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Sochi Olympics 2014: Behind the Games

Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremony

Scene from the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

The Olympics are  a unique opportunity for the many nations of the world to come together in competition through sport. Inevitably when different countries come together, political, social and cultural differences are brought to the attention of the public, and the current Winter Olympic Games in Sochi are no exception.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has placed his personal reputation on the line for the Sochi Games, and in many ways the games’ success will be seen as reflective of Russia as a whole. At a budget that has surpassed $50 billion the games are the most expensive Olympics of all time, more than the 2012 London Summer Games but also more expensive than the previous 21 Winter Olympic Games combined dating back to 1924. In addition to the allegations of rampant corruption on an unprecedented scale, Russia has been criticized over the decision to host in Sochi specifically, its stance on LGBT issues, and problems with human rights in general.

The $50+ billion price tag on the games is so notably suspect because of the sub-par conditions of many of the facilities and the lack of accountability for the money spent. A senior International Olympic Committee official stated that it was common knowledge that a third of total spending on the games disappeared due to corruption perpetrated by business associates with connections to Putin. Others place the figure even higher with some alleging that well over half the money allocated to the games were pocketed. A popular Twitter account highlighting many of the hastily and incomplete construction results has garnered more than 300,000 followers, but also glosses over a larger problem. Unfortunately, the total lack of accountability for billions of dollars spent in Sochi is reflective of the status quo in Russia, a deeply ingrained issue that has gone largely unnoticed by the outside world.

Sochi2

Located on the Black Sea the Sochi area was previously best known as a summer beach getaway for many Russians complete with palm trees. The nearby ski resort of Rosa Khutor in the northern Caucasus mountains is 30 miles away where the alpine events are taking place. Also close by are many smaller regions that have sought autonomy or independence, including Chechnya and South Ossetia, the latter of which Russia and Georgia fought a brief war over in 2008. Perhaps most vocally, the ethnic Circassian people have expressed their disdain for hosting the games specifically at Sochi because of its historical significance as the site of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Russians in the late 19th century. For further context, in addition to the proximity to disenfranchised and separatist groups, Sochi is comparably equidistant from the heart of the Middle East to the capital of Russia, Moscow.

After multiple bombings in Volgograd a city in the north Caucasus in October and December that killed 7 and 34 people respectively, the issue of security has been paramount for Russia. Journalists and experts have accused Russian security of engaging in mass surveillance  of virtually all electronic devices and even spying in bathrooms, but at the end of the day if any and all attacks are prevented, Russian will likely assert it was all worth it. Furthermore, attracting intense criticism and controversy has been Russia’s stance on LGBT issues, specifically the law passed in 2013 by a vote of 436-0 banning ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ among minors. The conservative Russian culture and the government itself have quietly ignored the issue in regards to the games and this is likely to continue in order to avoid a backlash. The law has not been actively enforced in any context at the Olympic Games, but it has simultaneously served as a platform for discussion and advocacy on the issue in the West.

While the Olympics are largely regarded as a tremendous opportunity to gain international prestige and promote a country’s stance on the world stage, the problems and conflicts that exist within and because of the games should not be ignored for the sake of convenience. Russia and Putin  in many ways are using the Olympic games as a tool to further their own means, and the extent to how successful the outcome will be remains to be seen. Hopefully, the attention and pressure to address many of the issues outlined above, from corruption to human rights, may influence Russia to implement positive change in the future.

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Frozen Revolution in Ukraine

Ukrainian protester in front of riot police

Ukrainian protester in front of riot police

In recent months the Ukrainian people have increasingly demonstrated against their government over the repression of basic rights, rampant corruption and the economic direction of the country. Recently the clashes between riot police and protesters turned fatal when at least three were killed in the capital of Kiev, the primary locus of the conflict. The protests initially erupted on November 21st of last year when the government rejected key bills for a trade agreement with the EU in a shocking surprise and they have come to be labelled as the EuroMaidan movement. It is important to note that the controversy of moving towards greater European integration or returning to the Russian sphere of influence is secondary to the frustration and anger at the current administration of Victor Yanukovych and direction of the country as a whole. The quick implementation of harsher anti-demonstration laws have only added fuel to the fire, escalating the stakes between the increasingly detested government and protesters. It is apparent that the Ukrainian government cannot subdue the popular opposition with force alone, and if they refuse to make real concessions the conflict is likely to escalate further.

In response to the heightened tensions, Yanukovych has promised to review the anti-protesting laws and reshuffle elements of his government. Token concessions will not likely sway his critics, however, as they are demanding an end to the power structure that has been deepening its control over the political and economic affairs of the country since Yanukovych took office in 2010.

Examples of some of the provisions that were signed into law on January 17 include:

1. Gathering and sharing information on the Berkut (special security forces) or judges carries a penalty of up to a year in jail

2. Blocking access to government buildings and residential buildings carries a penalty of up to five and six years in jail, respectively

3. Participation in peaceful demonstrations while wearing a mask, scarf, helmet or another means of protecting or concealing one’s face or head carries a penalty of up to ten days in jail

Further provisions allow for broad interpretation and implementation of censorship on the internet and ‘extremist activities’ in general. These measures have been overwhelmingly criticized both domestically and internationally; some have described the laws as moves towards dictatorship in the country.

The controversy of the ‘hijacking’ of the opposition by extremist factions is reminiscent of the rhetoric used by Bashar al-Assad to decry and generalize the Syrian opposition as foreign terrorist elements. Svoboda is the most significant far-right party actively participating in the protests and there are smaller fringe groups that are attempting to push more radical agendas against the state. It would be naive to paint the opposition as free of extremist actors but it is clear that they are a minority. The majority of Ukrainians are not extremists bent on dismantling the state but rather wish for an end to a government not representative of the people that they see as creeping away from democracy.

Although the contexts and scale are completely different, similar to in Syria the opposition needs to be cognizant of itself presenting a representative voice in pursuing their demands, else they will face internal conflict and have a tougher time presenting themselves as legitimate. Extremist elements who promote and carry out unprovoked violence against the police need to be isolated and disavowed from the majority opposition. The goal of the opposition should not be to influence change in the government structure via violent force, but rather mass demonstration and civil disobedience to the unjust laws that limit basic freedoms.

Yanukovych and the security forces should realize the more brutal they act, the less credibility they will have to the rest of the world and the further the situation is likely to devolve. Political changes are imperative, and in order to reach a settlement the government must be willing to give up more power than it is currently comfortable with. Yanukovych should make it clear he is willing to make significant reforms to the power structure he has been building and the opposition should support a negotiated solution and take measures to prevent escalating the bloodshed which can be done without abandoning their cause or diminishing their impact.

The Ukrainian people are demanding reform and they are not going to back down easily. If they can brave the subzero temperatures for days on end to make a statement, then perhaps their government should listen.

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Why is Spain Afraid of Scotland?

Scotland will hold an official referendum for independence from the UK on September 18th, 2014

Scotland will hold an official referendum for independence from the UK on September 18th, 2014

The title of this article may sound like the start of a bad joke, but secessionist movements are very serious, involve huge political ramifications, and in many cases (the Kurds, Kosovo, and South Ossetia, to name a few) have resulted in armed conflict. While it is rather unlikely that the Royal Scots Army is going to invade the beaches of Barcelona, Spain and especially Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy aren’t too keen on the idea of new countries breaking off from old ones.

In a recent statement to the European Union, Rajoy diplomatically noted that if any state were to secede from an existing member state of the European Union, they would have to apply from the outside in order to rejoin the EU, reiterating the official EU stance. For any new country to be admitted to the EU, a unanimous vote from all 28 member states for approval is required. Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland and head of the Scotland National Party (SNP) which has spearheaded the Scottish independence movement, implied that Scotland would seek to join the EU “from within” in contrast with Rajoy’s statement.

Scotland still has a considerable amount of time before its official vote for independence will be held on September 18th, 2014, but why is this prospect stirring concern for Spain already?

Countries like Spain, Russia, and China have all had significant issues with their own secessionist movements (Catalonia, Chechnya, and Tibet, respectively), and consequently get nervous anytime a new country seeks to officially become a UN member state against their own political interests. Whether it be for preserving political stability, the economic benefits at stake, or just maintaining state legitimacy, the aforementioned countries are hesitant to allow others to join the prestigious ‘country’ club because they fear losing a chunk of their territory to a new state as well.  

Over a million people in Catalonia demonstrated for independence in 2012, and the movement remains strong, but so does the opposition. A proposed referendum asking for a vote on Catalan independence was shot down by Prime Minister Rajoy earlier in September. The Spanish government has strongly opposed the secession, in part because of economic dependence on the region but also because Catalonia breaking away could also empower smaller secessionist movements (like the Basque) to seek an even greater level of autonomy.

It is still uncertain whether the Scottish independence vote will actually pass in the first place, and the implications for Scotland and the UK will require a lot of ironing out before Salmond’s proposed independence date of March 2016 ever becomes reality. Nonetheless, the political and symbolic outcome of the Scottish referendum will definitely have an effect on the future of Catalonia, the European Union, and secessionist ambitions abroad. If Scotland does gain its independence, one thing you can definitely count on is that bagpipes will be involved.

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