MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin likes to portray himself as an athlete, whether he’s skiing, playing hockey, throwing judo opponents or riding bare-chested on horseback. Russia’s iron-pumping, iron-fisted president views the Sochi Olympics as another contest to be won — but with much more at stake than gold medals.
Seven years after Putin personally campaigned for the 2014 Olympics to be held at his favorite Black Sea summer retreat and mountain winter playground, his name has been attached to Russia’s first try as a Winter Olympics host. They are known as “Putin’s Games.”
Putin’s goal was to consolidate his power by elevating his country’s stature, but even before the cauldron has been lit, he has taken a beating.
Putin deployed 60,000 security personnel to Sochi to prevent a terrorist attack from North Caucasus militants who have vowed to embarrass him. Repression of environmental and gay-rights activists has critics saying he is reprising his role as KGB chief. His $51 billion Games will cost four times more than predicted, busting the Olympic record amid accusations of kickbacks to his oligarch cronies.
“These Games are Putin’s pet project so he can look like a macho guy in total control,” opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said this week. “But so far, all the problems with his regime have been concentrated in Sochi.”
Just outside the Kremlin’s walls, a giant clock counts down the time until Friday’s Opening Ceremonies. Muscovites bundled in fur coats and ushankas hustle past, too busy keeping up with the cost of living in this expensive capital to notice that the digital numbers on one side don’t match those on the other. Putin enjoys high approval ratings, especially in rural parts of the world’s largest country. Yet Russians seem well aware of the propaganda value of a successful Olympics, just as they understood the purpose of Soviet military spectacles in Red Square.
“I believe many people outside Russia still see it as a country of bears, drunks and dictators,” said Anna Vereschagina, a student. “The Olympics can help to change those thoughts.”
Putin, however, has reinforced stereotypes of the old Russia while leading the new Russia for the past 14 years. His recent release of political prisoners Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two members of the Pussy Riot rock band did not disguise his government’s crackdown on media, detention of environmentalists in Sochi or support of anti-gay legislation, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch.
“The image of strongman and protector has been Putin’s hallmark, and Russians respond well to that because they are quite patriotic,” said Indiana University political science professor Dina Spechler. “Democracy is an alien system in Russia. People want law and order. They’ve seen the Color Revolutions. They understand the centrifugal tendencies of a huge realm that could become ungovernable and has descended into anarchy in the past.”
The biggest risk Putin faces is tragedy at the Games perpetrated by jihadists from the Caucasus Emirate group. Hatred of Russia dates back centuries to the tsarists’ conquering of the mountain tribes. Dagestan is now the center of unrest. Security forces are hunting suspected “Black Widow” suicide bombers and other extremists who may have infiltrated Sochi’s “Ring of Steel” months ago.
“They (the jihadists) are hardened by experience, and they mean business,” said Daniel Benjamin, former coordinator for counterterrorism with the U.S. State Department and director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, who said “geographic vulnerability” around Sochi is greater than at any previous Olympics.
“They don’t believe they have any better methods to draw attention to their cause of seeking freedom from Russian brutality,” he said. “Look back at the 1972 Munich Olympics: From one day to the next, Palestinians went from obscure to the world’s pressing problem.”
Putin also faces discontent in Moscow, where another protest was held Saturday, with Nemtsov’s demonstrators holding up signs that said “Free political prisoners; jail Olympic thieves.”
Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, estimates the cost of Olympic embezzlement at $26 billion. At his Republican Party headquarters, Nemtsov showed graphs comparing the cost per stadium seat of various Olympics. Sochi, at $19,000, dwarfs the cost of Vancouver ($7,000) and Turin ($10,800). Sochi’s total cost is $11 billion higher than the Beijing Summer Games, which were much larger.
“It’s a festival of corruption,” Nemtsov said. “It’s crony capitalism at its best.”
Nemtsov, a native of Sochi, lamented the deforestation of the mountains above Sochi and laughed at the assertion by Sochi’s mayor that just as there is no corruption in his city, there are no gay people.
“Idiotic — I have to ask, ‘Mr. Mayor, who, then, is going into Sochi’s gay clubs?’ ” he said. “It’s like the same censorship on the zombie box of state TV. Everyone applauds Putin the hero.”
Alexei Navalny, a lawyer, financial activist and co-founder of the Democratic Alternative movement, created a website tracking Olympic construction contracts from the state and conflicts of interest. Arkady Rotenberg, a friend of Putin’s since judo school, won $7 billion in power plant contracts. Vladimir Yakumin, head of Russia Railways, oversaw the 30-mile railway and highway link that cost $9 billion — more than the total bill for the Vancouver Games. Another beneficiary of those deals was Putin pal Gennady Timchenko.
“Putin is the spider in the middle of a web of dubious contracts that enriched his empire of political and business elite,” said Vladimir Ashurkov, executive director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. “We estimate the graft at 40 percent. People are disillusioned by the lack of transparency. It takes the joy out of the Olympics.”
Putin has dismissed the reports as politically motivated speculation.
But Valery Morozov, the first businessman to blow the whistle on Kremlin favoritism in Sochi, said retribution is a tool of the government. While on vacation in London in 2011, he was warned not to return to Russia.
“I found out I was put on a hit list and it would be dangerous for me to go home,” said Morozov, who was granted political asylum and has remained in England. “It’s a criminal system run by criminal minds, and I hope that criminal investigations will follow.
“I started this wave alone, but I think there will be a cleaning and Russia will not be the same after the Olympic Games.”
The Russian Olympic team, which finished a disappointing sixth in the medal count in 2010 after decades of Soviet and Russian dominance from 1956 to 1994, faces great expectations that its performance will improve.
But none of the hockey, figure-skating or Nordic athletes faces as much pressure as Putin, who wants to showcase Russia’s renaissance since the 1991 breakup of the USSR.
“Russia looks at the incredible rise of China and feels left behind,” said Dartmouth government professor William Wohlforth. “Russia has regained some influence since the 1990s, but nothing like the global authority it used to have. Putin called the end of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. Russians still regret their loss of standing.”
Putin, who is expected to run for president again in 2016, is wary of demonstrations inside Russia and next door in Ukraine. He also wants to recalibrate his prestige in the West after several leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, snubbed him by declining invitations to attend the Games. Obama sent a delegation that includes prominent gay athletes.
“Putin’s got a big stage to validate his rule,” said Indiana University public affairs professor Leslie Lenkowsky. “The risk is a big black eye.”
Putin’s Cold War instincts kicked in long before his Games began. In the next two weeks, the world and his countrymen will judge their effectiveness. He is mindful of history, and of his discredited predecessors. One need only visit Vladimir Lenin’s tomb in Red Square. It reminds tourists of Madame Tussauds wax museum. Lots of Muscovites think it’s an eyesore.