Vladimir Putin’s Olympic Undertaking

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The Volgograd train station before it was bombed.

The Volgograd train station before it was bombed.

Russia attempts to remedy its image leading up to the Winter Olympics

 Article: Ravinesh Sakaran – Contributor

[dropcaps round=”no”]R[/dropcaps]ussia has been under the spotlight over the past year, shocking the international community by granting temporary asylum to Edward Snowden the infamous former employee of the NSA, who leaked classified information. Additionally, Russia played a crucial role in ensuring the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles and simultaneously preventing the United States and its Western European allies from attacking Syria.

However, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seems to steal the limelight from his American counterpart, President Barack Obama. Putin seems to have been implementing drastic and desperate measures to improve the motherland’s heinous human rights track record ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. The Sochi Olympics will be the first Olympics to be held in Russia after the breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1980.

In light of the Winter Olympics in Sochi this February, the Russian Parliament voted in favor of an amnesty bill. According to the Associated Press, the bill mainly concerns first-time offenders, minors and women with small children. The amnesty makes two members of the Pussy Riot band eligible for release and will allow investigators to drop charges against the 30 members of Greenpeace’s ship detained in Russia’s Arctic in September.

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the two jailed members of the punk band, Pussy Riot, were serving a two-year sentence for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for staging a boisterous and profane performance at Moscow’s main cathedral, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in March 2012.  Both of them were scheduled for a release in March, but they were qualified for release under the new amnesty bill because they have young children.

Both Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova remain upbeat and unconvinced of the sincerity of the Kremlin’s actions. Alyokhina told Dozhd TV that she would have served out her term if she had been able to reject amnesty.

“If I had a chance to turn it down, I would have done it, no doubt about that,” she said. “This is not an amnesty. This is a hoax and a PR move.”

The Globe and Mail reports that the 30 Greenpeace activists, who were facing hooliganism charges, which carries a 7-year jail sentence, are now free to return to their home countries, with the passing of the amnesty bill. The Greenpeace activists were jailed after a September protest targeting an oil rig in the Russian Arctic.

Two Canadians were among the 30 detained protesters. They are Alexandre Paul of Montreal and Paul Ruzycki of Port Colborne, ON.

“I’m pleased and relieved the charges have been dropped, but we should not have been charged at all,” said Peter Wilcox, who captained the Greenpeace vessel used in the protest.

Russian authorities, however, claimed that the activists clearly endangered lives and property during the protest at the state-controlled energy giant Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya platform in the Pechora Sea, an essential Russian Artic developmental plan.

Putin has even further extended his olive branch to his arch nemesis, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Once Russia’s richest man, Khodorskovsky will finally be a free man after spending almost a decade behind bars.  According to the National Post, Khodorkovsky had a falling out with Putin about ten years ago; he was arrested at gunpoint on an airport runway in Siberia on alleged tax and fraud charges.

Khodorkovsky’s oil company, Yukos, was later dismantled and sold off to state-controlled corporations.  Following his imprisonment, Khodordovsky became the symbol of the Kremlin’s abuse of the courts for political gain. The Kremlin denies this, however, Putin has singled out Khodorkovsky for bitter personal attacks and has ignored the calls for his release this long.

Putin, in a press conference, stated that, “he has been in jail already more than 10 years. This is a serious punishment.”

Saying Khodorkovsky’s mother was ill and that he had asked for clemency, he added: “I decided that with these circumstances in mind … a decree pardoning him will be signed.”

Although Putin has resorted to herculean measures to rebrand Russia’s image, Putin still faces an uphill battle to neutralize an anti-gay law passed under his administration. There have been threats of protests and boycotts at the Olympics over its restriction on “homosexual propaganda.”

President Obama will not be attending the opening ceremony of the Olympics, although boasting the most number of athletes at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Instead, President Obama will be sending a delegation comprising of two gay former athletes. There is much speculation that President Obama’s absence in Sochi might not be related to his opposition to Russia’s anti-gay laws, but may be of a result of an earlier transgression with the Russian Premier, with Putin granting Edward Snowden temporary asylum in Russia.

Apart from going to great lengths to please his international peers, Putin also faces a domestic security threat, the recent train and bus bombings on Dec. 30, 2013, which killed 31 people and injured dozens in Volgograd, approximately 400 miles from Sochi.

“It certainly affects the overall perception by the international community on whether Russia can guarantee that the Olympic Games will not fall victim to terrorist attacks,” said Simon Saradzhyan to the Los Angeles Times, a terrorism scholar at the Belfer Center at Harvard University‘s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

“Volgograd is the same distance from Sochi as Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, that has produced two suicide bombers in the last two months,” Saradzhyan said, regarding the train station attack and another Volgograd bombing on Oct. 21, in which a Dagestani woman blew herself up on a trolley.

Volgograd might have been chosen, he speculated, to demonstrate that the extremists’ reach from their Caucasus strongholds could easily extend to Sochi.

The Caucasus mountain region between the Caspian and Black Seas has been, for a long time, embroiled with ethnic and religious conflict between the Muslims of stateless Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. In recent history Russian forces have sought to repress these Muslim populations.

The Russian Armed Forces has fought two wars in the 1990s to quell Chechen separatism, and the region has since been a hotbed for terrorist strikes against Russian cities and symbols. According to the Mother Jones, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, spent six months in Dagestan and Chechyna in 2012.

Chechen militants over the last dozen years have killed hundreds of civilians in attacks on airports, trains, subway stations, schools, and hospitals in a loosely coordinated terrorist campaign to force Moscow the Muslim majority region of self-rule.

Putin, in the light of these attacks, has condemned these terrorist campaigns and has heightened security for the Winter Olympics come Feb. 7. Putin is left with no choice but to make all of the necessary changes to ensure this pet project of his will transform the Stalinist-era resort town into an international tourist destination that will bring about economic prosperity to Russia.

Canada will be sending 222 competitors participating in 14 sports, only 2 competitors short of the largest Olympic team sent by the United States to Sochi 2014.

87 nations will be participating in this year’s Winter Olympics with Malta, Paraguay, Timor Leste, Togo, Tonga and Zimbabwe to make their historic Winter Olympic debut.

[button style=”e.g. solid, border” size=”e.g. small, medium, big” link=”” target=””] Image: Markv[/button]

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