The Krem­lin’s Olympic ac­ro­bat­ics

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee’s de­ci­sion not to ban all Rus­sian par­tic­i­pa­tion, in­stead leav­ing it up to in­di­vid­ual sports’ gov­ern­ing fed­er­a­tions to review each ath­lete’s record and de­cide who can com­pete, has been met with dis­may from some and re­lief from others. For Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, who has proved highly adept at turn­ing even the worst in­ter­na­tional hu­mil­i­a­tion into a pro­pa­ganda vic­tory for the Krem­lin, nei­ther out­come would have been par­tic­u­larly dev­as­tat­ing.

To be sure, Putin con­sid­ers the Olympics – and, specif­i­cally, medals – to be very im­por­tant. Like his old So­viet masters, he con­flates ath­letic glory with mil­i­tary glory. That is why he per­son­ally lob­bied for Rus­sia to host the 2014 Win­ter Games in Sochi; the un­prece­dented $50 bil­lion price tag was well worth it, con­sid­er­ing that Rus­sia won the most medals. (It was Rus­sia’s ac­tions dur­ing the Sochi Olympics that form the core of the dop­ing scan­dal.)

This is not to say that ath­letic glory sub­sti­tutes for mil­i­tary glory. Dur­ing the 2008 Sum­mer Games in Bei­jing (at which it fin­ished third in medals, af­ter China and the United States), Rus­sia grabbed the world’s at­ten­tion with its brief war with Ge­or­gia. Af­ter Sochi, Putin, in­censed by the ouster of pro-Rus­sian Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych, went for the geostrate­gic gold, an­nex­ing Crimea and in­stalling sep­a­ratist prox­ies in east­ern Ukraine.

What about af­ter Rio? Moldova, which has been mak­ing strides to align with the West, is ru­moured to be next on Putin’s hit list. Tak­ing over Transnis­tria, a pro-Rus­sia Moldovan en­clave ad­ja­cent to Ukraine, would be eco­nom­i­cally chal­leng­ing for a Rus­sia that is still reel­ing from the Western sanc­tions im­posed over Crimea. But it would also make a grand state­ment, and Putin thrives on grand state­ments.

Be­larus is an­other po­ten­tial vic­tim of Putin’s re­van­chist cam­paign. Run by the au­to­crat Alexan­der Lukashenko, who has held the pres­i­dency since 1994, the coun­try is sup­pos­edly al­ready in the Krem­lin’s back pocket. But Lukashenko has long tried to play Rus­sia against the West, to ex­tract the best deals for his coun­try. Since the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, he has moved more pur­posely to­ward the West, though Rus­sia’s re­cent move to curb oil sup­plies may be enough to force Lukashenko to re­think that pol­icy.

For Moldova or Be­larus, the rev­e­la­tions about Rus­sia’s dop­ing pro­gramme and the coun­try’s near-ban from the Olympics could amount to very bad news, as Putin spins them to fit his nar­ra­tive of per­sis­tent Western plot­ting against Rus­sia. In­deed, the Krem­lin and the Rus­sian sports min­is­ter, Vi­taly Mutko, have ac­cused Grig­ory Rod­chenkov, the for­mer Rus­sian anti-dop­ing of­fi­cial turned whis­tle-blower, of be­ing a Western stooge. Add to that NATO’s re­cent de­ci­sion to send small mil­i­tary units east­ward, in or­der to re­as­sure Poland and the Baltic states, and Rus­sia may well de­cide that now is the time to cre­ate a larger buf­fer be­tween it­self and the West.

Clearly, Putin, a for­mer KGB agent, will not apol­o­gise for the dop­ing scan­dal. As any spy will tell you, ly­ing and cheat­ing in the ser­vice of your coun­try are not just ac­cept­able; they are the en­tire point of the clan­des­tine ser­vices. Fit­tingly, the state­sanc­tioned dop­ing regime was over­seen by the FSB (the KGB’s successor).

Like spies, strong­men have lit­tle af­fec­tion for fair play – and Putin is both. No pro­pa­ganda ma­chine can func­tion in a coun­try where pol­i­tics are free, fair, hon­est, and trans­par­ent. And pro­pa­ganda is crit­i­cal to en­able a leader to con­sol­i­date power to the de­gree that Putin has.

But, in Putin’s view, he is no dif­fer­ent from any other leader, demo­cratic or oth­er­wise. The re­cently leaked Panama Pa­pers ex­posed the use of off­shore bank ac­counts and shell com­pa­nies to con­ceal wealth and avoid taxes by ev­ery­one from the prime min­is­ter of Ice­land to the fa­ther of for­mer Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron. Putin’s close as­so­ci­ates were just a few names on a long and var­ied list. The les­son, ac­cord­ing to Putin, is that ev­ery­body lies, yet some­how only Rus­sians be­come vil­lains.

So, for Putin, get­ting caught cheat­ing is a mis­take, but noth­ing to be ashamed of. And be­ing pun­ished for cheat­ing sim­ply ex­poses the hypocrisy of those do­ing the pun­ish­ing. In this sense, an out­right ban on Rus­sian Olympians could have been even bet­ter for Putin’s do­mes­tic stand­ing – and even worse for the coun­tries on which he has his eye.

Now that Rus­sia’s ath­letic dreams have been re­vived, to some ex­tent, Putin may be pre­pared to sus­pend his quest for mil­i­tary glory tem­po­rar­ily – not least out of fear that the 2018 FIFA World Cup, awarded to Rus­sia, could be moved else­where. And, in­deed, Putin has been pre­tend­ing to take the dop­ing al­le­ga­tions se­ri­ously, even ask­ing the Rus­sian Olympic Com­mit­tee to cre­ate an in­de­pen­dent anti-dop­ing agency.

But even that move is aimed at bol­ster­ing Putin’s stand­ing, not kow­tow­ing to out­siders, as it sends the mes­sage that, even in the face of in­jus­tice, Rus­sia, great coun­try that it is, is show­ing grace and mu­nif­i­cence. Mean­while, the fact that Rus­sian ath­letes will “un­fairly” face ex­tra scru­tiny at the Rio Games pro­vides the per­fect cover for a po­ten­tially poor show­ing.

There is no ques­tion that Putin is a master ma­nip­u­la­tor. But his spin on the ex­tra scru­tiny of Rus­sia prob­a­bly car­ries fewer risks than would his in­ter­pre­ta­tion of an out­right ban. The ques­tion is whether Rus­sia, fear­ing harsher reper­cus­sions, will ac­tu­ally think twice be­fore break­ing in­ter­na­tional laws again.

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