With the Winter Olympic Games only a few days away it becomes increasingly obvious that, for the Kremlin, Sochi is more a blend of politics and performance than a sporting event. President Putin and other key figures in Moscow have said on many occasions that Russia wants to be more open and show itself to the world. However what exactly Russia wishes to demonstrate to the global public remains unclear. To a large extent, Sochi appears to be what scholars call an ‘empty signifier’, or a concept open to various – and often conflicting - interpretations, ones that cannot be reduced to a specific set of meanings.
For the Kremlin, Sochi is more a blend of politics and performance than a sporting event.
What is clear, in terms of Guy Debord’s idea of the ‘society of the spectacle’, is that the Putin regime wants to stage a show on a mass scale. Aimed at a global audience, it has been designed to fit into a basic universal canon of nation branding and product placement. So the logic of Putin’s regime as the organiser of mega-events is defined by two basic concepts– normalisation and security.
Like other non-Western hosts of global tournaments and championships (China, Brazil, South Africa, Qatar, etc.), Moscow wants to (re)position itself as a ‘normal country.’ It wants to be seen as a country no less capable than other world leaders of running large-scale projects and providing high-level security for them.
Moscow wants to (re)position itself as a ‘normal country’.
Russia's branding strategies could be seen to be aimed at marginalising and ostracising those social practices that have little place in the hegemonic power discourse. To study this more closely, we first looked at the lessons to be learned from the 2013 Summer Universiade in Kazan.
Normalisation, or ‘getting back on our feet’
The Universiade (World Student Games) in Kazan made more of an impact in Russia than it did abroad, despite having hosted 150,000 visitors and almost 12,000 athletes from 160 countries competing in 27 sports. On the home front its significance was boosted by two visits from President Vladimir Putin, who said that the Universiade should be seen as a rehearsal for other upcoming sports mega-events in Russia. As Igor Sivov, deputy director of the Universiade organising committee put it, ‘The Universiade is the first project of this sort since the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Most foreigners associate Russia with matrioshkas, bears and winter. Today we aim to show that, beyond these stereotypes, Russia is a country of extraordinary, creative people, and we are proud of it… In this respect, the ideals of sports and culture coincide. Both showcase tolerance, mutual respect and a desire for perfection.’
The opening ceremony of the Universiade (World Student Games) in Kazan. This mega event made more of an impact in Russia than it did abroad. Photo cc: Kremlin.ru
This brings us to the semantic link between mega-events and the discourse around normalisation. In his recent pre-Olympic interview, President Putin saw the Sochi Games as a way of overcoming the traumas of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the war in Chechnya: ‘We need to feel inspired to rise to the challenge of successfully implementing large-scale projects. The Sochi Olympics are essential to the narrative of Russia’s normalisation through national revival, as in the famous metaphor of “getting back on one’s feet”.’
Reclaiming great power status and returning to the ‘premier league’ of world politics is also part of Russia’s normalisation agenda. As presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov acknowledged, Russia wants to show that it can run sizeable international projects at a time when the EU is mired in financial crisis.
President Putin saw the Sochi Games as a way of overcoming the traumas of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the war in Chechnya.
This government strategy has obvious significance for the regions. Kazan, in its eagerness to derive as much benefit as possible from the Universiade, launched various other large-scale projects consonant with the Kremlin’s strategy of modernising Russia’s economy. There was Innopolis, a high-tech city-satellite within the Kazan agglomeration, and a project for a high-speed rail service between Moscow and Kazan, though this is now on hold. There was even talk of career prospects for Rustam Minnikhanov, the head of Tatarstan, as a prime minister of Russia.
But there are two major drawbacks to using mega-projects to implement the strategy of normalisation. The first concerns the widespread practice of ‘mobilising administrative resources’ ie using position and contacts to achieve goals, political or other. According to news reports, many elements of the Universiade—from ticket distribution to construction works—relied on an opaque administrative system, which resulted in multiple abusive and corrupt practices.
For President Putin, the Sochi Olympics are a way of overcoming the traumas of the war in Chechnya. Photo cc: Natalia Medvedeva
The same goes for the Sochi Olympics: the borderline between state-owned and non-state assets has been kept flexible, and spheres of responsibility between different levels of authority—even individuals—have been deliberately blurred. For example, Putin’s public questioning in February 2013 of Dmitry Kozak and other officials responsible for the gross mismanagement of Olympic construction made it clear that many of the managers had failed to differentiate between private investments and credits from Sberbank, which counts the state as one of its largest shareholders. The proverbial ‘vertical of power’ was only further discredited by administrative conflicts within government—for example, between the Ministry for Regional Development, which manages the bulk of funds assigned for the Sochi Olympics, and the Gosstroy state corporation, in charge of construction works. All this, coupled with exorbitant corruption, clearly singles Russia out as a very peculiar case of mismanagement and profligacy, by comparison with other Olympic projects.
The Kremlin uses mega-events as a fresh way of projecting an authentic image of Russia.
The other problem concerns the Kremlin's declared intention of using mega-events as a fresh way of projecting an authentic image of Russia. Ethnic, religious and – in a wider sense – cultural diversity are most often chosen to showcase Russia and demonstrate its soft power. Yet the experience of Kazan illustrates the vulnerability of this approach. In particular, a series of still uninvestigated fires in Orthodox churches in Tatarstan revealed the conflicted complexity of ethnic relations in this region.They prompted debate as to whether it was realistic to highlight the peaceful co-existence of Christianity and Islam, which was the core of Kazan’s brand in the bid for the Universiade 2013 .
Even more pertinently, the idea of normalisation has been given a different, and pretty controversial, twist by the particular practices to which the Kremlin has given its backing. One aesthetic example is the implicitly sexualised practice of selecting young Russian female models for award ceremonies. The ‘Faces of the Universiade’ competition held in Kazan before the event was, like a beauty contest, governed by the standardised criteria of physical attraction. Despite its commercial justification, this practice stands in marked contrast to the London Summer Olympics, where athletes received their medals from a team of people who were quite ordinary in terms of gender, age and physical shape.
The ‘Faces of the Universiade’ competition held in Kazan before the event was, like a beauty contest, governed by the standardised criteria of physical attraction.
As for the regulatory mechanisms of biopower, these have been hijacked for different political purposes. From being a means of consolidating Putin’s conservative majority at home they have been transformed into markers with which to isolate Russia from Western theories of liberal emancipation, feminism and minority rights. This has, of course, had reverberations for the mega-projects, as it was precisely the issue of Russia’s treatment of the LGBT community that provoked protests in the West and led to a campaign calling for a political boycott of the Sochi Games.
The Sochi Games are as much about politics as they are about sport. Here Putin shows then-President Bush the architectural models for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Photo cc: kremlin.ru
This has regional implications too. A growing interest in the biopolitical dimensions of Russia’s key institutions of power could end up challenging some of the branding strategies. For example, only a few months after the Universiade in Kazan, the local seminary became a focus of scandalous revelations about homosexuality among the priests. Of course, from the standpoint of the Kremlin’s ideology of conservative normalisation, this is precisely what has to be purged and eradicated and purified. But the very fact that the Russian Orthodox Church is implicated may complicate the use of moral and religious motifs in promoting the Kazan brand.
Security: the ‘empty streets syndrome’
Today, security has undoubtedly become the overwhelming issue for global governance. So Russia’s desire to prevent security problems during mega-events is quite understandable, especially in light of the tragic events in Volgograd and the widely circulated information about the activities of terrorist groups in Russia’s North Caucasus.
Sports mega-events do often involve the temporary suspension of normal rules, and security concerns only increase the scale of this.
Sports mega-events do often involve the temporary suspension of normal rules, and security concerns only increase the scale of this. The key problem here is that the security measures put in place by the Russian authorities are based on excluding people rather than involving them. This is what Sergey Medvedev, Professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, has dubbed ‘the empty streets syndrome.’ During the August 2013 World Athletics Championship in Moscow, the city was cleared of its citizens, leaving the policemen and security guards as the marathon runners’ only spectators.
The same logic underpins preparations for the Sochi Olympics. As Sergey Medvedev argues, this becomes possible only as an ‘emergency situation,’ very close to what the French would call an état de siège, with vehicles from other regions banned from the city, the introduction of zones of intense control, and people subject to enhanced inspections etc. The result is that people are excluded from celebrating their national or regional identities through sports. Such measures of prohibition were widely implemented in Kazan as well, including vehicles being towed away to reduce traffic. In January 2014, security restrictions all over Russia were at an all-time high: the ban on boarding a plane carrying liquids or cosmetics was widely criticised as an excessive precaution.
People are excluded from celebrating their national or regional identities through sports.
These examples illustrate Moscow’s view of security as a means of state domination i.e. a biopolitical measure, rather than a matter of human security with human beings as the key reference point of state’s policies. An example of the biopolitical underpinning of Russia’s security measures in Sochi is that public order in the city relies partly on Cossack patrols, widely known for their blatant intolerance of ‘non-traditional sexual orientation.’ There have even been calls for physical force to be used to control the LGBT community.
Policies pursued in the name of security, mean that people are often excluded from celebrating their national or regional identites through sport. Photo cc: Christine Rondeau
Interestingly, with the Sochi Olympics imminent, the Putin regime will have to develop a more flexible policy of ‘exceptions to exceptions.’ Thus, the initial ban on all public activities unrelated to the Olympic Games in Sochi during the event has been rescinded and special areas have been allocated for demonstrators. Moscow has also given informal assurance to the International Olympic Committee that a new law criminalising gay ‘propaganda’ will not be implemented during the Sochi Olympics. This, of course, simply proves that Russia’s restrictive domestic regulations are widely at variance with prevailing international standards and with the very spirit of the Olympic movement.
Sports mega-events are a combination of entertainment, symbolic and carnivalesque performances, celebrations of national pride, and managerial technocracy. Yet they are also sources of political messages and ideological statements. Seen from a political perspective, the Olympic Games are meant to confirm Russia’s claim to normalcy and its ability to provide world-class security. In many respects, holding sports mega-events serves to undermine the coherence of Putin’s nationalist and conservative discourse by providing the public with an opportunity to air their views on issues such as tolerance, lifestyle diversity, and human rights.
In many respects, holding sports mega-events serves to undermine the coherence of Putin’s nationalist and conservative discourse.
Such mega-events also show up the Russian government as corrupt and mismanaged, unable to tackle security challenges, whether soft or hard, and cavalier about environmental issues. Thus the success of the Sochi Olympics in further socialising Russia internationally may be limited. More important, perhaps, is the growing domestic disenchantment with the bad governance and artificial patriotism increasingly associated with the Kremlin’s hosting of sports mega-events.
This article is based on Andrey Makarychev’s PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 288 published Sept. 2013, and Alexandra Yatsyk's project 'Development of cultural multi-ethnic urban environment under regional "event" policy' supported by the Russian Humanitarian Research Foundation no 13-03-00411
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