Before the Storm
The Winter Olympics have started, and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine has temporarily receded into the background as far as most of the world’s media are concerned. Attention has shifted to Sochi, Russia, something that Putin always had in mind when he engineered for Russia to win the bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
However, I am sure he cannot be too pleased about much of the coverage that has been coming out the past few weeks from Sochi. There has been abundant reporting about the mad scramble to complete a lot of the construction and the embarrassing shortcomings in the quality and design of some of the facilities. There is controversy over the large-scale culling of Sochi’s significant stray dog population and no shortage of stories on how many of Sochi’s residents were callously dispossessed of their homes and properties to make room for Olympic construction. For the first time, a lot of the world is also hearing of the fact that the Sochi area was historically the home of the Circassians who became one of the first victims of Russian genocide some one hundred and fifty years ago, when Russia first conquered the area.
But perhaps, the most damning reporting concerns the large scale corruption that has surrounded these Olympics from the get go. The total cost for Russia to stage these Olympics has climbed over the $50 billion mark. Experts and informed sources are estimating that some $30 billion of this amount has gone into paying bribes and kickbacks to that tight compact of Putin’s kleptocratic cronies that control the Russian economy and all the political levers of power. Much of the construction was done without proper geological and engineering assessment, resulting in many of the facilities and buildings being constructed on unstable land and foundations. They will likely have very short life spans.
Even the opening ceremonies that were supposed to showcase the “modern” Russia, proved to be more than a little bizarre. What were Putin and his planners thinking in incorporating into the program a historical sequence that can best be described as a flashback to Soviet realism, complete with a giant hammer and sickle. The only thing missing was a giant picture of Stalin. It is symbolic of the delusion and warped mindset of Russia’s current leadership that they consider that period of Russian history as something to be proud of.
It was interesting to note that throughout the whole of the opening ceremonies, Putin wore as grim and dour and expression as even Brezhnev would have been proud of. I think that Putin was well aware that this grand display was impressing no one, and that his $50 billion ego trip was a lost cause. Most telling, most of the key global leaders and heads of state made a point of avoiding the Olympics and staying home. For company, Putin had to settle for the likes of President Yanukovych from Ukraine and President Lukashenka of Belarus. What was supposed to have been a kind of coming out party for Putin and the “new and improved” Russia, turned out to be a giant snub, with most of the world treating this gaudy pretense with the contempt it deserved.
President Yanukovych’s presence in Sochi probably had less to do with the Olympics, as with the necessity to confer with Putin on what he should do next. Having proven himself totally incapable of dealing with his outraged Ukrainian citizenry (who would dearly love to see him retired permanently, one way or another) he now finds himself in desperate straits. Putin has in recent weeks indicated a strong reluctance to send Yanukovych any more of the promised billions that he had agreed to only a couple of months ago. Even he now realizes that giving Yanukovych any more money is a colossal waste.
For the moment, while the Olympics are on, an uneasy calm pervades the Maidan and most of Ukraine.
I think most Ukrainians realize that their future will be determined not by Yanukovych and his oligarch buddies, but by what Putin chooses to do next. If he acts rationally, he will cut his losses, abandon Yanukovych and let Ukrainians solve their political quagmire on their own. If he gives vent to his imperialistic ego and decides to intervene directly in Ukraine, we will be in for some very stormy months ahead. Whatever the case, I am pretty sure that Putin is not getting any of the joy that he expected out of these Olympics.