Democracy Lab

Sochi's Bitter Medicine

Why the controversy around the Sochi Olympics could turn out to be a good thing for Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government organized the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi in a way that draws international attention to the most serious problems in Russian politics. None of these problems is new. In fact, for many years these exact issues have been the focus of democracy promotion work by Russia's beleaguered civil society. While Olympic press coverage to date has focused on the potential for catastrophe, there is also the possibility that the Games will have a significant positive impact. In a best-case scenario, the Olympics will bring global scrutiny to Russia's greatest political shortcomings and energize Russian organizations working on those issues, pressuring the Russian government to begin a more open dialogue with its citizens and, eventually, to address its long-suppressed challenges.

Most prominently, the Sochi games have highlighted Russia's ongoing failure to find a solution to the deadly conflict in the North Caucasus. As police scoured Sochi last week for a suspected suicide bomber, and after the recent deadly terrorist attacks in Volgograd (a major railway hub for Russians traveling to the Olympics), the problem of unresolved ethnic and religious violence looms the largest. Following two wars between Russia and Chechnya in 1994-1996 and 1999-2005, an armed resistance movement has spread throughout Russia's North Caucasus Federal District, which is adjacent to the city of Sochi. Insurgent fighters in this region, professing a jihadi ideology, have mounted attacks resulting in hundreds of casualties among Russian security services each year, and have claimed responsibility for several major terrorist attacks, including the Beslan school massacre in 2004, the 2011 suicide bombing in a Moscow airport, and the bombings last month in Volgograd. Despite the massive resources the Russian government has devoted to counterinsurgency efforts, casualties remain high as brutal counterterrorist tactics, extreme poverty and unemployment, and official religious persecution continue to motivate new insurgent recruits.

The Olympics' timing seems almost designed to exacerbate these tensions: 2014 is the 150th anniversary of the Russian empire's forced expulsion of the local Circassian people, and the Feb. 23 closing ceremonies mark to the day 70 years since Stalin government's ordered the deportation of Chechens and Ingush. (Both of these incidents caused mass deaths and are widely considered acts of genocide.)

When Putin selected Sochi for an Olympic bid in 2006, the intent behind choosing such an unsuitable site -- a subtropical resort town with minimal infrastructure in place -- was to send the confident message that Russia had pacified the North Caucasus. Subsequent events have shown the opposite to be true. Putin's strategy of resolving Chechnya's conflict through the massive use of force merely displaced the violence to neighboring regions. Now, as tens of thousands of soldiers and police turn Sochi into a fortress, the result is the same, with terrorists instead striking targets outside the Sochi security perimeter.

This is just one of many examples of how the Olympics have cast a bright light on problems they were intended to overshadow. Construction for the Games -- which included a new, 31-mile road between the two Olympic complexes, built at a cost of $8.7 billion -- has created evocative symbols of Russia's pervasive corruption. The corruption has been so blatant and extensive that even a member of the International Olympic Committee felt compelled to publicly speculate that a third of the Games' record $51 billion tag has gone to lining the pockets of Russian government officials and their cronies.

Such kleptocratic behavior is complemented by the Russian government's apparent disregard for its citizens' wellbeing, already on full display in Sochi. In building the Olympic infrastructure, the government has seized private homes, devastated the local environment, and left communities without access to regular supplies of electricity, heat, and clean drinking water. Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of construction workers building stadiums, hotels, and roads have been subjected to abusive working conditions, cheated out of wages, and in the case of thousands of migrant workers, summarily deported once construction was completed.

The Russian government's response to these criticisms demonstrates yet another underlying problem: namely, its lack of respect for freedom of expression. Russian authorities have jailed environmental activists exposing Sochi's massive ecological damage, and targeted NGOs seeking to document human rights abuses connected to Olympic preparations. Fearing pushback over its recent laws institutionalizing homophobia, the government restricted permits for protest activity to a small zone in a village seven miles from any Olympic event. This repression has not been limited to Russian citizens. In November 2013, local police detained and threatened a Norwegian television crew reporting critically on Sochi, and the American journalist David Satter was banned from entering Russia for five years, a decision he attributes to his investigative reporting on wrongdoings by the Russian security services.

Much of the coverage leading up to the Olympics has questioned whether these Games, originally intended to boost Russia's reputation internationally and Putin's reputation domestically, will instead turn out to be an embarrassing failure. In fact, they could already be considered an embarrassment, given the extent to which they have highlighted the Putin regime's diverse and pervasive failings.

Yet that same embarrassment comes with some upsides: the Games have energized Russian civil society groups and given them a platform from which they can tell the world about Russia's problems, from the exposé by Alexey Navalny's organization detailing specific incidents of corruption, to the work of local environmental activists from the Sochi region. The political controversy surrounding the Games is a tribute to the hard work and courage of activists who have made these Olympics about politics as well as sports. International attention to the issues raised by Russian civil society is already yielding results: in the months before the Games, the government has pardoned some of the country's highest-profile political prisoners (including the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned members of the punk group Pussy Riot, and several defendants in the so-called "Bolotnaya Case"). The increased exposure may yet help Russian activists bring about still more tangible improvements in the future.

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Putinology

'The Terrorist We'd Like To Forget'

Why the past is not popular in today's Chechnya.

Female street-sweepers in orange vests spent all night cleaning the avenues of the deserted city of Grozny. At 7 a.m., the call to prayer began, the muezzin's beautiful voice ringing through the streets: Chechnya was celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed. As the muezzin's call faded away, street-cleaning machines appeared, spraying water over the grated fences in the grassy strip along the middle of Putin Avenue, Grozny's central street. The first rays of the sun glinted off the marble tiles in front of the enormous central mosque and the glass walls of the Chechen capital's skyscrapers.

These are snapshots of the new Chechnya, and they still have the power to amaze anyone who remembers how the city looked when it stood in ruins after years of war. Ever since Moscow managed to win an uneasy peace with separatist rebels in 2006, the Kremlin has poured billions of dollars into rebuilding the shattered republic, and the effect has been dramatic. The only things I recognized in that peaceful, modern city during my visit earlier this week was the smell of smoky, dry air and the bitter taste of mountain dust.

Two girls clattered past on six-inch stiletto heels with red soles. It occurred to me that, judging by their ages, they had probably grown up in a refugee camp; their homes might well have been bombed, their families threatened by Russian soldiers or Islamic extremists. Try to bring up the word "terror" to young Chechens and you immediately feel how much meaning the word has for them: Chechnya's young people grew up amid war, and they've had enough of it. I spoke with young people in Grozny this week about the recent bombings in Volgograd that took the lives of 34 people and injured over 60 innocent people on a tram and at a railway station. To the relief of the people I spoke with in Grozny, it soon became apparent that no Chechens were involved. "Every time there's a terrorist attack somewhere, we listen closely to the news, praying that no Chechen was a part of it," Kheda Yakhiyeva, 25, told me, introducing herself as "a Chechen patriot, a true Muslim, and a peacemaker." When she talks to younger Chechens, she said, she speaks about Muslim women's role in society, above all how they should dress and behave.

We were on a mission. Yakhiyeva and I were sitting in one of three minibuses filled with fans of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's Moscow-friendly president, on our way to deliver food to disabled children. The sides of the buses were decorated with Chechen flags and portraits of Kadyrov's father, Akhmad Kadyrov. My bus was filled with girls in uniforms that also featured Kadyrov's face: they explained to me that he had sacrificed his life for peace in Chechnya. (The photo above shows Kadyrov Senior's image on a flag used at a recent commemorative ceremony.) Kadyrov Senior died in 2004 when a bomb planted under a reviewing stand by Chechen rebels blew him up, killing some 30 other people and injuring dozens of others. An ex-rebel himself, Kadyrov had switched sides and thrown in his lot with Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin -- a betrayal Kadyrov's former comrades-in-arms were never willing to forgive. But as far as these kids were concerned, Kadyrov the Elder was the best Chechen who had ever lived.

So what did they think of the leader of the terrorists, a Chechen man called Doku Umarov? Umarov worked for the separatist government during Chechnya's turbulent three-year interlude of de facto independence after the First Chechen War (1994-96). But nobody seemed to remember him or his policies. Last summer, Umarov, the most wanted Chechen associated with Al Qaeda, suddenly returned to prominence by promising to blow up the upcoming Sochi Olympics. The activists on the bus didn't have anything good to say about Umarov: "He must be sickly and heartless, that Umarov, if he wants to blow people up now, when we can all freely pray in mosques and live a peaceful life, " a 16-year-old activist, Saira Bakhakhanova, said dismissively.

Umarov's name seemed almost a taboo, a synonym of terror itself. "He's somebody we'd like to forget," Ibragim Gairabekov, deputy rector the Grozny State Oil Technical University, told me. Umarov allegedly entered the university late in the 1990s, when he was a senior official in the separatist government, but never graduated. Instead he joined the insurgent underground in 1999, when Vladimir Putin unleashed a war to take Chechnya back for Russia. So where's Umarov? I posed the question to President Kadyrov earlier this week -- only to hear him claim that he had no idea. Kadyrov may have already known something we didn't. Just days after I spoke with the Chechen president, reports of Umarov's death began to circulate in the media -- the main source, apparently, being Kadyrov himself. Whether Umarov is actually dead remains a subject of some dispute; if he was killed, no one seems to know the circumstances or who was behind it. (As for Ramzan Kadyrov, the benign image of the man held high by his supporters stands in stark contrast to the view of many other observers. The militias that operated under his personal command have been blamed for brutal methods in their suppression of the simmering insurgency, and human rights groups have accused him of ordering the murders and kidnappings of his critics.)

As a new Chechnya emerges from the ruins, adorned with new malls, restaurants, and movie theaters, the current generation of Chechens are eager to draw a line between themselves and their dark recent past. The past, however, doesn't always cooperate. When the two half-Chechen Tsarnaev brothers staged a terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon last spring, Chechens immediately assumed a position of denial. Chechnya's media rejected the news: some claimed the Tsarnaevs weren't real Chechens, while others insisted that the two brothers were innocent, and that they'd been framed by the CIA. Young people used social media to claim that the real instigators of the attack were foreigners aiming to hurt Russia and Chechnya.

The new Chechnya is eager to let the world know how it's changed. In a recent flash mob, hundreds of young Chechen activists gathered on Putin Avenue; when fireworks exploded, everybody dropped to the ground on cue, pretending they'd been killed. A big red banner rolled down to cover the face of a building: "We oppose terrorism," the inscription proclaimed. At a signal, the kids jumped back to their feet and pointed at the banner, chanting, "Killing peaceful people is not jihad!" The aim of the action was, apparently, to assure anyone worried about the threat of attacks at the upcoming Olympics: "We won't let them pass!" Let's hope that their confidence is justified.

ELENA FITKULINA/AFP/Getty Images