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Putin plays games to salvage Sochi Olympics

by Leonid Bershidsky

Bloomberg

Ahead of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, President Vladimir Putin is playing a game of his own: making his autocratic regime more palatable to world leaders wondering whether they should show up at all.

Putin’s efforts might benefit a few political prisoners, such as former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the punk-performance group Pussy Riot. But they won’t change the lot of Russians as a whole, including the gays whose persecution is worrying the international community.

The list of world leaders joining a soft boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi gets longer every day. German President Joachim Gauck, French President Francois Hollande, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti, Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, and the U.S. presidential and vice-presidential couples have all let it be known that they won’t attend.

None has said publicly that the decision was a political gesture. Instead, there were subtle indications that the leaders were largely in agreement with British comedian Stephen Fry, who called for “an absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics” because of Putin’s retrograde stance on the rights of homosexuals.

The German team plans to wear rainbow uniforms (nothing to do with gay rights, the German Olympic Sports Confederation insists). The U.S. has included two prominent gay athletes as part of its modest official delegation. Di Rupo, who is openly gay, said only that he has a full schedule in early February.

The aristocratic understatement of the boycott suggests that world leaders might have learned some lessons from the much more aggressive Olympic boycott of 1980.

“However much we might deny it, our attendance at the Moscow Olympics would be to tacitly endorse, and lend respectability to, a regime whose international conduct in invading Afghanistan is unacceptable to the contemporary world,” U.S. President Jimmy Carter said at the time.

The Carter administration plowed ahead stubbornly despite early indications that its approach was a mistake. The boxer Muhammad Ali, on a mission to convince African nations to join the boycott, was having second thoughts by the time he reached Tanzania. “They didn’t tell me in America that Russia supports these countries,” he said. “Maybe I’m being used to do something that ain’t right.”

The Soviet Union did not pull out of Afghanistan until 1989, and it messed up the 1984 Olympics by staging a retaliatory boycott. Athletes who did not get to take part in the Moscow Games are still disappointed 33 years later. “It was devastating,” the Toronto Star quoted Canadian gymnast Elfi Schlegel as saying. “It left a hole in my heart.”

This time around, there are no hostile speeches or misguided diplomatic missions. There is also no question of keeping athletes from going to Sochi.

Putin is largely content to pretend nothing untoward is going on. He, too, can be worldly and subtle. At a major news conference on Dec. 19, he said only that Russia is taking its host country role seriously so that athletes can “perform at their best and make our fans and their countries’ fans happy.”

Putin’s attitude toward gays has not changed. In his annual speech to the parliament, he said Russia rejected “so-called tolerance” and expressed certainty that “more and more people globally support our stand in defense of traditional values that for ages have been the spiritual and moral basis of civilization.”

To be sure, Putin is not entirely deaf to the quiet disapproval of his policies ahead of what is meant to be a moment of Russia’s international triumph. It cannot be a coincidence that he has agreed to a large-scale amnesty, ostensibly to mark the 20th anniversary of the Russian constitution, just before the opening of the Sochi games.

Under the amnesty’s terms, a handful of political prisoners will be released, including the punk rockers Pussy Riot and people accused of attacking police during an anti-Putin rally in May 2012.

Putin also promised to pardon Khodorkovsky, formerly Russia’s richest man, who has spent 10 years in prison, some of it on trumped-up charges of stealing oil from his own company. The Russian leader clearly figures that Khodorkovsky, one of Putin’s most vocal political foes, is no longer a threat.

The image Putin wants to project to the world is not that of a dictator who steals elections, stifles dissent and jails political opponents, but that of a mainstream conservative statesman who respects his country’s traditions and rules in the interest of the moral majority. That show may still get an audience of dignitaries in Sochi: There are still plenty of global leaders who have not pleaded schedule conflicts. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who famously rebuffed Fry by saying, “We could better challenge prejudice as we attend,” has not yet made his plans known. Neither has German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor. Follow him on Twitter.