Staunton, September 22 – The ecological and financial costs of Vladimir Putin’s plans to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics in the southern city of Sochi have long agitated relatively small groups in the Russian population such as the Circassians, but this week, the opportunity and human costs of the games have begun to hit home among a far broader swath of the population.
On the one hand, Russians are having to confront the reality that the money being spent to get ready for Sochi is money that is not being spent on roads and other infrastructure. And on the other, they are learning that ever more Russian draftees will have to be sent to the North Caucasus if Moscow is to have any chance of pacifying that region before the competition.
The Russian prime minister has made preparations for the games a matter of prestige both for himself and the country, something that he and many in Russia are likely to see as even more important given the unfortunate situation that has arisen in India over the last several weeks as that country prepares to host the Commonwealth Games.
But this commitment means that money and construction teams that might be used to address infrastructure problems in Moscow and other parts of Russia are being dispatched instead to Sochi, creating a situation in which the Sochi Olympics may “threaten” Moscow with more traffic jams (www.specletter.com/obcshestvo/2010-09-22/olimpiade-v-sochi-grozjat-moskovskie-probki-.html).
That danger was highlighted in the course of a hearing yesterday of the Social Chamber, during the course of which participants discussed how specialized construction teams and by implication money that had been directed to other parts of Russia were now being redirected to Sochi construction projects alone.
That report comes at a time when Russians are increasingly anger about the low quality of the roads in their country, long lines because of the increasing number of cars, and trash on the streets. As an article in “Novyye izvestiya” put it today, many Russians feel this situation is now “worse than right after the war” (www.newizv.ru/news/2010-09-22/133607/).
That article details just how angry Russians are about the situation on the highways and the failure of the powers that be to address the situation despite the constant reference to enormous sums being available. If a large number of them conclude that some of this money is going to Sochi instead, they are likely to be furious.
But far greater anger is already present in Leningrad oblast where military commanders have told the Solders Mothers’ Committee that new draftees from that northern Russian region are being trained for dispatch to the troubled North Caucasian republic of Daghestan “in connection with the Olympics in Sochi” (svpressa.ru/society/article/30780/).
The Committee has three reasons for anger: First, senior Russian officials and commanders have at various times promised that draftees won’t be sent to hotspots. Second, the dispatch of new draftees to Daghestan only underscores just how unsettled that region remains. And third, commanders are explaining it by invoking the Olympics rather than counter-terrorism.
Obviously, Moscow will find it difficult to stage the Olympics in Sochi if the North Caucasus is still unstable. Indeed, Presidential Plenipotentiary Aleksandr Khloponin suggested at a meeting in Makhachkala that all his work in the region was being conducted with an eye toward the Games (www.ansar.ru/rfsng/2010/09/22/6905).
Growing recognition of the opportunity causes because of construction projects in Sochi and of the very human costs of trying to impose order in Daghestan, which after all is on the other side of the North Caucasus than Sochi, because of the need to provide security for visitors to games more than three years hence is going to undermine enthusiasm for the Olympics.
None of that means that Moscow and especially Putin, who has made the games his signature effort, are likely to cancel the Sochi Olympics, but it does mean that the way in which preparation for these games is sucking up money and lives is going to lead more Russians and others to question the wisdom of holding them there at all.
And especially in the upcoming electoral seasons, such public skepticism is likely to undermine the authority of those behind the games and may even become the basis for political campaigns by the opposition. If those things alone happen, what Putin planned as his great victory could yet prove something very different.