Feature: Sochi Olympics Fuels Many Debates in International Relations

The Olympic Games are a unique event in the operation of human society. In the alternating winter and summer renditions of this biennial spectacle, the youth of the world, hailing from diverse locales far and wide, are called to congregate and to compete on a single stage in the spirit of unity and fairness in celebration of the ability and potential of humanity.

In this year’s contest, held in Sochi, Russia, however, the spirit of the Olympic Games has come under threat from internal political factors. The threats are from Russian domestic policy as well as the strong-armed show of image politics on the part of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the weeks and months preceding the games, the most salient story accompanying the typical pre-Olympic will-they-be-ready banter was Russia’s new anti-gay law, as it has been dubbed by much of the media.

The legislation, which is extremely vague in its wording and intent, was signed into law by Putin in June of last year. The bill prohibits the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” to minors, and builds upon pre-existing regional laws in several Russian Oblasts (provinces), which also sought to promote so-called traditional values among Russian youth.

The ambiguous wording and terminology of the legislation leaves the definitions of terms such as traditional and propaganda to interpretation, but the choice of the word “propaganda” to describe same-sex relations is certainly divisive and incendiary.

The specificity of directing the measure toward minors also raises questions as to the potential future regressions of LGBT rights in the Russian Federation. It has led to widespread international criticism amidst fears that the Olympics would be tarnished by the chilling effects of the legislation, effects which, up to now, appear to have not materialized.

Among others, President Obama has commented in reaction to the law, stating that athletes should be “judged on the track, or in the swimming pool, or on the balance beam, and that people’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it.”

Obama’s remarks, unlike the Russian law, leave no ambiguity in their intent, and serve as a much-needed counterpoint to the homophobic legislation.

As for the origins of the dynamics within Russian culture which led to the ignorant and unjust legislation, a brief survey of Russian history and the image politics of the country’s current leader, the world-renowned self-proclaimed strong man, Putin, is in order. The history of Russia is one highlighted by empires built and empires lost – the Russian Empire, led by the absolute monarchical leadership of the Tsars through the 19th Century, saw the rise of Russia as a military power.

The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution put an end to the monarchy, but greatly expanded Russian influence the world over and saw Russia emerge victorious during World War II in Europe and become a global superpower. The Soviet Era was one predicated by military development and regressions in respect for human rights.

The key to understanding Russian geopolitics is hard power projection that is, as political science professor Dr. Charles Cotton reminds, the buildup of military assets in the every man for himself zero-sum game principles of Machiavellian classical Realism; precisely what brought Russia to the forefront of the world’s stage.

Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s place in world affairs came under dire threat. A superpower was brought to its knees, not by external pressures or foreign invasion, but by its own internal inefficiencies. Such dysfunction sends an impression of weakness to the outside world and such an image is disastrous in the face of maintaining global influence.

In reaction, Russia has built up its armed forces, taken steps to grow its economy and bases of production, and has projected its hard power assets in the form of a continued manned presence in space as well as in diplomatic affairs. one example is the unilateral chemical weapons transfer agreement recently signed by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and the Kremlin in an effort to stave off threats to Russian assets in the Mediterranean.

To show off its efforts to rehabilitate itself and renovate its image, hosting the Olympics demonstrates that Russia can host a world-class event replete with pomp, circumstance, and security.

The reports from Sochi, however, have been different. Along with the obvious and now infamous ring malfunction during the opening ceremony, athletes and journalists alike have pointed to woeful shortcomings in some of the infrastructure in and around the Olympic village. Doors without handles, hotels without lobbies, toilets that do not flush and brown drinking water have been only some of the deficiencies in the Sochi accommodations that have been reported.

Despite the outwardly impressive sight of what has been achieved by Russian know-how in Sochi, closer examination reveals that the apparent glitz and glamour is, in many ways, a façade which is hiding deep flaws.

This also seems to be the case with Russian geopolitics. Putin, despite being an outward international strong man, is building a façade of hard power to cover for Russia’s domestic shortcomings – the average life expectancy in Russia in 2011 was 69 years according to the World Bank compared to almost 79 years in the U.S. As the anti-gay law demonstrates, the challenges to individual liberties in Russia are still numerous and resistance to civil rights on the part of the Kremlin is very high. Although Russia has always concentrated on hard power in the past, the geopolitical culture of the 21st Century is different – force is now discouraged and looked down upon; cooperation and coalition is encouraged and venerated. Unilateral and unapologetic advancement is now viewed with suspicion and trepidation, and leaders who espouse such philosophies are seen as pariahs among the international community.

Although hosting the Olympics does show the world that Russia can physically pull of a large-scale international event, Russia has missed the true point of the games. Instead of celebrating the capabilities and potential of the youth of the world in a spirit of unity and fairness, Russia’s laws seek to squelch the voices of its youth and to deepen societal division and injustice. If Russia wants to play in international affairs and  become world power once more, the strong-armed façade of image politics must stop, and the rights and welfare of the Russian people must take center stage.

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