Sochi 2014: Who Can We Trust To Tell Us The Truth?
Regular readers of this space know I spent 10 years in the former Soviet Union, independently living and working, teaching and learning.
So it’s no secret that I’m interested in all things Russian, and that the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games fall within my interest wheelhouse.
But it’s exactly because they are in Russia, that I’m interested in the full story. And that includes how the story gets told. What information will people be reading and who censors (edits) it?
Call me a cynic; call me skeptical. But I have lots of questions. Like, who ultimately decides what’s important for you and me, the public, to know?
Whose responsibility is it to get the full (and honest) story into public discourse? Can we depend on the journalists? Or, a news outlet such as NBC, with its $800 million exclusive contract on the line? Is there any free and unbiased source on the ground?
Early reports out of Sochi have noted the confusing conditions and events taking place as the Games get up and running, the first battle tests of the new infrastructure, if you will. It makes this all sound as if Sochi was a blank canvas, and has been manufactured from the ground up.
In truth, much of the area around Sochi is having to be re-built, and at a staggering cost in terms of infrastructure, environmental degradation, and displacement of people. Originally Sochi was Stalin’s warm winter playground. Turning it into a world-class snow mecca is where the money pit developed.
What Cost? What Benefit? (video clip- NY Times)
The general opinion, as one Think Progress blog headline declared, is that the “Sochi Olympics Will Cost More Than Every Other Winter Olympics Combined. (Click the link and check out the cost graphic from NRC.NL)
(Think Progress is a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The Center for American Progress Action Fund is a nonpartisan organization.)
When it comes to accountability, transparency and truth-telling, some administrations have better track records than others.
With the Sochi Games, we’ve had little insight into who decided how the budget was developed or spent. Does the public ever have a right to know what happened to the money? Is a government responsible to disclose what happened to citizens displaced in the name of commerce?
Montreal spent 30 years paying off its Olympic debt. How can the people of Krasnodar (the region in which Sochi is located) expect to ever accomplish that with their limited tax base?
“Mr. Putin has dismissed accusations of corruption and says the high cost included necessary infrastructure developments like an improved airport, expanded roads and rail lines and new power and sewage treatment plants. He has said if there was evidence of contractors bilking the government, they would be punished. The poll found that just 22% of Russians think anyone would be punished.“
Despite what Mr. Putin asserts, you may want to compare notes for yourself, here: the Champions of Corruption Race – a very interesting exposé on who built what, and what insider connections exist. Nothing should surprise you after this.
Having spent so long ‘on the other side’, I can tell you from experience that Russia and the former Soviet Republics definitely operate on, well, what one might call a “different” priority system.
When I was called in by the former Minister of Economic Development to account for an interview in which I spoke of corruption, he defended his government saying he saw nothing wrong in their system. In fact, he compared it to our US Postal system and FedEx (read “Would You Recognize Corruption…” here)!
The government/cultural mindset is not one of personal respect for the rule of law, for the individual, or even a concept of personal rights.
Hacked Within Minutes– Be warned!
Honestly, I struggle with this. I understand current international law grants governments their right to govern as they see fit. But that lands us squarely at that question “How should the world respond when people are hurt in the process?” Thorny issues these. I’d like to hear some thoughts on this from people smarter than me.
How Displaced Families Became Olympic Bums
As expats, where do we stand? Is it ever- or always -right to speak out about human rights violations in a country that hosts you? Is it right NOT to?
There are two schools of thought here. The first, a real-life test of Star Trek’s “Prime Directive”:
“As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes the introduction of superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely.“
Such is the case for non-interference. The flip side of this debate pushes for open dialogue about human rights, free speech and non-discrimination among citizens. Who is right in this case?
Expats are frequently part of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) or Private Volunteer Organizations (PVOs) dedicated to assisting with rule of law training, community development, quality of life issues and more.
When faced with affrontive issues, what should be said? As an Ex-Pat were you ever given guidance on what your organization, state or government wanted you to do?
According to the Moscow Times in January, “leading international rights group Human Rights Watch accused Russian authorities of committing numerous abuses in their preparations for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, including violations of the rights of migrant workers, local residents and environmental activists.
The accusations were part of a report on global human rights progress for 2013, presented by the New York-headquartered group at a news conference in Moscow.
The Russia chapter of the Human Rights Watch report elaborates on restrictions on taking part in and voting in elections; freedom of assembly and freedom of speech; abductions and extrajudicial killings of Islamists in the North Caucasus; failure to abide completely with the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights; poor palliative care and barriers for disabled people. Other topics include a November 2012 law threatening fines and a shutdown of foreign-funded NGOs if they are ruled to be involved in broadly defined “politics” and fail to register as “foreign agents,” a term that in Russian “means foreign spies…“
I went through this same issue in Baku back in 2004 and some humanitarian groups packed up, deciding it was not possible to continue relief work in those conditions.
“While Sochi’s organizers completed the accommodations reserved for Olympic competitors and top Olympic officials well in advance, much of the housing and hotels for the media fell by the wayside, particularly in the mountain media village, one of the most problematic sites in the Olympic project. A number of hotels were simply not fully completed, with workers furiously painting and constructing bits of buildings in recent days. . Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, responded to the outpouring of criticism in an interview with the Russian radio station Kommersant FM recently. . He said that stray dogs were indeed a problem in Sochi but characterized the complaints about the hotels as “a matter of taste.” . “In fairness, I would ask everyone to recall the reports from international and our domestic media about various Olympics,” Mr. Peskov said. “Everywhere someone doesn’t like the food, someone doesn’t like the hotel, someone thinks the mattress is too hard, etc. That is, such complaints accompany all Olympics. But the guest is always right and the organizer is obliged to listen to these complaints.” . He said he is sure Sochi’s organizers are working around the clock to fix the flaws.”
So whom do we believe? Think Progress had this to say:
“Not every Olympic venue is a disaster area. Most of the facilities being used by the athletes — both their accommodations and the event facilities themselves — were completed ahead of schedule and without missing doorknobs, ceilings or hot water. But the overall lack of preparedness has many wondering what became of the $51 billion that was spent on the Sochi games, more than every other winter Olympics combined.“
In light of the $51 billion (and rising) tab, it will be interesting to see how the organizers respond to explain or justify Twitter and Facebook postings with photos like these collected on the Tumblr site SochiSoCheap:
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The Opening Ceremony is being broadcast tonight in the United States.
Knowing what I do about Russia, listening to the Russian chatter online and in the background of videos has given me a somewhat less innocent perspective of these Games perhaps. These games are being put on by people I know.
I know their penchant for excessively lavish spectacles- in fact “spectakle” is the word they use when they want to say something special is happening.
I know the mindset of Russian accounting, where profit was never allowed and elaborate maneuvers were implemented to ensure there was never any money for the government to take away.
I know their ability to disregard anything- or anyone- who stands between them and the image they must convey, at any cost.
As I watch these Games with you tonight, I will try to pretend that I’m wrong, that I don’t know these things. I will try to listen to the news and try to find the truth that is hopeful, instead of how I worry that it will be.
And I will trust that our independent journalists don’t disappoint me by telling me there is no back-story to be accounted for. I know better.
I want better for these people. I want better for the legacy of the Games themselves. And most of all, I want not to be disappointed as I look for one I can count on to tell the truth tonight and for the remainder of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
I wish the best of luck- and safety- to all the countries whose readers are here with me tonight.
May the Truce Wall in Sochi be a beginning of truth for us all.
- http://sochisocheap.tumblr.com/ (problem photos)