Vladimir Kara Murza
Days before the official opening of the XXII Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, what was supposed to be a moment of personal triumph for Vladimir Putin is fast turning into an major embarrassment. Not only have most of the leaders of Western democracies—including the leaders of Britain, Germany, the US, and France—declined to attend the ceremonies, but the Olympics themselves are being increasingly associated not with “prestige,” but with corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement.
“When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, after visiting the US state of Iowa, launched the campaign to grow corn in Russia’s Arctic North, people started calling him ‘Nikita the Corn Man,’” Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov recalled last week. “I think that Putin, who chose the warmest place in Russia to hold the Winter Olympics, will be remembered as ‘Vova the Subtropical.’” Nemtsov was in Washington to launch the English-language edition of his report on corruption in the Sochi Olympics and a new interactive website, Sochi 2014: The Reverse Side of the Medal, which presents detailed information on 26 different Olympic objects—and the graft and abuses that accompanied their construction.
The Sochi Games have already gone down in history as the most expensive Olympics ever. With a price tag of $50 billion, they have cost more than all the Winter Games since 1924 put together. More than half of that—some $30 billion, in Nemtsov’s estimation—was lost to corruption. With no oversight or public discussion, lucrative contracts were handed out to Putin’s friends and allies. One such contract—for a highway and railroad between Adler and Krasnaya Polyana—went to close Putin confidant Vladimir Yakunin. The 48-kilometer road ended up costing $9.4 billion—three and a half times more expensive than NASA’s Mars Program. At $200 million per kilometer, this is the most expensive road in the world. “They may as well have paved it in platinum or caviar,” quipped Nemtsov. With the money spent on this highway, one could have built 940 kilometers of high-quality four-lane highways across Russia.
Subtropical climate and colossal corruption are not the only problems of the Sochi Games. Olympic objects were built without proper oversight and regulations, mostly by unqualified migrant laborers from Central Asia who were mistreated and often unpaid. The resulting infrastructure is not of the most reliable quality. As the Russian opposition leader gloomily noted, “The best result of these Games will be if everyone stays alive.”
Beyond Sochi, the Putin government continues its repressive policies, with new attacks against independent media and the upcoming verdict in the “Bolotnaya Square case” that is almost certain to result in five-to-six-year prison terms for peaceful opposition activists whose only “crime” was to protest against Putin’s inauguration. The number of recognized political prisoners in Putin’s Russia currently exceeds three dozen people.
Notably, Sochi itself will be an opposition-free zone. For the first time in Olympic history, purchasing a ticket to an event is not enough to get into the stadium: there is an additional filter in the form of a “spectator pass” that must be approved by the FSB, Putin’s domestic security service. A number of opposition and human rights activists have already been denied permission to go to Sochi. The last thing Vladimir Putin wants is to see opposition banners unfurled at spectator stands on live television. With only 22 percent of Russians in favor of Putin continuing as president after the end of his current term, according to the latest Levada Center poll, the Kremlin is not talking any risks.
Putin’s Olympic Calamity