January 28, 2014 1:00 pm JST

Russian politics feature in Olympic buildup

MOTOHIRO IKEDA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- Homophobia, political oppression and terrorist threats: Sochi 2014 has them all. So can the city keep the Winter Olympics' focus on sport?

     The games in the Black Sea resort are drawing near. As they approach, hopes and fears about Russian politics after the sporting extravaganza are growing.

     The administration of President Vladimir Putin has taken a series of high-profile steps ahead of the Olympics in response to criticism both at home and abroad over authoritarianism and a lack of democracy.

     But critics have dismissed the moves as short-lived political ploys. "The Putin administration just aims to hold on to power," said Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "We cannot expect any strategies for modernization and reforms from these people." 

National interests

Putin recently told media that the Sochi Olympics, which begin Feb. 7, are not a vehicle to achieve his personal ambitions. They directly serve the interests of the nation and its people, he argued. According to the president, hosting big competitions such as the Olympics will encourage Russian people to participate in sports, promote health and help the nation address the issue of a declining population.

     The Sochi Olympics will also contribute to the future development of the country, Putin said, as they are expected to help Russian people regain their pride. The country, some argue, has been in the grip of pessimism since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

     The games will next month be staged in Russia for a second time. The 1980 Summer Olympics were held in Moscow. Many countries, including the U.S. and Japan, boycotted the Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979.

     Aside from national interests, hosting a politics-free Olympics can be said to have been the long-cherished dream of Russia -- and Putin himself. Russia won its bid to host the Sochi Olympics at the general meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Guatemala in 2007. Putin himself flew to the Central American country to make a final pitch for IOC votes.

Political changes

Olympics draw strong public attention and stir up patriotism. It is hard to believe that Putin has no personal ambitions at all. Russia's president has taken a flurry of high-profile political steps since last year, apparently in the hope of making the Sochi Olympics a success.

     In September, he allowed opposition politician Alexei Navalny to run in the Moscow mayoral election. Although Navalny was not elected, he performed unexpectedly well. "President Putin tried to implement a fair and transparent election, if not completely, out of fear of a possible public backlash against his administration," said Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, an independent public opinion agency.

     The Russian president also invited opposition leaders to meetings and held face-to-face talks with them.

     In a more surprising move, Putin granted an amnesty to former oil tycoon and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, members of female punk rock band Pussy Riot and other prisoners at the end of December. The U.S. and Europe had seen their imprisonment as a symbol of the Putin administration's authoritarian rule and called for their early release.

     The release of Khodorkovsky, the former head of now-defunct oil giant Yukos, drew particularly strong attention. He was once seen as Putin's greatest political foe. Khodorkovsky was freed after spending more than a decade behind bars. He had funded opposition parties and clashed publicly with Putin before being arrested on charges, including tax evasion, in 2003.

     Putin had previously brushed aside strong criticism both at home and abroad of Khodorkovsky's imprisonment and a lack of transparency in his trial. "A thief should be in jail," he has said. The president has claimed that the amnesty for Khodorkovsky and other prisoners was to mark the 20th anniversary of Russia's Constitution and has nothing to do with the Sochi Olympics.

     Many do not take his remarks at face value. It is widely believed that the amnesty is aimed at repairing Russia's battered international image ahead of the Olympics.

After the games

Leaders from the U.S. and many European countries have decided to boycott the Sochi Olympics because of Russia's enactment of a controversial anti-gay propaganda law last year. There are also growing fears of terrorist attacks by Islamic militants trying to disrupt the Sochi Olympics.

     Still, leaders from more than 40 foreign countries, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, plan to attend the opening ceremony. An Olympics that passes without major incident is likely to boost the Putin administration.

     But the big question for Russia is whether the Putin administration will continue with moves toward democratization.

     During Putin's first and second presidential terms between 2000 and 2008, the Russian economy, measured by gross domestic product, posted strong annual growth of about 7% on average in real terms, lifted by spikes in crude oil prices. The economy has since lost steam. Growth is believed to have last year slowed to less than 2%.

     Russia can no longer continue its heavy reliance on oil and other natural resources for economic growth. It is under growing pressure to attract more foreign investors, modernize its economy and develop its manufacturing industry. Further democratization and drastic judicial and administrative reforms are crucial to achieving that goal.