The Sochi Winter Olympics and the image of modern Russia
Even by Olympic superlative standards, the Sochi games are an extraordinary event. The most expensive Olympics ever, these games are the personal project of President Vladimir Putin, bankrolled by the country’s billionaire oligarchs.
In this week’s podcast, Ben Hall, world news editor, is joined by Kathrin Hille, Moscow bureau chief and Neil Buckley, East Europe editor to discuss whether after the build up, snags and negative portrayal in western media, are we now seeing a normal winter Olympic contest?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Getty)
As Mikhail Khodorkovsky enters a fourth day of freedom in Berlin after his stunning release from a remote prison colony last Friday, some conclusions can now start to be drawn. All suggest it is premature to get too excited about the implications of the liberation of Russia’s most famous political prisoner.
First, though it may be true – as Mr Khodorkovsky claims – that no formal conditions were attached to his pardon by president Vladimir Putin, the former Yukos oil company chief is in de facto exile. He says he will not return to Russia while a $500m legal claim related to his first conviction on fraud and tax evasion charges in 2005 still hangs over him. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled this claim illegal. But unless Russia’s supreme court strikes it out, Mr Khodorkovsky fears it could be used, at the very least, to prevent him from leaving Russia again if he did go back. Read more
Protesters in Kiev's Independence Square, Dec 2013 (Getty)
November 22 2004 In Ukraine’s second round election, the Central Electoral Commission declares pro-Russian incumbent Viktor Yanukovich the winner. Viktor Yushchenko, the leader of the opposition decries widespread voter fraud and electoral irregularities.
November 23 2004 An estimated 500,000 protestors assemble in Kiev’s Independence Square. The Orange Revolution is born. Ukraine’s Supreme Court suspends publication of the election results pending an investigation.
December 8 2004 Following the Supreme Court’s annulment of the elections, a December re-run of the disputed presidential election is announced. Protesters scale down their demonstration and government employees return to work. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
No event has done more to spook the Kremlin, over the last decade, than the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. Now Vladimir Putin’s worst moment looks like turning into a recurring nightmare as demonstrators once again fill Kiev’s Independence Square, demanding that their country move closer to the EU and further away from Russia.
By Luisa Frey
♦ Will the Palestinian economy ever be able to break its isolation? The past two decades’ rounds of failed peace talks didn’t manage to build an independent Palestinian economy which can break free of Israel – the question is now if a new $4bn plan to revive the economy will be able to change that.
♦ Tests taken from Yasser Arafat’s corpse have shown high levels of radioactive polonium-210, suggesting the former Palestinian leader could have been poisoned. Arafat’s widow describes it as “the crime of the century”.
♦ External pressure is also threatening Georgia. The FT’s Neil Buckley reports about the “borderisation” of South Ossetia.
♦ Greece may be the next Weimar Germany, says Greek professor Aristides Hatzis. The parliament contains neo-Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists, populists and defenders of conspiracy theories. Although there is a strong coalition government, failures in implementing reforms seem to be outweighing successes.
♦ Meanwhile, “power, prestige, and influence of the United States in the broader Middle East is in a death spiral”, writes Bob Dreyfuss. He argues in Le Monde Diplomatique that the disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s economic crisis and the Arab Spring contributed to the decay of American influence.
♦ The future of the US-Egyptian relationship is also in focus. Washington’s establishment of relations with former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel al-Nasser “can serve as the most promising template for a stable and productive relationship between the two countries today”, says Robert Springborg in Foreign Affairs.
♦ Peter Baker, from Foreign Policy, writes about how the warm Russian-American relationship became icy. Through interviews and secret notes and memos, he reconstructs the story of former President George W. Bush’s pas de deux with Vladimir Putin, offering lessons for Obama as he struggles to define his own approach to Russia.
♦ For more than 30 years, female singers in Iran have not been able to sing solo or perform to a mixed audience. Hassan Rouhani’s softening rhetoric has many hoping that restrictions on cultural life will also be eased.
♦ Growing public anger about immigration from former Soviet states poses a dilemma for Vladimir Putin as he seeks to build a regional trade bloc with Russia’s neighbours.
♦ There is something to be learned about people’s personalities from the way they cycle.
♦ Businesses and residents in Chinatowns from London to San Francisco fear that the struggle to keep up with rising rents and other challenges is threatening their communities. Caitlin Moran at The Times thinks that the “self-selecting majority of the wealthy and conservative” could be good news for the rest of the UK, as the young people locked out of the capital choose to make their home towns glorious instead.
♦ Egypt’s deputy prime minister Ziad Bahaa-Eldin is an advocate for restraint, but the political climate in the country has put him under fire from both the military’s supporters and its critics.
♦ Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, argues that talks with Iran have succeeded in the past and can succeed again. He uses his discussions with Iranian diplomats after 9/11 as an example: “The Iranians were constructive, pragmatic and focused… And then, suddenly, it all came to an end when President George W. Bush gave his famous “Axis of Evil” speech in early 2002.”
♦ Chrystia Freeland considers how and why populists, “the wilder the better”, are taking over from the plutocrats.
♦ The New York Times examines how the NSA has been revealed as “an electronic omnivore of staggering capabilities, eavesdropping and hacking its way around the world to strip governments and other targets of their secrets, all the while enforcing the utmost secrecy about its own operations.” Read more
♦ The FT’s Neil Buckley interviews Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s most famous prisoner – a former oligarch who dared to cross Vladimir Putin.
♦ Trade has broken from a 30-year trend of growing at twice the speed of the global economy, pushing economists to wonder whether there has been a fundamental shift in world business.
♦ The Palestinians have called on countries to tell companies linked to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to withdraw immediately because the settlements violate international law.
♦ Mark Carney says the Bank of England is open for business and the days when the Old Lady preached the perils of “moral hazard” without due regard to financial pressures are well and truly over.
♦ The allegation by the German government that the NSA monitored Angela Merkel’s mobile phone has set off recriminations behind the scenes in the US.
♦ The NYT looks at the friction point between the Philiippines and China in the South China Sea, reporting from a ship at the dividing line.
♦ Formula 1 is considered entertainment, not a sport, by the Indian government, while chess is considered to be a sporting event.
♦ There is some disbelief over Al-Sisi mania.
♦ Tony Blair in the the Balkans to deliver some “deliverology”. Read more
After a testing two years for Vladimir Putin that saw the first serious protests against his rule, Russia’s president was back to his relaxed, confident and sometimes acerbic self at an annual meeting with academics and journalists on Thursday.
Though avoiding triumphalism, Mr Putin seemed to bask in his diplomatic success over the plan for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons. He also appeared to believe the sting had been drawn out of the demonstrations that followed parliamentary elections in December 2011 and his own decision to return for a third term as president. Read more
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images
By Catherine Contiguglia and David Gallerano
Russia has been the talk of the town since the announcement by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov of a diplomatic initiative to get Syria to turn over chemical weapons. Then all eyes turned to Russian president Vladimir Putin when his New York Times op-ed appeared, arguing that air strikes could “could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”
Here are some of the best articles on the man who has managed to keep a grip on Russian power for over a decade, and his maneuverings around the Syria crisis and beyond. Read more
By David Gallerano
♦ “Why would Bashar al-Assad, a dictator who gasses his people to break a stalemate in a war he and his clan regard as existential and almost certainly cannot win, voluntarily surrender an arsenal he has been holding largely in reserve?” This and other questions in today David Gardner’s analysis of the situation in Syria.
♦ In a New York Times’ op-ed Vladimir Putin directly addresses the American people and their political leaders on Syria: “It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States”.
♦ Russian expert Michael Metzger illustrates how Putin’s move to avert the US intervention in Syria was inspired by secret KGB chess tactics.
♦ Life in Egypt has “shrunk politically, geographically and socially, with the vast majority of the public high on fascistic nationalism”. Sarah Carr explores the effects of the clampdown on the daily life of the Egyptian people. Read more
By David Gallerano
♦ “We cannot rebuild this economy on this same pile of sand”, President Obama said in April 2009. Robin Harding analyses the rebalancing process of the American economy and draws an alarming conclusion: the United States is building again on the same foundations of sand.
♦ The notorious gang rape of December 2012 in New Delhi is changing the way Indian women react to sexual abuses and violence.
♦ Triton Foundation gets $24m in insurance while a farcical trial goes on in Romania: the brand new episodes of the incredible saga of the paintings stolen from the Kunstahl Museum in Rotterdam.
♦ The New York Times illustrates in detail the long process that led Vladimir Putin to make his proposal on Assad’s chemical weapons.
♦ Meanwhile, satirical news site the Onion reports on how the US arms industry reacted to John Kerry’s declaration: “our Secretary of State had to run his big fat mouth about options for averting war, and now we’re out hundreds of billions of dollars”. But Lockheed’s CEO Marilyn Hewson is reassuring: “He will probably say something idiotic in the near future that would lead to another lucrative international conflict”. Read more
By David Gallerano
♦ The Kremlin-backed candidate Sergei Sobyanin beats anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and remains mayor of Moscow, although Navalny’s unexpected result looks like an alarm signal for Vladimir Putin.
♦ A school regional programme shows many families in Spain cannot provide their children with basic needs – namely, food and a balanced diet.
♦ Writer John le Carré discusses his life and recent events with Philippe Sands.
♦ While jihadists and al-Qaeda affiliates prepare on the Syrian mountains for the US attack (with the lessons of Iraq in mind), Syrian refugees are leaving the country and experiencing a hard time in Egypt, where they are now associated with the discredited regime of Mohammed Morsi. In the New York Times Nicholas Kristof outlines two options for the US – intervention or paralysis – and chooses the latter.
♦ The ancient practice of self-immolation – though relatively uncommon – is Chinese farmers’ ultimate protest. Chinese government will probably respond by increasing compensation for expropriated rural land.
♦ Iowa grants gun permits to people who are legally or completely blind. There is disagreement among advocates for the disabled and public officers on whether this endangers public safety.
♦ Brazilian TV network Globo reveals that the NSA spied on Brazilian Oil giant Petrobras, adding to the existing tensions between United States and Brazil. Read more
By Catherine Contiguglia
♦ Italy’s government often gets dismissed as being a mess, but Enrico Letta has made some notable achievements, writes Chris Hanretty, a lecturer in politics at UEA. However, the next 100 days will present some challenges, including the backlash from Silvio Berlusconi’s tax fraud conviction, and electoral and tax system reforms.
♦The staging of walkouts across the fast food industry is not about young entry-level workers wanting more money to pay for the movies on Friday – it is about the failure of the US economy to create reasonable middle-class jobs for older and more educated workers who now depend on low wage jobs to support their families.
♦ “Mugabe will leave power when he wants to – or when his body gives out,” writes Richard Dowden in his analysis of Robert Mugabe’s victory Zimbabwe elections, which he says is partly explained by rigged elections, but also mistrust of his opponent, and the sentiment that it is better not to “upset the Big Man.”
♦ Vladimir Putin is launching an amnesty program to release some of the 110,000 people imprisoned under his leadership for “economic crimes” – such as allegedly violating the copyright on leopard print – so that they can help him figure out how to turn around the languishing economy.
♦ The corruption and nepotism that surrounds China’s political elite gets a lot of press – but in the shadows of the spotlight looms a far more widespread system of families that dominate the villages and towns throughout the vast countryside. Read more
By Catherine Contiguglia
♦ An era of “digital hippies” answered the needs of crunched budgets with start-ups that focused on building communities where goods and services could be traded and shared. Their success has resulted in a regulatory backlash as traditional businesses and tax collectors look for their fair share.
♦ Obama has not been able to take control and “unwind” the “war on terror apparatus”, writes the FT’s Geoff Dyer, instead stoking jitters with increased security levels, vague warnings of Al Qaeda resurgence and lack of transparency regarding surveillance programs.
♦ Bank of England interest rates will remain at the historic low of 0.5 per cent until unemployment falls to 7 percent, new governor Mark Carney has pledged, saying that the economy has not reached escape velocity. It appears Carney is wary of removing stimulus measures too quickly, but will this forward guidance be enough?
♦ General Abdul Fattah Sissi, who led the coup to depose Mohamed Morsi, seems a popular choice to lead an increasingly divided country. Sissi is often cast as a modern Gamal Abdel Nasser, and though his western military training has not softened his views on the United States, he is seen as a leader that is dedicated to bringing liberal democracy to Egypt.
♦ The decision by US President Barack Obama to cancel talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was granted temporary asylum is a sort of boiling point in a series of uncomfortable conversations between the two nations since Obama announced his plans to “reset” relations. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
Edward Snowden seems like a bright chap. So he will probably have noticed the irony of voicing his complaints about persecution by the US legal system from the confines of Moscow airport. There are few governments in the world that abuse the law, for political purposes, with the ruthlessness and cynicism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
–Vladimir Yakunin speaking to Vladimir Putin (Getty)
For 33 minutes on Wednesday, it appeared that Vladimir Yakunin, the powerful head of Russia’s state railway corporation, and a close personal friend of president Vladimir Putin, was out of a job.
His resignation, apparently, had been demanded by prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, and all the signs indicated that a behind the scenes bureaucratic turf battle was underway – a number of Mr Medvedev’s associates have had their careers cut short recently by people from Yakunin’s hard-line faction, and this smacked of retribution. Read more
♦ The G8 leaders commit to shake up international corporate tax rules, and crackdown on tax evasion and the shadowy owners of shell companies. (If you want to know why it’s such a global issue, take a look through our Great Tax Race series.) They also agree to push for a Syrian peace conference – although Putin still won’t budge on Assad.
♦ President Obama’s move to increase the public flow of arms to selected Syrian rebels is probably his worst foreign policy decision since taking office, argues Marc Lynch.
♦ To ordinary Russians, a defeat of the Syrian rebels is seen as a victory over the west, says Andrei Nekrasov, a Russian film and television director.
♦ Circassians are protesting against the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, 150 years after being expelled from there.
♦ The tiny emirate of Fujairah is emerging as an increasingly important global strategic oil and logistics hub.
♦ The Global Post experiments with the language used by US journalists to write about foreign countries, by using it to write about the US.
Russia’s role in world politics
Under the second Putin presidency, the Russian government seems to have become even harder to deal with, be it in seeking to forge international agreement on Syria, spy scandals, energy diplomacy, or neighbourhood diplomacy. Charles Clover, Moscow bureau chief, and James Blitz, diplomatic editor, join Gideon Rachman to discuss the best ways to understand the Russian government.
An audience with Vladislav Surkov, “grey cardinal” of the Kremlin and architect of Vladimir Putin’s “managed” democracy, is a rare thing. But little did those who saw him speak at the London School of Economics last Wednesday realise it would be his last public appearance as Russia’s deputy premier. A week later, he is gone.
His LSE comments may even have played a part in his departure. In particular, Surkov criticised Russia’s investigative committee, the powerful FBI-style agency headed by a Putin classmate that is increasingly becoming a law unto itself. He said the committee was wrong to sling mud about alleged corruption at Skolkovo, Russia’s answer to Silicon Valley that is premier Dmitry Medvedev’s pet project – and for which Surkov has been responsible for the past year.
That move was already a demotion after he appeared just a little too sympathetic to the middle-class Muscovites protesting over alleged vote-rigging in the December 2011 parliamentary election – ironically, the very system Surkov created. As Kremlin deputy chief of staff for a decade, he had been the puppet-master who pulled the strings of the parties and individuals permitted to perform in the political theatre he had created. Read more