When Russian security officials snatched the opposition leader Eduard Limonov and several others from a demonstration at Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square on New Year’s Eve, it appeared to be another questionable, if commonplace, crackdown on those challenging the Kremlin. Many interpreted the detentions as another chapter in the government’s targeted repression of Russia’s opposition movement. That’s for sure. But ghosting in the background, a less intuitive explanation looms: the Olympic Games.
In February 2014, Sochi, Russia, will host the Winter Olympics. The resort city nestled along the Black Sea is abuzz, working furiously to complete venues and infrastructure on time. But a different sort of construction is also under way. Since being awarded the Games, Russian officials have quietly fashioned a formidable political architecture to squelch dissent. Quelling the political opposition is the omnipresent goal, but the Olympics and the 2018 football World Cup are the vital backdrop.
Sochi will become the first subtropical city to host the Winter Olympics, but it won’t be the first to quash dissent in the name of the world’s most popular sporting event. In fact, the Olympic charter explicitly prohibits activism. It states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” The International Olympic Committee doesn’t have to tell that to Vladimir Putin: the president led the crusade to secure the Games and is committed to staging them without incident. He recently told security honchos that Russia would soon be hosting “very important political and sporting events” and that “it should be a matter of honour for law enforcement officials and special forces to ensure that these events take place in a normal, businesslike and festive atmosphere”.
Russia is no civil-liberties paradise – just ask Pussy Riot. But with the Olympics on the way, Putin has tightened his grip. Famous for bare-chested bravado and indomitable machismo, Putin has signed into law an array of restrictive measures.
The Russian Duma has been busy blending dragnet with draconian. Last summer it passed a law requiring NGOs that are “politically active” and receiving funding from outside Russia to register as a “foreign agent”. In September, under the influence of the Federal Security Service, the Duma passed legislation with a capacious definition of “high treason”. Critics fear it could be applied to any Russians – and certainly activists – who collaborate with foreign groups. The Duma also ramped up fines for public “disorder”. Even at permitted demonstrations, individuals can get hit with punishments of 20,000 roubles (£400) or up to 50 hours of community labour if “disorder” eventuates. The fines are even stiffer for unsanctioned rallies: more than £5,000 for participants, and double that for organisers. Meanwhile, a new internet law in Russia constricts free speech in cyberspace, green-lighting authorities to compile a secret blacklist that has already ensnared nearly 200 websites for their “offensive content”. All this has put activists and NGOs on high alert.
Ahead of the London 2012 Olympics, Chris Allison – Scotland Yard’s assistant commissioner and the national co-ordinator of Olympic security – raised activist hackles when he conflated terrorism and protest as “key risks to the Games”. In Russia, such conflation is the norm. Putin regularly rebrands leftwing opposition leaders as terrorists, accusing them of inciting “mass disorder”. Political protests are routinely labelled “extremist”.
On top of this, the region around Sochi is a political tinderbox. For starters, Sochi is the historic homeland for ethnic Circassians. The 2014 Olympics will occur on the sesquicentennial of the Circassians‘ forced removal by Tsar Alexander II. Today, Circassians live in diaspora, mostly in Syria, Turkey, and Jordan, with other large pockets in Lebanon and the US. Many of them consider their 1864 removal an act of genocide. A New Jersey-based Circassian, Dana Wojokh, asked me: “Would you have an Olympics in Darfur? Would you have an Olympics in Auschwitz? No, so why Sochi?”
Sochi also sits minutes from the border of Abkhazia, the republic that split from Georgia, causing a spat with Russia. Then there’s the high-profile conflict with Chechnya, as well as lesser-known squabbles with ethnic groups in the Russian North Caucasus, a veritable hornets’ nest of long-term political discontent where an Islamist insurgency boils. Meskhetian Turks, North Ossetia and South Ossetia all have their issues with the Russian state. The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics will only aggravate opposition across the region.
While the IOC chief, Jacques Rogge, acts as a decoy, debating whether the London Games were the best ever or just totally awesome, Sochi is in lockdown mode. Oddly enough, all this is being done to conjure the Olympic spirit. But behind the shimmering promise of Olympism sits the iron fist of the Russian state. The legalised repression visited upon the political opposition in 2012 does not bode well for activism in the new year. The suppression of dissent only promises to intensify as the Games draw near.