In less than 6 months time the Black Sea resort of Sochi will host the 2014 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Winter Games. This is the first time that Russia has hosted the Winter Olympics and construction is taking place day and night to turn this popular summer resort into a gleaming Olympic city. However, behind the glitz and glamour lurks a much more sinister side to these games. Since returning to presidency, Vladimir Putin has launched a continuous assault on human rights, cracking down on freedom of expression, freedom of association and LGBT rights in particular. In light of this repression many have called for the games to be boycotted or moved elsewhere but such calls have fallen on deaf ears. For many, boycotting or relocating the games was an opportunity to send a powerful message to an increasingly authoritarian regime. Has this opportunity now been lost or is Sochi 2014 in fact the perfect opportunity to condemn this regime?
Exploitation, Evictions and the Environment
In recent months, Putin’s attack on the LGBT community via a new anti-gay propaganda law has dominated the headlines and instigated calls for a boycott or relocation of the games. However, there are many other human rights abuses which have occurred in Sochi itself during preparation for the games.
Firstly, over 70,000 workers, including thousands of migrants from outside of Russia, have been recruited to transform this small coastal resort into a vibrant Olympic city. According to a report by Human Rights Watch (Race to the Bottom: Exploitation of Migrant Workers Ahead of Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi) these migrant workers often face exploitation and abuse. A number of the migrant workers interviewed received only a fraction of the wages promised to them or no wages at all. Abdulatif was promised $770 per month in an oral contract with his employer but received no wages between January and March 2012 and was forced to quit. It is also common for employers to withhold workers’ first month’s wages in order to protect themselves and stop workers from leaving. Even if a worker is ‘lucky’ enough to be paid a fair wage they are forced to work in dire conditions, typically working 12 hour shifts with just one day off every two weeks. However, with their identity documents confiscated they find themselves trapped.
Yet it would be wrong to assume that Russian citizens are immune from such human rights abuses. To make way for new Olympic venues and infrastructure the Russian government is resettling over 2000 families. In most cases these families are provided with adequate compensation and are suitably resettled. However, this is not always the case. In numerous cases the government has forcibly evicted families and demolished their homes as they helplessly look on. Little or no compensation is provided and alternative accommodation is often uninhabitable. In September 2012 the Khlistov family looked on as their two storey home of sixteen years was bulldozed right in front of them, having been declared ‘illegal’ by authorities. They now live in a cramped fifth storey apartment. Article 11 ICESCR declares that everyone has the right to adequate housing. Forced evictions are a clear breach of this provision (CESCR General Comment 7) and, as a signatory to the ICESCR, Russia is failing to fulfil its human rights obligations.
Moreover, preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics risks severely damaging Sochi’s environment and the health of local residents. In a race against time to finish ‘Europe’s largest construction project’, environmental or health concerns threatening to impede construction are simply dismissed by local authorities. Aida Ogonyan complained to local authorities after a wall collapsed in her house. This was caused by the construction of electrical lines nearby which had resulted in landslides. Her complaints were met by threats to place her children with social services as her house was ‘uninhabitable’. The family were eventually provided with a metal trailer to live in instead. Illegal dumping of construction waste has further exacerbated the damage caused to surrounding houses. Moreover, those who dare to speak out often face prosecution. In August 2012, two men were arrested and charged with administrative offences after staging a peaceful protest against the construction of a power plant just 500m from a children’s resort.
A National Crackdown on Human Rights
However, those living and working in Sochi are not the only ones to have had their human rights trampled upon by this authoritarian regime. Since returning to power, Vladimir Putin has continuously rolled back human rights protection throughout Russia. A prime example being the controversial anti-gay propaganda law which recently entered into force. This law introduces fines of up to 5000 rubles ($156) for citizens who disseminate information aimed at minors ‘directed at forming non traditional sexual setup’ or which may cause a ‘distorted understanding’ that gay and heterosexual relationships are ‘socially equivalent’. The law has led to a rise in anti-gay sentiment and homophobic attacks throughout Russia.
Another example of this repression is the trial of Russian punk band, Pussy Riot. On 21 February 2012, Maria Alekhina, Ekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova entered Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest against recent Orthodox support for the re-election of Vladimir Putin. Their performance lasted less than sixty seconds. However, what followed was a Soviet style show trial aimed at deterring further protests. All three women were charged with ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. On appeal, Ekaterina was given a suspended sentence. However, the sentences of Maria and Nadezhda were upheld and both were sent to separate penal colonies to serve their sentences. Amnesty International considers both women to be prisoners of conscience.
The Perfect Opportunity
Considering the above human rights abuses it is hardly surprising that many have called for a boycott or relocation of the upcoming Winter Olympics. However, with IOC inspectors recently giving the games their seal of approval it is clear that, despite such calls, the games will continue to be held in Sochi. Nevertheless, this is not a missed opportunity. This is the perfect opportunity. An opportunity to criticise a regime’s human rights violations in its own back yard. Whilst relocating the games would have sent a powerful message, that message would have been short lived. With the spotlight focused on a new host city, the human rights violations taking place in Russia would have soon become a distant memory. Instead, the spotlight remains firmly focused on Russia. This is our chance to speak out against these violations whilst the world is watching. Everyone has a part to play. Athletes could use a symbol to display support for LGBT persons or even wear rainbow coloured uniforms. For fans it could be something as simple as waving a rainbow flag or wearing a T shirt in support of Pussy Riot. Last but not least, the media should use its influence to report on human rights violations as well as the games themselves. Then, Putin might finally get the message.
Committee on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights (CESCR), General Comment 7 (1997, para 8)
Miriam Elder, ‘Pussy Riot band members sent to remote prison camps’ (The Guardian, 22 October 2012)
Yulia Gorbunova, ‘An Olympic Demolition’ (WSJ, 1 October 2012)
Human Rights Watch, ‘Race to the Bottom: Exploitation of Migrant Workers Ahead of Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi’ p23-39
— — ‘People & Power: The 2014 Sochi Olympics’
— —‘Russia: Arrests, Intimidation Mar Sochi Olympic Prep’
International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Art 11(1)
P Sonne and R Boudreaux, ‘Russia Readies for Sochi 2014— The Putin Games’ (WSJ, 13 August 2012)
The Telegraph, ‘Vladimir Putin signs anti-gay propaganda bill’ (30 June 2013)