rejoice in the victories of skiers or figure skaters, even if few are allowed to approach the tightly guarded ski tracks. Pretty much no one in Russia expresses any more interest in the security issues inside “fortress Sochi,” or in the poor quality of the basic comforts provided for Western journalists (New Times, February 3). What people want to see in the heavily-hyped Games is the culmination of the dream of Russia earning admiration and respect by demonstrating its resourcefulness and ingenuity—and the super-show of igniting the Olympic flame answered this dream perfectly (Novaya Gazeta, February 8). It is sobering to remember, however, that Ukraine had exactly the same dream before staging the European soccer championship in summer 2012 (co-hosted with neighboring Poland); but just a year and a half later, the moment of national unity and joy transmogrified into a fiercely divisive political crisis (http://grani.ru/opinion/portnikov/m.224264.html).
Russia is certainly in a far stronger financial position than Ukraine was and can afford the mind-boggling costs of turning Sochi from a modest summer resort into a glitzy capital of winter sports. Nevertheless, the Olympic project has disproved the proposition that massive state investments could have a multiplier effect in attracting private capital and shape a cluster of strong economic growth (http://ej.ru/?a=note&id=24361). One part of the problem is certainly the deservedly decried corruption, which reached proportions re-writing all the records of Russian bureaucratic predation (http://sochi.fbk.info/ru/, accessed February 9). Another and perhaps more fundamental problem is the loss of faith among the stake-holders in the stability of their political grasp on power and in the safety of their fortunes, which has driven a massive evacuation of money, including the funds stolen in Sochi, to “off-shore” bank accounts.
The Sochi project was launched back in 2007, when the Russian economy’s expansion rivaled China’s, but it has never regained that dynamism since the deep contraction in 2008–2009. Thus, the Games that were supposed to highlight Russia’s energy have instead become an extravagant spectacle to compensate for the recent torpor. Just about half of all Russians still believe that staging the Olympics is good for the country, and if the Games proceed smoothly, this support may even temporarily increase (http://www.levada.ru/05-02-2014/zimnie-olimpiiskie-igry-v-sochi-interes-nadezhdy-i-otsenka). The reality of a falling ruble is, however, far more convincing than any amount of fireworks in Sochi; so the idea that the exorbitant expenses were in fact unaffordable will inevitably start to sink in soon (Kommersant-Dengi, February 3). The corruption around the Sochi Olympics has become a serious factor discouraging foreign investors. Consequently, Russia has suffered from the global trend in capital flows shifting away from “emerging markets” more than the high and stable oil price would warrant (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 5). Economists generally agree that the Olympic expenditures will have no stimulating effect on the Russian economy, and Russians already accept the reality of stagnation. But nobody can estimate the possible impact of a looming sovereign default in Ukraine (RBC Daily, February 6).
This crisis next door has not halted for the duration of the Olympic Games, and Putin’s first meeting in the round of mini-summits in Sochi was with Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich (http://newsru.com/russia/08feb2014/putinyanukovich.html). Moreover, one piece of non-Olympic news that made headlines in the Russian media this past week (February 6) was the intercepted phone conversation of US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland with the United States’ ambassador to Kyiv, Geoffrey Pyatt. And while the mainstream commentary has focused on Western “interference,” pundits point out that Washington is irritated with the European Union’s inaction but has no clue about how to sort out the mess itself (Moskovsky Komsomolets, February 8). It would take a joint and sustained effort of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Russia, the EU and the US to bail Ukraine out of the financial quagmire it is fast sinking in. Yet, it is plainly clear that Putin has no intention of supporting any government formed by the opposition—meanwhile, for Western leaders, Yanukovich has become an outcast nearly on par with Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (another guest of honor in Sochi) (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 5).
This “zero-sum game” plays into the hands of thugs who harass peaceful protesters as well as extremists who provoke violent clashes. As a result, the Ukrainian standoff is on the verge of a complete breakdown in governance even before the closing ceremony in Sochi on February 23. A collapse of Ukraine—a key element in the Kremlin’s “Eurasian” integrationist vision—would spoil Putin’s games no less dramatically than a terrorist attack in the North Caucasus, where counter-insurgency operations continue non-stop as the Olympics proceed. The question to watch for is whether, in the hard months ahead, Russians look back on the Games with nostalgia—as a period when the country was finally living a perfect Olympic dream—or with sober recognition that the hugely wasteful Olympic project propelled Russia’s economy further along its downward spiral. Putin’s exhausted “control-and-let-steal” model cannot win a new lease on life with the uplifting ceremonies and sport victories; the Games can, however, leave better memories than the spoiled 1980 Moscow Olympics—and memories matter.