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Winter Olympics 2014: 3 Things to Watch For in Russia

It is customary, in fact, expected and demanded, for host countries to prepare and invest in mammoth projects when major international events are scheduled to turn their cities into global stages. Ironically, controversy, waste, and internal strife are usually not far behind.

As host of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, China baffled observers with some of its attempts at preventing culture clashes — including tutoring its citizenry on how to properly wait in line and curating restaurant menus in Beijing to remove dog meat. Unfortunately, less surprising were the strict security and silencing measures applied to students and potential dissenters. Two years later, South Africa accepted massive government budget shortfalls in order to build lofty stadiums for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, hamstringing the programs and services that support its own population.

Currently, Brazil is struggling to ward of criticism as it attempts to create the infrastructure and transportation services necessary to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics in quick succession, all the while dislocating 1.5 million Brazilians for the festivities and fomenting massive protests this month.

Not to be outdone, Russia is taking its preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi quite seriously. Seeker of the global spotlight par excellence, the country has been systematically preparing for the imminent occasion in two primary ways: throwing money at the problem and sweeping everything else under the rug. In this context, here are three things to keep and eye on as the Olympics approach:

1. Monopoly money

In all things financial, Moscow’s directive has been to scale up. The estimated budget for the 2014 Winter games is $50 billion, which is particularly impressive when juxtaposed with previous winter game budgets: Salt Lake City (2002), Torino (2006), and Vancouver (2010) had budgets of  $1.2 billion, $3.6 billion, $1.62 billion respectively. More interestingly, claims have repeatedly surfaced that bureaucrats and organizers have embezzled more than half the budget. Even if the details cannot yet be gleaned through the political fog, the scope of corruption can be gleaned from the gleaned line of public and private finances: the companies contracted for Olympics work are all owned by the government in the first place.

Whatever the available funds actually are, grand preparations are moving forward. Unequivocal about his desire to use the opportunity as a showcase of contemporary Russia, President Vladimir Putin has been personally involved in decisions regarding Augean infrastructure developments: a new road through the Caucasus mountains, 11 new venues for Olympic events, the building of 20,000 new hotel rooms, et al. The monetary sums are as impressive as the 70,000 laborers hired to deliver on the promise of a modern Russia.

As other controversies — such as outcries over vast environmental damage around Sochi — circle the games and in light of ongoing shifts in the global energy landscape, the balance sheet of the Sochi Olympics and Moscow’s coffers could take some surprise turns.

2. Not in our house

Anti-gay sentiment is strong in Russia; violent acts — including murder — and unveiled threats against LGBT individuals create a hostile environment for this community in general. Just this month, a bill was unanimously passed banning gay propaganda to children. Although written to protect children, the law will have a wide interpretation. Among other finer points, authorities will be allowed to fine Russian citizens engaged in the spreading information or supporting non-traditional sexual orientations or unions, while detaining and deporting openly gay foreigner tourists or advocates.

From an Olympics perspective, Russia has already banned the setting up of a Pride House for LGBT athletes at the games, characterizing it as a threat to public morality. Not surprisingly, Human Rights Watch has been vocal about its grievances and LBGT groups have started to clamor for a boycott of the games, but the Olympic Committee, aside from expressing concern for ensuring the safety and well-being of LGBT athletes next year, has not responded forcefully. The escalation of the gay-rights issue is a largely internal matter, but the Sochi Olympics might just put it under a global magnifying glass in coming months.

3. Smoke & Mirrors

In what appear to be measures taken to create a sense of stability and homogeneity – however ersatz – in the Caucasus region, Moscow has also extended Olympic preparations into the political realm. Earlier this year, President Putin deep-sixed the governor of the neighboring Republic of Dagestan, replacing him with a politician from the capital. Earlier this month, the mayor of Dagestan’s capital was arrested on suspicion of involvement with organized crime. Comments from Russian opposition members and some observers have painted these actions as centralized attempts to wrest control of the Caucasus, a region with deep ethnic divides, a history of Islamist and terrorist activity, a psyche forged by years of war in Chechnya, and a fragmented political elite. Arguably, steps taken to avoid threats and terrorist provocation are positive, but these measures resemble the kind of regional political disciplining that has much larger implications.

These developments are particularly conspicuous in the face of a recent and notable brain drain in Russia. Sergiev Guriev — prominent Russian economist and government advisor — stepped down from his post and left the country under fear of persecution and harassment. Chess-champion-turned-leading-dissenter Gary Kasparov recently stated he will not be returning to Russia for the foreseeable future. Russian banker Andrey Borodin petitioned — and was awarded — political asylum in Great Britain. These and other examples have been described centralized, outright attempts to intimidate and purge the nation’s opposition, and are exceeded in absurdity only by the silencing of general dissent, the fraudulent persecution of opposition activists such as Alexei Navalny, and the outlawing and fining of citizen protests just last year. Although these events do not directly impact the Sochi Olympics, the ongoing pattern signals increased silencing of heterogeneous voices at all levels of society.

With all this mind, it will be surprising if visitors to Sochi next year are able to pull back the curtain and glimpse a more authentic version Russia, distracted instead by the expensive and homogeneous Potemkin village Moscow is literally and figuratively constructing.

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