Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the Sochi games to play down civil rights abuses and boost his own position internationally, writes the president of the International Federation for Human Rights, Karim Lahidji.
With a price tag of 36 billion euros ($48 billion), the Sochi games stand to be the costliest in Olympic history. If the real goal of this sporting event had been to develop a neglected region and celebrate the spirit of friendship between peoples, then this resource debacle might have been justifiable. But instead, this year's event appears to be geared toward putting President Vladimir Putin front and center on the international stage. A diversionary Olympics. What better way to play down the former-KGB agent's oppressive domestic policies and his diplomatic role in aiding Syria perpetrate crimes against humanity?
A year of "success"
In December, the Times named Putin "Man of the Year," a distinction that sounds more like provocation - the conservative British newspaper can hardly be suspected of bias toward Moscow. Nevertheless, one finds oneself forced to agree. 2013 has surely been a year of multiple successes and controversies for the Russian President.
On the international stage, he joined Iran in offering support to Syria's Assad regime. By providing arms and playing a cynical diplomatic role at the UN Security Council, Putin succeeded in frustrating any hope of an end to the conflict that continues to ravage the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians. These efforts paid off in December, when he secured a contract with the regime for oil and gas exploration in Syria's territorial waters. What better time to strike a deal than when a state is in conflict with the very people from whom it derives its right to sovereignty over natural resources?
In Ukraine, where Europe is seen as naive, tightfisted and somewhat condescending, our "Man of the Year" had little trouble convincing President Yanukovych to walk away from EU treaties. Facing discontent from pro-Europe citizens, Yanukovych was supported by his Russian neighbor in provoking a crisis that has transformed central Kiev into a battlefield.
Curbing public freedom at home
But, of course, one must look within for the true measure of success. And domestically, Putin has triumphed in stifling democratic rumblings and shutting down key human rights organizations, including the Memorial Center. The plight of these civil society groups echoes an all-too-recent past. Putin has retained the means and logic of the Soviet Era. Journalists, social activists, artists, intellectuals - those deemed to be a threat to the state - are under surveillance, harassed, detained, or assaulted. There is no doubt that Russia is experiencing a wave of the most severe repression since the end of the Cold War.
Among the most oppressive measures are those in the state's anti-terrorist and anti-extremist arsenal, developed as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes China and four other Asian countries. It gives Russia's abuse of anti-terror measures vast geographical reach, and offers impunity to those involved in such abuses. These measures are not only dangerous but ineffective, given the recent attacks in Volgograd in December. Such events remind us that, contrary to official propaganda, the Caucasus region where Sochi is situated is far from "pacified."
It seems nothing can scare Putin now. He will, one can wager, capitalize on the latest terrorist threat to justify his policy of repression. This is, after all, an exercise in which he excels. The recent release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot and Greenpeace activists, are further proof of his PR prowess. It is naive to think pressure from the international community motivated this move, or that it constituted a political retreat. Pussy Riot and Khodorkovsky only had a few months of their sentences left, after being imprisoned for years - particularly in Khodorkovsky's case. What better end than for Putin to see these jail terms virtually served in full, and then show the grace of his might by granting amnesty?
Casting a shadow over Sochi
Beneath the brilliant snow that blankets Sochi, behind the Olympic values of friendship and respect, there stands a dark regime that does not share the ethic of tolerance and freedom. Just like China and the Beijing games, these costly Olympics remain, first and foremost, a means for an autocrat to strengthen his position before the international community.
Putin will probably celebrate the opening ceremony without his European counterparts - state leaders have never traditionally been obliged to attend Winter Olympic Games. But in Sochi, the absence of certain European leaders may send a political message. One thing is certain, however: this message is not forthright. Timidity in particular has characterized the EU's stance on Russia. We can only hope the EU will shed this timidity in the name of hundreds of thousands of Syrian victims and a stifled Russian civil society. Much like his presidency, Putin's "success" has already lasted too long.
Ukraine's interior ministry has said five pro-Russian militants were killed in a raid in the eastern town of Slovyansk. Kyiv has relaunched a military operation to oust separatists occupying several towns in the east.
They laugh, joke and play with children: The heavily armed men in camouflage uniforms without badges are trying to come off not as bandits but as protectors in eastern Ukraine. And it appears to be working.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has made no secret of his critical attitude toward the EU. But the conservative politician won't dare risk an open split between Brussels and Budapest.