Agreeing to participate in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi was one of first decisions the government of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili took. The new Prime Minister viewed this as an element in the process of mending ties with Russia. Although it was the Olympic Committee of Georgia that formally took this decision, they only did so after the prime minister's desire was made public.
Back in 2007, the former government of Georgia voted for the conduct of the Winter Olympic Games in Russia, hoping that this large international event would bring stability to the region and make Russia more constructive towards Georgia. This hope did not prove correct. Moreover, Tbilisi was vocal in its protest against Russia exploiting Abkhazia's natural resources in the construction work for the Sochi Games.
On 14 August 2008, during Russia's military aggression against Georgia, two U.S. Senators – Allyson Schwartz of the Democratic party and Bill Shuster of the Republican Party – proposed a draft resolution to the U.S. Senate, envisaging an appeal being made to the International Olympic Committee to review the decision on the choice of venue for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Congress, however, did not adopt the resolution. After the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008, Tbilisi never expressed its desire to participate in the Olympics, but nor did it openly call for a boycott of the Games.
The autumn 2012 decision of the new government regarding Georgia's participation in the Olympics caused protests among a segment of society, but the scale of debates held on this issue were not large. The situation changed in September 2013 when Russia named a military pilot, Major Ivan Nechaev, who had participated in the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, as a torchbearer in the Winter Olympics torch relay. This announcement triggered new debates on Georgia's participation in the Sochi Games.
"If every torchbearer out of 14,000 were a participant in the 2008 August war that would be a challenge; that could have been serious. Out of 14,000 torchbearers only one man was a participant in the war and if you stumble over that, this means that you are not a state." - Paata Zakareishvili
The government and the Olympic Committee of Georgia are sticking to their initial position. The State Minister for Reintegration, Paata Zakareishvili, advised the government not to pay attention to the positions and petitions of representatives of society. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili said that the government will refuse to participate in the Olympics "if need be," but will not make such "impulsive decisions" as the previous government used to.
For the Russian President, the Sochi Winter Olympics project is conceived more as a symbol of the revival of Russia as a superpower. However, with the date of the Olympic Games approaching, Vladimir Putin's project is increasingly exposing the shortcomings and sins of Russia to the world: rampant corruption, human trafficking, mass violations of human rights, environmental abuse, homophobia, and attempts to conceal historical facts.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) took the decision on the conduct of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi at their session in Guatemala in June 2007. President Putin personally attended the session and spared no effort to persuade the IOC members to make a decision in Russia's favor.
It was not an easy task – apart from the fact that Sochi is a summer resort and the climatic conditions are not conducive to the conduct of the Winter Olympics, the entire infrastructure for the Games needed to be built from a scratch, in contrast to the rival bids from Pyeongchang of South Korea and Salzburg of Austria. Despite these limitations, the IOC ultimately selected Sochi.
As Putin declared back then, that decision was an acknowledgment not only of Russia's sporting achievements but also those of Russia as a state. In the Russian President's opinion, the selection of Sochi for the Winter Olympic Games was the result of his successful policies, including those in the Caucasus region. "Had it not been for the fact that we managed to protect territorial integrity, to stop the conflict in the Caucasus of a kind that there was five or seven years ago, and fundamentally changed the situation in the economy, we would not have lived to see the Olympic Games in Russia," Putin declared.
In February 2013, the Russian President noted with satisfaction that the IOC delegates visiting Sochi "saw the strength of the Russian state."
In 2007, Vladimir Putin made a pledge that the construction of each and every Olympic facility would be completed on time and that special attention would be paid to environmental and security issues. However, with the date of the Olympics fast approaching, the fulfillment of that pledge has increasingly been questioned.
In May 2013, Russian opposition leaders, Boris Nemstov and Leonid Martynyuk, published a report titled "Winter Olympics in the Subtropics," in which they call the Sochi Olympics an adventure and scam of Putin. According to the report, the initially estimated 12 billion USD cost of the Games has substantially increased, exceeding 50 billion USD by early 2013. Consequently, the Sochi Winter Olympic Games will be the most expensive in history.
The investment funding the Olympic facilities comes not from private businesses, as was initially planned, but from the state budget and state companies. According to estimates made by Nemtsov and Martynyuk, between 50% and 60% of the total cost has been misappropriated.
The facilities and infrastructure for the Games are being constructed by members of Putin's inner circle, including the Rotenberg brothers and Vladimir Yakunin. Despite the continuous increase in the cost of construction, not a single case of corruption or embezzlement has reached the courts, which, in the authors' view, encourages impunity.
As a flagrant example of corruption, Nemstov and Martynyuk cite the construction of the 48 kilometer-long Adler-Krasnaya Polyana highway, which, by official calculations, cost 9.5 billion USD – 3.5 times more than the U.S. program for the delivery and operation of the Mars rover Curiosity.
Moreover, after the end of the Olympic Games, the vast majority of the sports facilities will become inoperative while Russia experiences a shortage of modern winter sports facilities.
Nemtsov and Martynyuk further believe that Sochi itself is, in terms of climatic conditions, inappropriate for the conduct of the Olympics. Moreover, no reliable environmental survey has been conducted by experts and the construction work is carried out in violation of environmental norms.
Greenpeace expressed protest regarding the ecological threat the Olympic construction poses to the region from the very beginning. According to this environmental organization, its construction on the Caucasus State Nature Biosphere Reserve, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, is unacceptable. Moreover, environmentalists believe that the most valuable land plots in the reserve will be sold to private entities under the guise of the Olympic Games. That a proportion of the lessees on the territory of the reserve lacked environmental impact assessment reports was revealed by an inspection of the Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation in 2006.
According to Russian human rights watchdogs, local residents were often evicted from the land earmarked for the construction of sports infrastructure. This occurred in violation of legal norms with the use of force and without paying adequate compensation.
Yet another issue related to mass human rights violations in the preparations for the Olympic Games in Sochi is the exploitation of migrant workers on the construction sites.
In October 2013, the Russian government launched mass-scale arrests of migrant workers. According to the organization Human Rights Watch, this often happened illegally and with the application of inhumane methods.
In February 2013, Human Rights Watch released a special report emphasizing the inhumane labor conditions for people employed in the construction for the Games. The builders of the facilities, the construction of which cost astronomical amounts, often did not receive salaries for months. The workers – mainly labor migrants from former Soviet countries – had their passports and documents certifying their legal stay in Russia seized and were forced to work 12 hours a day without being provided proper food or accommodation.
The safety measures for the Olympic Games, which President Vladimir Putin approved by a special decree in August 2013, have also come under severe criticism. In the assessment of human rights watchdogs, the regime envisaged under this decree looks more like a response to a national state of emergency than measures for ensuring security. In particular, rallies, demonstrations and any other assemblies not related to the Olympics will be prohibited during the Games. Movement by personal means of transportation will also be restricted. The Russian government explains these measures by citing the threat of terrorism. In July, the leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov, declared the Sochi Olympics as a target for attacks because, as the insurgent leader stated, the Games "will be conducted on the graves of thousands of Muslims."
Doku Umarov was referring to the mass killing of Circassians by the Russian Empire at the end of the 19th century. For this very reason, Circassian organizations have repeatedly voiced their protest against the Olympic Games in Sochi. According to them, the conduct of the Games is planned on the territory of the Circassian genocide – an event that Russia refuses to acknowledge. As a result of that ethnic cleansing, according to Circassian estimates, more than 1.5 million people – almost half the Circassian population – were destroyed, whilst those who survived were almost entirely resettled to the Ottoman Empire. Today, 90% of Circassians worldwide live outside their homeland. Georgia is the only country to date that has officially recognized the Circassian genocide.
"If I were a Georgian, emotionally I would be very against the idea of Georgia's participation in the Sochi Olympics, but as a foreign observer, I would advise everyone to weigh up the situation without emotions and take the best decision for Georgia." - Ortwin Hennig, Ambassador of Germany to Georgia
Circassians staged protest rallies to demand that the Sochi Olympics be cancelled during both the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games and the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games. They claim that the 2014 Winter Games are to be held in their ancestral homeland, a place where representatives of this nation no longer live and that the Kremlin and Putin are trying to conceal these facts.
LGBT rights defenders also call for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics because of a legislative act the Russian State Duma adopted this year to ban the "propaganda of homosexuality." In August 2013, British actor Stephen Fry appealed to British Prime Minister David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee to boycott the Games. According to the actor, Putin "is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews."
Over the same period, a group of U.S. Republican Senators also called for a boycott of the Games in Sochi because of Russia granting asylum to Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who is a wanted fugitive in the United States.
The Sochi Winter Olympics is Vladimir Putin's personal project through which he wants to strengthen his position, not only as the leader of Russia, but also of the world.
As an analytical article published by Reuters on 10 October notes, "Russian President Vladimir Putin has staked his personal and political prestige on February's Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi." However, the article continues, there is a high likelihood that he will fail because of numerous problems related to unprepared infrastructure, the poor quality of work performed and security issues.
"The blow to Putin's pride and political standing would be immense if the Games fail because he has invested so much personally in what some see as the folly of turning a palm-lined summer beach resort into a 21st-century winter sports hub," notes Reuters.
In October 2011, a presentation of a piece of research entitled "The Sochi Olympics: The Authorities' Failed Façade of New Russian Statehood," was held at George Washington University. The authors of the research, Professor Robert Orttung and Sufian Zhemukhov, a commentator on Ekho Moskvy radio station, asserted that with the Sochi Olympics Russia pursues the goals of showing Russia's revival, emphasizing its victory in the Cold War, and securing a dignified place in the world. However, the authors of the research believed that this attempt cannot prove to be successful.
An American analyst and expert on Russia and Eurasia, Paul Goble, said in May 2013 that "the Olympiad which Vladimir Putin planned as the symbol and greatest achievement of his presidency is more likely to become his greatest failure."
According to Goble, this does not mean that a catastrophe will happen during the Games. As he explains, an international event of such a scale draws the world's attention not only towards those issues that Russia wants to show off, but also to the issues that it wants to conceal. As the attention of journalists from around the world towards the situation in Sochi increases, the ugly sides of the situation will become exposed, he says, including the slavish conditions of the migrant workers, rampant corruption, the Circassian genocide, et cetera.
Paul Goble believes that at the end of the day, this strange word "Sochi" will acquire some face for those Western societies that know nothing about the Caucasus and have not heard about the Circassians either. But this face, owing to the history of the region as well as the behavior of Russian public servants and Vladimir Putin personally, will be ugly. This will be a bad sign for Putin and, perhaps, may become a spur for increasingly more Russians to mull over the legitimacy of Putin's presidency, Paul Goble notes.
The Russian Government naming a "hero" of the 2008 August war, the military pilot Nechaev, as a torchbearer in the Winter Olympics torch relay, and the wide TV coverage of this fact on federal TV channels, has also showed that with the Olympic Games in Sochi, Putin pursues not only global but local aims too, including using the Olympics to promote a Russian version of the August 2008 war both among his population and the international community, which does not share that version of events.
Vladimir Putin will use the participation of Georgians in the Sochi Olympics to prove that problems between Tbilisi and Moscow no longer exist and that Georgia has no claims against Russia. The participation of a "hero" of the 2008 August war in the torch relay, for its part, indicates that Putin wishes not only to see Georgian athletes and delegates at the Sochi Games, but also humiliated Georgians who have put up with defeat and injustice at the hands of the Kremlin. It is up to Georgia whether it decides to participate in the show staged by the Kremlin or uses the Sochi Winter Olympic Games to remind the world about Russian aggression and the occupation.