During the past seven years, Russia has spent over $50 billion to produce what President Vladimir Putin promises will be the best winter Olympics ever. It has been estimated that as much as half or more of this money has been stolen or wasted. Also overshadowing the games, which kick off Friday in Sochi with the opening ceremony, have been various credible threats of terrorist attacks. For these and other reasons, Sochi may turn out to be a national humiliation for Russia and a political disaster for Mr. Putin himself.
By far the most serious potential problem is security. Russia's homegrown Islamist terrorists have vowed to strike at the Olympics. Terrorist bombings in Volgograd last month that claimed the lives of 32 victims are a sober reminder of the continuing threat. Mr. Putin has promised to surround Sochi with a "ring of steel," and he has dispatched 40,000 policemen and soldiers to ensure security. However, there is a critical weak point in this plan: Russian police have very well-earned reputations for corruption and incompetence.
For example, in 2002 Chechen terrorists held hostage more than 800 theatergoers attending a Moscow musical. Russian special forces managed to kill the terrorists by pumping a chemical gas agent into the theater; they also killed at least 130 of the hostages in the process and refused to tell doctors what the chemical agent was, complicating efforts to save patients' lives. Police are also alleged to have delayed allowing medical personnel into the theater to give them time to remove wallets, watches and other valuables from the victims.
In 2004, two civilian airliners exploded in mid-flight after so-called "black widow" suicide bombers detonated their charges. They were able to avoid scrutiny and board the planes at Moscow's major international airport, even though they had been previously identified as possible terrorists. One of them did so by paying an airport employee a bribe equal to $34.
Russian security forces may not be able to resist the temptation of bribes from potential terrorists, and they may also not be able to resist the temptation to harass foreigners and demand money. In Russia, shaking down tourists for "unofficial fines" is another time honored tradition. Enforcing proper discipline and suppressing bribe taking may be a challenge for authorities.
Price-gouging is another potentially embarrassing problem. For many Russians, charging foreigners vastly inflated prices is a common practice. It is not unheard of to order a meal in a Russian restaurant or drop off clothes for dry cleaning and later be presented with a bill several times higher than the prices listed, justified with the breezy explanation that "those are the old prices, we have a new price list." The government has issued regulations prohibiting price gouging during the Olympics. But whether Sochi taxi drivers have gotten the message and are willing to stick to official fares may well turn out to be a different story.
Although Russia has spent fantastic sums of money on the infrastructure and facilities for the games, much of that money was embezzled, and what wasn't stolen was badly spent. The authorities spent $200 million per mile for one of the roads built for the games, which as one Russian magazine calculated, was enough to have paved it with beluga caviar. But transportation can easily turn out to be a major problem at Sochi. There may be exorbitantly expensive roads and train lines, but if they are badly managed and operated, getting around the events may turn out to be a nightmare. Russia is not known for managing complicated systems effectively or efficiently, and keeping the buses and trains running on time for 125,000 visitors may well overwhelm the operators.
Unfortunately, Russians also have a reputation for rudeness. They are often callously rude to each other, but they can be even more rude to foreigners. The Russian author Tolstoy was not the first or last to comment that Russians love misery, and they love to inflict misery even more. The government has gone so far as to offer instruction to the service staff and volunteers in Sochi that they will be expected to smile when they meet foreigners. And one reason Russians often don't smile when they meet foreigners is that state run media routinely presents Europe and above all America as enemy states, intent on harming Russia and corrupted by morally corrosive liberalism and notions of human rights.
Vladimir Putin staked his personal prestige on making the Sochi Olympics a tangible symbol of a modern new Russia and a demonstration of his government's competence. Seven years and $50 billion later, these Olympics may turn out to be a PR disaster for the country both at home and abroad, from which it may not recover.
Mark Nuckols teaches business and law in Moscow. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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