The countdown to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi is officially under way. Exactly one year from today a colossal project few thought possible in 2007 -- building a state-of-the-art winter sports venue in the Caucasus mountains and the on the subtropical Black Sea coast -- will become reality. If past Olympic Games are any guide, just about every week in the coming year will bring a new reminder of what lies ahead. I'm a winter sports nut, an Olympics true believer, and besotted Russophile who's been working on Russia for more than 20 years, so for me personally it's a very exciting countdown.
But for these two decades my work on Russia has been to monitor human rights developments -- and the past year has been singularly horrid in terms of human rights here, with each month bringing a new, restrictive law or political smear campaign against government critics, or absurd trial or shocking arrest, or depraved threat against colleagues in the human rights movement. It's been a countdown not to something new and exciting, but to the grim Soviet past.
First in spring 2012 came new, severe legal restrictions on public assemblies, then new internet restrictions and the re-criminalization of libel. A distinct, anti-foreigner backlash became part and parcel of the crackdown. Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed last winter's unprecedented protests as paid for by foreigners. Then, a law adopted last summer forces nongovernmental organizations that engage in advocacy and accept any foreign funding to register and label themselves as "foreign agents," a requirement that is clearly intended to demonize them in the Russian mind. Another new law adopted in autumn expands the definition of treason to include the vague "providing advisory services" to foreigners "directed at harming Russia's security."
A law passed at the end of December bans adoptions of Russian orphans by U.S. parents, in a perverse twist of political retribution against the United States. It has sparked some long overdue debate on the need for better care of Russia's orphans, but it has also unleashed more debate on banning foreign adoptions altogether.
For the past year, Russian government officials and pro-government media made statements implying that opposition leaders and nongovernmental organizations critical of the government were effectively Western spies with a mission to undermine Russia's interests. Officials in several regions have told civil servants and others not to cooperate with representatives of foreign organizations and foreign-funded domestic groups. Last month, a group of Duma deputies proposed, but later provisionally withdrew, a bill that would prevent anyone with foreign citizenship from criticizing the government on television.
I don't believe Russia will ever fully return to the Soviet past, but every day it seems to be taking a step closer to Soviet-style repression and away from the Russian government's commitments to modernization and democracy.
But with the Sochi Opening Ceremony now one short year away, these steps are also spectacularly at odds with Russia's promised welcome to the world as host of the Winter Games. Olympic hosts are supposed to embrace openness, to commit to media freedoms, and promote the Olympic Charter's principle of the preservation of "human dignity."
When Russia was selected as host in 2007, the government was in the midst of a crackdown on nongovernmental organizations and independent media, but there was widespread hope that preparations for being an Olympic host would prod the Russian government toward more openness and a better human rights record. Instead, over the last four years, Human Rights Watch has documented cases of forced evictions of families without compensation, environmental degradation, exploitation of the many migrant laborers building Olympic venues, and harassment and threats against activists and journalists trying to shed light on Olympics-related concerns.
The International Olympic Committee has lavished praise on the Russian authorities' physical preparations for the Games -- but has refused to comment on the deteriorating environment for exercise of basic rights and freedoms, including freedom of the press (several thousand journalists will cover the Sochi Games). The bottom line is that a country can't be a good Olympic host if it has a poor human rights record.
Russia's ongoing crackdown and anti-foreigner backlash should stop now, before the Games begin.