On Friday, October 11, REEEC hosted “Athletics, Politics, and Dissidence: What Sochi 2014 Can Teach Us About Putin 2.0” as part of the 2013 Current Affairs Forum. Professor David Cooper, Director of REEEC, chaired the panel. Guest presenters included: Professor Laurence Chalip, of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism; Doctor Alexandra Kvyat, Visiting Fulbright Scholar in the Institute of Communication Research; Professor Cynthia Buckley of Sociology; and Professor Carol Leff of Political Science.
Professor Laurence Chalip, Head of the Department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism at the University of Illinois, opened the forum with a focus on the strategies and tactics the International Olympic Committee (IOC), national governments, and businesses employ in relation to the Olympic Games. Locations that the IOC selected often serve multiple purposes. Not only are they chosen for their ability to accommodate a venue of great magnitude, but also, oftentimes, as a way for the IOC to make a political statement. Generally, the hope is that the site will prove to be a “liberalization opportunity,” and a chance to showcase and improve the nation’s image. Even the routes for the Olympic torch foster the Olympic spirit and a sense of participation.
Professor Chalip challenged us to take a deeper look at the sequence of the events before, during, and after the Olympics. Looking ahead toward the upcoming Games in Sochi, Russia, he reminds us to examine what is occurring behind the scenes. The Winter Olympics bring the Russian Federation into the limelight, allowing businesses to take advantage of having the international community’s attention. Representatives from major companies and organizations will be in attendance, providing very unique opportunities. Hosting the Olympics can draw some negative attention as well. There are complaints of construction deficiencies, mismanaged finances and corruption, human rights violations, and lack of transparency, to name a few. Security has also been among these controversial topics. The host nation is expected to maintain a safe environment, but the Russian Federation has come very close to upsetting the precious balance between security and violating privacy, especially in regards to personal electronic devices. The actual figures on the amount of money spent on security, the level of multinational involvement or support, and the types of personnel tasked to these operations are not typically accessible to the public, for understandable reasons, but it certainly does generate curiosity. Professor Chalip reiterated that “these problems are not unique to Sochi, but rather endemic to the Olympics, and are manifested in unique ways.”
Dr. Alexandra Kvyat, Visiting Fulbright Scholar of the Institute of Communication, moved the forum forward to examine Putin 2.0 and the unique communication between the Russian citizens and President Vladimir Putin. What is worth noting is the particularly one-way, vertical style of communication that exists. Dr. Kvyat explained that this communication style is a one-sided conversation between the president and the citizens with little to no need for feedback. Even the “debates” held during the past presidential campaign were largely orchestrated. They were necessary to provide an illusion of legitimacy, while in actuality, they were scripted in favor of a predetermined victor. Now that President Putin’s reign over the Russian Federation continues, he has taken the time to capitalize on what Dr. Kvyat called, “the sacral aspect of vlast (power or authority), which reproduces archaic symbols and rituals.” For President Putin, this means constructing the Sochi Olympics as the “Great Empire Myth,” the reward for the Russian Federation’s achievements and successes in the face of adversity, which occurred under his leadership. The irony of President Putin’s image and rhetoric is not lost on all, though. Contemporary artist, Vasily Slonov has used that irony as the theme for his exhibit, “Welcome! Sochi 2014,” which features his collection of satirical posters highlighting the contradictory and repressive nature of the government, notions which may have only received further support after the exhibit was forcibly closed during a recent display. Dr. Kvyat described the incident as just one manifestation of the dissatisfaction that a number of Russians feel after having been promised reforms and only experiencing a more repressive trend, especially in light of recent legislation.
Professor Cynthia Buckley, from the Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois, continued the forum into an analysis of some of the new legislation in her segment on “Participation and Protest.” The Russian legislation prohibiting “non-traditional sex” took effect in August 2014. It defines what the government considers to be traditional, criminalizes any variations, and is all under the guise of protecting Russia’s children. This attack on the LGBT community has sparked outrage. The outcry ignited some talk of even boycotting the 2014 Games in Sochi, which gained little momentum due to the popular sentiment that boycotts only punish athletes. As Professor Buckley plunged deeper into her analysis, we arrived at the obvious question: Why, when Russia is in the limelight, was such a controversial piece of legislation enacted? It would seem counterproductive to draw such negative attention to the host country, which lead us to the next question: Did the President Putin and the political authorities genuinely not understand the reaction the law would draw? The timing seems illogical, especially following the Pussy Riot show trials and, more recently, Alexei Navalny in the controversial Moscow mayoral race, which raised serious questions about transparency and fraudulent elections. One figure who did recognize that the new legislation would be detrimental to aligning the Russian image with the Olympic Movement was IOC Organizer Dmitry Chernyshenko. He approached the IOC asking for assistance in shifting the media’s focus away from what has come to be known as “the anti-gay law.” Athletes, fans, and sponsors are concerned about how the law will impact the Sochi Games, but the response from the Kremlin is vague: Yes, the law is in effect, but it will not impact the athletes and attendees at the Sochi Olympics, and yes, the Germans will still be allowed to compete in their rainbow uniforms.
Next, Professor Carol Leff, Associate Professor in both Political Science and REEEC at the University of Illinois, contributed the presentation “Protest politics in Russia : civil liberties or a global fashion trend?” She conducted a brief overview of the Color Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia to put the current controversies and protests into perspective as we approach the start of the Sochi Games. Russia criticized the U.S. for supporting the protesters involved in the Color Revolutions as an attempt to interfere with or undermine Russian sovereignty. Russian television has acted as the Kremlin’s mouthpiece in perpetuating this notion. Seemingly, President Putin has attempted to mitigate the effects of external influence or support of protests in several other ways. He has adjusted certain laws (increasing the fines for unauthorized protests by 150%; enacting the “foreign agent law,” which led to the targeting and raiding of numerous NGOs in Russia) and also put the “non-traditional sex legislation” into effect. Furthermore, protesters detained before protests are scheduled to take place and several cases of “psychiatric commitments” of anti-Putin activists are reminiscent of Soviet-era tactics. As far as security is concerned, the Putin administration has put SORM, the Russian surveillance system, into overdrive in preparation for Sochi. Professor Leff characterized the program, which is the Russian equivalent of the NSA’s PRISM program as, “PRISM on steroids.” It is rumored to be tremendously invasive. Again, the lack complete data on the highly secretive government surveillance operations involves a certain degree of speculation.
The forum drew to an end acknowledging that the true focus of the Olympics should be on sport and sportsmanship. The XXII Olympics in Sochi will be another display of agility and discipline by the greatest athletes of our time. In the midst of controversial legislation, allegations of human rights violations against migrant workers, zealous surveillance measures, and despite being the subjects of harsh scrutiny themselves, the athletes will amaze the world audience with their mastery and physical expertise.
Elizabeth Stegeman is a second year M.A. Student in REEEC. Her interests focus on foreign policy and security, especially as expressed through energy politics, between Russian and Eastern Europe. She received her B.A. in Germanic Languages and Literature with a minor in Russian in 2009 and a Graduate Certificate in Translation Studies in 2010, both from the University of Illinois.