Putin's no-win Situation
Desperate to salvage his pet project of staging the Olympic Games from a public relations nightmare, the Russia dictator Vladimir Putin began releasing numerous political prisoners last week. But even as he did so, an expected wave of terrorist attacks began sweeping the country, leaving the prospects for Putin's propaganda games exceptionally bleak.
The native denizens of the Caucasus region believe that Putin is staging the Olympics on holy land, essentially their ancestral burial grounds, and they are outraged. What's more, Putin has failed to quell the separatist movement that has been roiling the region ever since he came to power. These powerful twin forces give rise to inevitable efforts by terrorists to use violence to undermine and destroy the Olympic effort, something the rebel leader Doku Umarev has openly promised.
Over the weekend, not one but two massive terrorist explosions rocked Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, the closest major Russian metropolis to the Olympic venues in Sochi. Using suicide bombers, first the terrorists struck the main train station and then a bus in a crowded marketplace. In all, more than 30 residents were killed and dozens more injured. The successful attack on the train station was particularly unnerving, since it was guarded and had metal detectors.
There are two theories regarding the Volgograd attacks: One holds that the attacks were diversionary, designed to draw Russian security forces away from Sochi so that a bigger attack can be carried out there; the other holds that the terrorists don't intend to strike Sochi, but to strike the Russian heartland which has been left largely defenseless as massive security forces are concentrated on Sochi.
Putin faces a no-win situation: If he cracks down hard enough in Sochi, he may prevent terror acts at the Olympic venues but he will destroy the Olympic spirit, just as the terrorists desire, and he'll leave the Russian heartland wide open to monumental attacks that will make Russians ask why he would sacrifice his own people for a public-relations campaign and show of ego.
What's particularly disturbing about this risk of terrorism at Sochi is that it has been clearly understood from the moment Russia bid for the games. Instead of looking to make peace in the region, Putin has pursued a policy of crackdown and confrontation that has only worsened animosities and added fuel to the terrorist fire. And Putin can hardly be blamed for wanting the games to stoke his massive ego. The International Olympic Committee and the leaders of the Western democracies are deeply complicit in the creating this horrible risk to Olympians and spectators because they should never have awarded the games to Russia.
Even without the terrorist threat, however, the Putin games face devastating peril on the public relations front because of the innumerable political prisoners the dictatorial regime has seized since Putin came to power. Clearly aware of the risk he faces, Putin has begun releasing some of the prisoners hoping to blunt international scrutiny during the games.
The contrast could not have been more stark in regard to three of those freed activists. One, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, sold out to the Kremlin in order win freedom. The other two, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of the Pussy Riot performance art collective, held out and continued to confront the Kremlin, winning freedom anyway.
An interesting photograph surfaced on Twitter the other day. It showed a blonde-haired surfer dude in shades riding a bright green racing motorcycle down a highway. He's wearing only a bathing suit and flip-flops, no helmet, and he has a large Siberian husky behind him in the girlfriend position. Needless to say, the husky has no helmet either.
Looking at the photograph, you asked yourself: Does he love or hate that dog?
Because one wrong move, of course, and the dog is a pancake. It can't exactly wrap its paws around the biker's waist and securely clasp its hands together like a girlfriend might do, and it can't exactly understand the type of risk it is facing should the slightest little thing go wrong. Suppose the dog suddenly forgets he's going 75 miles an hour and decides to go chase a squirrel?
But the dog does seem rather sanguine and relaxed zipping along at high speed, one could almost think it's having fun. Of course, appearances can be deceiving, particularly where a creature with low intelligence is involved.
One can ask the same question about Vladimir Putin: Does he love or hate Russia?
Putin has his country in retrograde. He has restored almost every aspect of the failed Soviet dictatorship, from the stagnating economy to the political repression to the cold-war provocations which include militarizing the Arctic and repeatedly buzzing the U.S. with nuclear bombers. The only important difference is that instead of the Comintern, Putin has the Russian Orthodox Church.
Here's Putin in a nutshell: As the economy tanked, the Russian ruble hit its lowest value in four years, a stunning one-third down from 2008. Putin's response? All he could manage was to roll out a new symbol for the currency, in other words to wallpaper over massive cracks in the economic foundation just as his Soviet ancestors used to do.
And, of course, as his approval ratings continue to plunge along with his economy, Putin is also aggressively pursuing the Soviet tactic of liquidating his critics, like Khodorkovsky, Alekhina and Tolokonnikova. But his decision to host the Olympics handed the activists just the leverage they needed to wedge themselves out of the neo-Soviet gulag. Whether they'll be able to remain at liberty after the games conclude is anyone's guess.
With Khodorkovsky, Putin succeeded brilliantly. After ten years in prison, the former oil magnate and the first man to seriously challenge Putin's authority, his company gone into Putin's pocket, Khodorkovsky finally broke. He agreed that if released he would leave the country and cease opposition to Putin, and promptly did just that. He even called for the world to let the Winter Olympics unfold in Russia as if Putin weren't hurling his country back into its terrifying and failed past at breakneck speed. It was one of the most nauseating moments in all of Russian history.
The darkness would have been unbearable had it not been for the brilliant light cast by Alekhina and Tolokonnikova. Unbowed after 20 months at hard labor in Putin's gulag, the pair of performance artists turned human rights activists had used hunger strikes and international pressure to pressure the Kremlin toward prison reforms, and Tolokonnikova's first words as she first tasted free air were: "Russia without Putin!" They called their release a "PR stunt" and said they'd have preferred to serve out their sentences.
Simply glowing with their newfound power and gravitas (world-famous artists around the globe had rallied to their cause after they were arrested for staging a protest against Putin's cozy relationship with the church by singing a satirical song in a church), the pair vowed to remain committed to blocking Putin's path towards national disaster.
Within days of each other, Khodorkovsky and Alekhina & Tolokonnikova held press conferences. The contrast could not have been more stark. From abroad, ensconced in a $5000 per might luxury hotel room, the aging Khodorkovsky promised he would not challenge Putin and called for an end to protest activity at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. From Russia, the young and glowing Alekhina & Tolokonnikova vowed to continue battling Putin until he's removed from power.
So Putin faces extensive pressure from both civil society and barbaric terrorists. He may have bitten off more than he can chew with his Sochi bid, already the most financially profligate in world history, staged at time when the economy is foundering. This year's Olympics will be among the most dramatic in history, and there is little chance the drama will be to Putin's liking.
Follow Kim Zigeld on Twitter @larussophobe.