Russia’s Olympic Victory – sign of a world leader?

Moscow. (Ian Pryde for RIA Novosti) – Sochi’s successful bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics was instantly celebrated not only as a great victory for Russian sport, but also as a sign that the country “is becoming a world leader again.”

And yet the rest of the domestic news agenda on the same day as the announcement told another story and once again revealed Russia’s near schizophrenic relationship with itself and the outside world – and the many contradictions within the country.

Is Putin learning about soft power?

Most Russian and international observers ascribed Sochi’s success to Putin, who addressed the IOC in English and French – although his forceful personality came through strongly in English, there was little of the posturing we have seen in recent months.

Putin’s performance was remarkable since it was perhaps the first occasion during his presidency that he has spoken in English at length in public.

It was also one of the very few instances in recent years where Russia has grasped the importance and potency of soft power.

Putin pointed to Russia’s excellent Olympic record – sport is one of the few areas where Russia can truly claim to be world-class – and pledged USD12 billion to build the facilities and infrastructure needed to host the Olympics.

In fact, major Russian state and private companies such as Russian Railways, Gazprom and Interros are already hard at work in developing the region’s infrastructure, and with gold and foreign currency reserves now at over USD400 billion and rising, Russia will hardly have any problem finding the money.

There is therefore every chance that the work will be completed on time and up to standard.

South Russia will clearly benefit enormously in terms of investment, development and international publicity over the coming years – but what about the rest of the country?

Soviet approach alive and well

Putin was not only the key to the success in Guatemala, but was also the driving force behind Sochi’s nomination in the first place.

And in the run up to the vote, Putin and other Russian politicians said frequently that these projects would continue irrespective of the result because the region and the country were in massive need of development, which would be driven by the construction of more sports facilities and other infrastructure such as transport and accommodation.

But this top-down approach is all-too reminiscent of the Soviet Union, which often achieved spectacular results by huge effort and investment and a tight focus on narrowly circumscribed goals – space, the military and sport are key examples.

Prime Minister Fradkov echoed this sentiment when chairing a euphoric Cabinet meeting denuded by the numerous ministers in Guatemala.

Sochi’s victory, he said, shows that “if we really want something, we can achieve a lot. I would even add that we can achieve everything if we really want to.”

And this sums up modern Russia – meeting narrowly defined goals by a lot of effort and targeting resources is one thing, but emulating the high level of overall development that the West and Japan achieve with such ease is quite another.

Due for demolition

The Russian news agenda on July 5 was understandably dominated by Sochi’s victory, but other items highlighted the country’s problems and the immense difficulty of solving them.

Housing is a good example. Russia’s housing stock is in a dire condition – as Putin himself has frequently acknowledged, much of it is not just dilapidated, but downright dangerous.

Indeed, one of the country’s four national projects is aimed at improving (and providing cheap) accommodation – but solving this problem following decades without any real investment will be a major task.

Other problems openly acknowledged by Russia’s politicians recently include the country’s appalling roads, the low pensions and low public sector salaries – and the corruption this engenders.

Major bottlenecks in the technology sphere are causing Russia to fall even further behind the West, while the country’s declining population, low birth rates, low life-expectancy and high death rates have led Putin and others to talk of a demographic crisis.

Rampant drinking is a major cause, but like many of Russia’s problems, it seems to be a cultural phenomenon with deep roots in the country’s history – as Gorbachev found during perestroika, curing alcoholism is not easy.

World leader with third world infrastructure

And yet while politicians freely admit that corruption and poor administration prevent the implementation of real solutions to the country’s huge problems, despite the large sums now being directed at vital areas such as housing, health and agriculture, they are also increasingly emphasising Russia’s status as a major power and its successes – often in the same breath.

In a recent visit to the Novocherkassk Plant, which produces electric trains, Sergei Ivanov, deputy prime minister and tipped as Putin’s successor, noted proudly that while some products were being exported, other “production processes were still in the stone age” – and that there was not enough time for modernization.

Commenting on Sochi’s victory, Boris Gryzlov, Speaker of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house, gave a clear indication of how politicians regard the importance of the country’s status.

Sport, he said, was political, and the decision to award the games to Sochi proved that the world was not unipolar and that there were “forces in the world which support Russia. It is clear that Russia is once again becoming a world leader.”

And while Putin was visiting Bush in America and wooing the Olympic powers that be, Ivanov, who was defence minister before assuming his current job, said in Tashkent that many in Europe did not want the American missile defense system to be stationed there and that “we should ask them.”

If the stationing did go ahead, he warned, the Russian asymmetric (and therefore cheaper) response would be to station missiles in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania.

Russia’s Rising Threat?

Moscow has legitimate security concerns, but such statements are only likely to increase European distrust of Moscow, especially as Russia’s economy and international aspirations continue to grow and the country invests large sums in developing new weapons and financing the military.

According to a poll among Europeans from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK published this week in the Financial Times, Russia was seen by 5% of the respondents as posing the biggest threat to world stability.

Admittedly, 32% of Europeans saw America under Bush as the biggest threat, followed by China (19%), Iran (17%), Iraq (11%) and North Korea (9%).

Nevertheless, Russia’s political establishment would be unwise to indulge in further rhetoric since this approach has already served to isolate the country somewhat and will seriously weaken its power internationally.

It used to be said of the Soviet Union that it was an Upper Volta with nuclear weapons.

Contemporary Russia is light years removed from the Soviet Union, but it is still not a western country and will take decades to become one – if that is what its leaders and people want.

Current trends present a mixed picture

The Kremlin’s drive to increase state control over the commanding heights of the economy and create national champions is odd since this route led Russia to increasing wealth by its own historical standards, but to relative poverty compared to the West.

On the other hand, despite the claims of a rollback in democracy, millions of Russians now enjoy international travel and foreign holidays, something virtually unheard of during the Soviet era.

And Russians now have access to foreign media via cable, the Internet and satellite television and to the world-wide web – Russia does not curb Internet traffic and in this regard is following the Western, rather than the Chinese model.

The hope must be that Russia’s economy and infrastructure continue to improve and that living standards continue to rise.

These are of course long-term developments, but the welcome success of Sochi’s Olympic bid should make a major contribution to a Russia which is more mature and self-assured.

Ian Pryde is CEO, Eurasia Strategy & Communications, Moscow.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Originally written for Ian Pryde’s weekly column for the Opinion & Analysis section of RIA-Novosti’s English-language website.

Now available at, the site of the Sputnik news agency, the successor to Russian state-owned RIA Novosti’s international branch, which became defunct in 2013.

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