Opinion: Will Olympic Flame Dim in Sochi?

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games will be held in the Russian city of Sochi, located in a region characterized by poverty, corruption and violence. Alina Inayeh of the German Marshall Fund argues that Russia must address rule of law issues and crack down on corruption and organized crime if it does not want the Sochi Games to tarnish the Olympic spirit.

A shop window in Whistler, Canada advertises the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. Zoom
dpa

A shop window in Whistler, Canada advertises the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.

In the historic beginnings of the Olympic Games in ancient Greece, athletes would all carry olive branches to the Games as a symbol of peace. While the actual olive branches are no longer an official part of the Games, to this very day the Olympics remain the quintessential expression of international cooperation, human development, and progress. Vancouver, Canada is fundamentally synonymous with that traditional spirit of the Olympic Games.

Four years from now, the Winter Olympic Games will be held in Sochi, Russia. Unlike Vancouver, Sochi, and the eastern Black Sea region where it sits, is synonymous with poverty, corruption and violence. The question to ask between now and the closing ceremony of the Sochi Games is: Will the bright glow of the Olympics influence Sochi and its neighborhood positively, or will the unstable character of the region tarnish the Olympic spirit?

As a port to the Black Sea, and home to a beautiful resort, Sochi is a summer destination for Russians and indeed visitors seeking a relaxing getaway from all over the former Soviet Union. There is little surprise that the pristine landscape of the Caucasus mountains caught the eye of Olympic officials -- as well as Josef Stalin, who decades earlier made Sochi his summer retreat -- who decided to award the Games to the Russian resort town. Yet Sochi's palm trees and Krasnaya Poliana's pristine slopes are only the tip of a dangerous iceberg.

Wars and Feuding

Sochi borders Russia's six autonomous republics of the Northern Caucasus, home of the Chechen wars and violent feuding that surfaced after the breakup of the Soviet Union and continues to date. All of the republics have severe social problems that stem from massive unemployment and bad governance. Islamist extremism and the terrorism associated with it continues to be a threat. In Ingushetia, the clashes between local militias and the government restarted in 2009 with even more violence than before. For 18 years, Chechnya has not known real peace; the fights between separatists and pro-Russian authorities have been replaced by the murders and kidnapping of human rights activists and opposition politicians. In 2009, Freedom House placed Chechnya on its "Worst of the Worst" list of most repressive societies.

And Chechnya is not Sochi's only vicious regional neighbor. The entire region of the Northern and Southern Caucasus Mountains are an intricate web of ethnic minorities and long-standing conflicts. Indeed, the first shots of the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war were fired as the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games got underway. Eighteen months later, the level of tension has not significantly diminished.

But violence and the potential of war are not the only features of the region. No, Southern Russia and the Eastern Black Sea region is also a nest for organized transnational crime. It is both a source and a route for trafficking people, drugs, and weapons -- including documented instances of radioactive materials -- into Europe.

Along with Sochi, poverty, unemployment, corruption, crime and violence might very well host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. To some, it might be too disheartening to think that the very expression of peace, tolerance, and fairness would be held hostage to a region where these ideas have little meaning. But to the Russian hosts and organizers, it should be viewed as an important opportunity to heal so many wounds and at least try to begin real reconciliation processes.

Daunting Challenge

Of course, the likelihood of real peace and reconciliation in a region where there is no real history of tolerance is unlikely before the Sochi Games. But by campaigning to host the Olympic Games in Sochi, Moscow -- maybe inadvertently -- entered into a public trust with not only the peoples of the eastern Black Sea region, but with the peoples of the world. Russia's commitment now can be no less than what is advertised on the Sochi Olympic Games' official Web site: striving to become the embodiment of peaceful, productive dialog between peoples.

In all likelihood, taking on the large, until-now unsolvable conflicts will be too daunting. Instead, Russia might seriously address rule of law issues and crack down hard on corruption and organized crime, including trafficking. If Russia chooses to take this challenge on earnestly, it would be an important confidence builder for the entire region leading up to the Games.

If Russia does not want the Sochi Games to tarnish the Olympic spirit, and risk damaging Russia's own reputation, it must also demonstrate its serious intention to promote increased tolerance instead of increased violence. If Russia is serious, the international community should play its part and help as well. In a region where soccer diplomacy has been known to play an important role, it is conceivable that Olympic diplomacy will have a significant role too.

If Russia is not serious and makes no real effort to improve the situation, the tension between rival athletes during the Games will be nothing compared to the real tensions only miles away from the Olympic village.

Alina Inayeh is the director for the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation for the German Marshall Fund (GMF). This piece was first published in the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Take blog.

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