Tonight the Sochi Winter Olympics officially began with a spectacular, ambitious and virile (though at times also somewhat camp) opening ceremony in keeping with the more than $50bn reputedly spent on these games.
Sochi is in the Russian Caucasus, a region well-known for instability and conflicts since long before it was annexed to the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and still well-known for conflicts today. So it’s perhaps appropriate that the Olympics are being held there, given the common association of the Olympics with peace. But are the Olympics really about peace?
The famous “Olympic truce” from ancient times is actually a bit of a myth. It was often more about safe passage for athletes, pilgrims and officials heading to the Games, than a real truce between warring parties. Yes, the ancient Olympics were an opportunity for people from rival polities to gather, to take part in cultural events and watch sporting events between young athletes. But they were also intensely political occasions, offering opportunities for dialogue and negotiation in which old alliances were broken and new ones forged, sometimes leading to new conflicts and bouts of warfare as the balance of power in Greece was re-calibrated from time to time.
In the modern era too, we should not forget that the Olympic Games have an important political, even geo-political dimension. The USSR boycotted the ‘bourgeois’ games completely until the 1950s when the Kremlin finally realised it was missing a PR opportunity. There have been plenty of other politically motivated boycotts over the years. In 1956 there were three simultaneous boycotts: over the participation of athletes from Taiwan, over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and over the Suez Crisis. And of course there were tit-for-tat Cold War boycotts by West and East respectively, of the summer games in Moscow and Los Angeles.
Other obvious political exploitation of the Olympics includes the Nazis using it for propaganda in 1936, and the Palestinian terrorist attack at Munich in 1972. To this day, Iranian athletes are forbidden from competing directly with their counterparts from Israel in every Olympics. Meanwhile individual athletes use their moment in the sun to make political points, as witness the public embrace between two Georgian and Russian competitors in 2008 just after the war between their countries, and the Black Power salutes made by two US sprinters on the podium in Mexico in 1968.
And of course local and national politics are always in play. Public funds are seen as being diverted from more appropriate uses to the Olympics infrastructure. Over 2 million people have been displaced from their homes – many forcibly – to make way for Olympics infrastructure over the past two decades, and there is always a lively debate among people in host cities and countries about the long-term benefits versus disadvantages of being hosts. Incumbent and opposition politicians alike do their utmost to leverage political position from the relative success or failure of their games.
So the Olympic Games, in addition to being a marvellous sporting occasion and an opportunity for people from all over the world to mingle and learn about each other – both physically and through TV and other media – are also a useful lens through which to examine issues of a more political nature.
My International Alert colleague Larissa Sotieva has written eloquently about the interplay between the Sochi Olympics and notions of Russian and Caucasian identity. I won’t repeat it all here but she captures very well how Sochi provides a showcase not just for sporting excellence, Russian state vanity and national ambition, but also for the racism prevalent among many ethnic Slavic Russians regarding the peoples of the Caucasus whose territories their ancestors invaded and colonised.
International politics are well represented at Sochi, where no heads of democratic states turned up for the opening night, and the US officials who were present wasted no time in raising human rights issues in their public utterances. Russia’s neighbour Georgia initially decided to boycott the games – though changed its political mind later.
Both the North and South Caucasus suffer from instability. In the North Caucasus this manifests largely as Islamic-hued rebellions against Moscow and Moscow’s local satraps; and in the independent South Caucasus republics, as unresolved territorial disputes between neighbours, including unrecognised breakaway territories. Many Russians are fed up with the difficulties of maintaining control of the N Caucasus region with its poverty, its patchwork of ethnicities and its broken, mountainous and often remote terrain. The slogan “stop feeding the Caucasus” is becoming popular among metropolitan Russians in response to what they see as money wasted trying to stabilise a region they see as backward and ultimately untamable. The current stagnation of the Russian economy is widely predicted to last a long time. Once the Olympics are over, it is reasonable to assume that Moscow will resort to less expensive ways of asserting its rule, and focus much more on the “homeland security” of the Russian heartland, than on the security of Caucasians in their homeland. Moscow’s methods of security provision are seen as ugly enough now, but could become much uglier, post-Sochi.
What about the South Caucasus, that collection of countries and unrecognised territories which emerged from the break-up of the USSR and subsequent wars: Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, along with Ngorny-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Moscow sees these as part of its “near abroad”, and is unlikely to give up its desire to be regional patron, any time soon. The run-up to Sochi 2014 has given Russia good reason to avoid ruffling too many feathers in the region. Indeed, relations with its closest neighbour Georgia have improved considerably since the recent change of government there. But many observers expect it to take the gloves back off, after the games are over, and reassert itself in its neighbourhood.
And although Moscow and Washington have not seen eye to eye of later over Syria and Ukraine, their relations with regard to Georgia and the South Caucasus have been lately on a more even keel than they were a few years back. Perhaps once the games are over, there’ll be a return to more obvious tussling between them over influence in the region. This is unlikely to be very conducive to building peace in the region.
The list could go on. There is plenty of politics on display in and around Sochi 2014. The Olympics and Peace? I don’t really think so.