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Putin’s games

Not long ago, the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov compared Sochi 2014 with Berlin 1936, declaring that “these are games which revolve entirely around a single man”.

“Anyone who thinks that is an exaggeration is forgetting a very important factor,” he noted. “Hitler in 1936 was seen as a thoroughly respectable and legitimate politician.”

Perhaps he ought, at the very least, to have added “by some”. Doubts about Adolf may not have been rampant at the time of the Berlin Olympics, but they weren’t exactly absent. Doubts about Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, have been loudly, widely and sometimes belligerently been aired across the West. And not entirely without cause.

In the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, much of the Western focus revolved around discrimination against gays. That’s a worthy cause, no doubt, although singling out Russia could be construed as discriminatory.

Commentaries about corruption also consumed a fair amount of column centimetres. It has been noted that a single road cost more than the entire 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Furthermore, questions have long been raised as to why Sochi was picked as the host city, given its longstanding reputation as a subtropical resort in a vast country with no dearth of naturally frozen potential venues.

Sochi has been a comfortable retreat for Kremlin leaders since the Stalin era, but there are indications that Vladimir Putin picked it precisely because it is in the vicinity of the troubled Caucasus region, and its proximity to the Abkhazia war zone. It was, after all, his success in prosecuting a war of attrition in Chechnya that helped to propel Putin to prominence under Boris Yeltsin.

There’s a spot of irony in the fact that the closing ceremony at Sochi next Sunday will coincide with the 70th anniversary of Stalin’s deportation of Chechens from their homeland. The accommodating president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has helpfully shifted the commemoration date from Feb 23 to May 10.

The location of the Games has also raised questions about the likelihood of terrorist attacks, especially after the outrages in Volgograd last December. Inevitably, Russia has devoted considerable resources to preventing a repetition — and, despite threats from the likes of Doku Umarov, the Olympics had, thankfully, proceeded peacefully until the time of writing.

The West’s dominant anti-Russian theme, meanwhile, has lately been challenged by two remarkably disparate voices in America. Stephen F. Cohen, writing in the left-wing periodical The Nation, has raised concerns about the manner in which even the reputedly liberal sections of the press have been eager to vilify the Putin era while painting the chaotic and sometimes disastrous Yeltsin years as something of a golden age.

“Russia today has serious problems and many repugnant Kremlin policies,” Cohen writes. “But anyone relying on mainstream American media will not find there any of their origins or influences in Yeltsin’s era or in provocative US policies since the 1990s.” It is not hard to agree with him in these and some other respects.

To his credit, Boris Yeltsin stood up to the paranoid revanchism of the nomenklatura in August 1991, but from the point that he superseded Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia’s trajectory was broadly downhill. And it is certainly pertinent to point out that Boris Yeltsin’s outrageous war — literally — against the Russian parliament would have been viewed in a very different light in the West had it been undertaken by Putin.

On the other hand, the degree of continuity between the Yeltsin and Putin years ought not to be disregarded, notwithstanding vast physical and attitudinal differences. Putin has banished some oligarchs and tamed others, but his penchant for compelling the post-Soviet robber barons to accept “my way or the highway” is not exactly commendable.

The American Conservative’s William S. Lind is in agreement with Cohen as far as Moscow’s role in facilitating President Barack Obama’s path out of the corner in which he had painted himself vis-à-vis Syria’s chemical weapons is concerned, but his argument against hostility towards Putin’s Russia, directed primarily at fellow votaries of his ilk, is based chiefly on the assumption that it echoes tsarist Russia as “a bastion of Christian monarchy loathed by revolutionaries, Jacobins and democrats”.

It was loathed back then for good reason — and for conditions that paved the way for the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Cohen’s arguments are decidedly superior, but they are not beyond reproach.

Russia is no longer the global power it was in the Soviet era, but it still deserves to be taken seriously. It is certainly not beyond criticism. But the criticism lacks credibility when it is predicated on Cold War perceptions. But so, for that matter, does the approbation.


Mahir Ali, "Putin’s games," Dawn. 2014-02-19.
Keywords: Political science , Political leaders , International policy , Political issues , Policy-United States , Politicians , Olympics , Democracy , Garry Kasparov , Stephen F. Cohen , Mikhail Gorbachev , Vladimir Putin , President Obama , Russia , Syria