Even a Peaceful Olympics Could Turn Into a Failure for Putin

Police patrolling the Rosa Khutor Mountain Cluster village before the Sochi Olympic Games begin Photograph by Getty Images

The Sochi Winter Olympics opening on Friday are supposed to showcase the prosperous, dynamic, and confident nation that Russia had become under Vladimir Putin’s leadership. Instead they risk turning into a public relations fiasco, highlighting the failures of Putin’s nearly 14 years in power.

Most ominous is the threat of a terrorist attack, which Putin is trying mightily to avoid by locking down Sochi and deploying some 40,000 troops there during the games. Even if he succeeds, the extreme security measures will be a constant reminder to visitors and foreign news media that Russia has failed to contain escalating violence in the nearby North Caucasus region. “They have built temporary barracks all around the Olympic park, and everything is surrounded by fences, double and triple fences, with lots of security cameras,” says Ivan Nechepurenko, a reporter for the Moscow Times newspaper who has been in Sochi since late January.

It already looks as if many fans have decided to skip the games. The Sochi organizing committee told the Associated Press late last month that only 70 percent of an available 1.1 million tickets had been sold, raising the prospect that television broadcasts will show sparse crowds at some events.

The potential embarrassments don’t end there. Russia spent a record-shattering $51 billion to prepare for the games, yet Sochi still doesn’t look ready. The organizing committee acknowledged on Feb. 2 that of nine hotels at which news media representatives will stay, only six were fully functional. Journalists arriving early are finding spotty Internet connections, windows coated with construction dust, and stray dogs roaming outdoors, the Moscow Times reported today.

A report today on a blog run by Sochi residents showed a photo of a vast, unfinished apartment complex surrounded by construction equipment and piles of gravel; it is supposed to house volunteers at the games. Only 1,300 of the planned 3,500 apartments are ready, the report said. Such scenes reinforce the impression that the Sochi games may be remembered as a monument to the waste, mismanagement, and corruption that clouded the preparations.

Putin’s countrymen might be willing to overlook some of this if the economy were perking along nicely—but it isn’t. Just last week, Moscow reported growth of only 1.3 percent last year, half the rate in 2012. Economists warn that Russia could tip into recession. During most of the Putin era, growth was led by consumer spending and fueled by proceeds from exports of Russian oil and gas. Those days are over, as export revenues flatten and the country’s working-age population shrinks. The government did little during the cash-flush years to reduce Russia’s dependence on natural resources or to overhaul inefficient sectors of the economy. The long-term outlook is grim, indeed.

To shore up Russia’s economic clout, Putin wants to expand an existing customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus to include Ukraine, the most-populous of former Soviet republics, after Russia. Now even that vision is in danger, with Ukrainian protesters who seek closer trade relations with the European Union having plunged that country into crisis.

The aftermath of the games in Sochi may not be pretty, either. Some developers who hoped to cash in appear to have given up, leaving the center of the city dotted with half-finished buildings that have “no construction workers doing any work on them,” journalist Nechepurenko says. One such project is a partially completed shopping mall across from the main train station. “It’s been covered on all sides with cloth,” painted to resemble the exterior of a building, he says. “People rushed into Sochi to build things, but the demand didn’t meet their expectations.”

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