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Russia's Olympic Election

By Theodore Reinert

The Russian Black Sea resort town of Sochi has yet to begin building the dozens of event venues and other facilities it will need to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. But the contest to become Sochi's next mayor is well underway, with a cast of candidates rivaling that of the 2003 California campaign that elected muscle man and action movie actor Arnold Schwarzenegger governor of the most populous state in the U.S.

A successful Games can be a coming-out party for a city (Barcelona 1992) or country (Beijing 2008) and involves spending billions on infrastructure that can benefit a region or, as in the case of the 1976 Montreal games, saddle it with debt.

Landing the 2014 Olympics was a triumph for Vladimir Putin's resurgent Russia, but the financial crisis and the fall in energy prices are putting a damper on the multi-billion-dollar party.

The mayor of Sochi has some influence over how construction funds are used, not to mention the prospect of the world media's attention, and that has attracted a variety of candidates to challenge acting mayor Anatoly Pakhomov for the post in the April 26 election.

Former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, a Sochi native and frequent critic of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, is in the race. In a letter to President Dmitry Medvedev, he wrote that hosting the Olympics will stretch Sochi to the breaking point and asked that event venues be spread throughout Russia. Nemtsov is joined by Alexander Lebedev, the ex-KGB man who recently bought London's Evening Standard newspaper, and Andrei Bogdanov, who leads the country's biggest Masonic organization and won 1.3% of the vote in the 2008 presidential election

Then there's local arm-wrestling association leader Stanislav Koretsky and porn star Yelena Berkova, the self-styled "Party of Love" candidate.

In terms of entertainment value, the field may well top that of the successful 2003 campaign to replace incumbent California Gov. Gray Davis. That election's ballot included the winner, Schwarzenegger, actor Gary Coleman, porn star Mary Ellen Cook, and porn publisher Larry Flynt.

It does not look like any of the Sochi challengers will match Schwarzenegger's electoral success. Pakhomov, who was previously mayor of nearby Anapa and is the candidate of Putin's and Medvedev's United Russia party, is favored.

While Nemtsov may be attractive to Sochi-ites skeptical of the Olympics' effect on their home and thus could earn a decent chunk of the vote, Russia's leaders have too much at stake in Sochi to let Nemtsov try to change everything. The parade of opposition figures of varying degrees of credibility is no coincidence -- spreading opposition votes by recruiting opposition is a tactic the Kremlin has used frequently over the last two decades.

Nemtsov has also been splashed in the face with ammonia and received a questionable campaign contribution from New York which threatened to derail his bid on legal grounds, more tactics that seem depressingly familiar to those of us who keep an eye on Russian politics.

The circus-like race has left many of Sochi's citizens disillusioned. As they go to the polls, a United Russia man is probably the best bet for a smooth-running Olympics. Russia may yet show itself unstable as it confronts the global economic crisis, but the Putin-Medvedev tandem will probably prove to be a lot more popular than California's Gray Davis.


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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.

Comments (3)

tma_sierrahills Author Profile Page:

Overall Russia Reporting & the Model-T
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Good report. It is also bracing to be living in a state, California, that is considered to be the gold standard for political bizarreness. Can’t really disagree. Not mentioned in this report, but I get a kick out of the fact that so much reporting on Russia and its former satellites in these dire economic times will spotlight the objections of their citizens to levels of immigration or in-migration as an ironclad demonstration of irrational “fear,” “resentment,” “insecurity,” “scapegoating,” caveman-headedness and general grab-your-ax-handle mob mentality, when in reality it is perfectly responsible and logical, actually crucial, for nations to regulate in-migration based on job availability, as well as environmental and other factors. All of which continually demonstrates that among American elites being pro open-borders, no matter what the circumstances, has become as much of a status symbol as it once must have been to have your very own minority housekeeper or shiny new Model-T.
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Border Enforcement + Immigration Moratorium = Job, Crime & Eco Sanity

Moonraker Author Profile Page:

Mr. Nemtsov's election to the post of mayor may be the best thing that can happen to the Russian liberal movement, which has achieved nothing constructive in the past eight years. They have bickered and slandered each other out of existence and blamed their failure to spark any interest among the electorate on the Putin government. Instead of playing on the federal level, the former SPS members would do themselves and Russia a great favor by focusing on local politics--something that Russian liberals have ignored for the most part in favor of the bright lights and cameras of the two capitals.

Nemtsov served as governor of Nizhnii Novgorod in the 1990s when proving himself administratively was exceptionally hard given the near total collapse of the Russian state at the time. That Nizhnii's economy grew on his watch was natural having collapsed completely. Free market reforms, on the other hand, became a euphemism for mopping up Soviet economic hurdles, but for little else. History is yet to judge his tenure as governor and he has yet to prove himself capable of ruling anything. Sochi may be a good start.

Instead of endlessly talking and criticizing the government for everything, this is a chance for the Russian liberals to prove their worth. Nemtsov was the First Deputy Prime Minister on the eve of the devaluation of 1998, so he can't possibly claim any profound financial insights. However, one can only welcome Nemtsov's bid and his idea of spreading the games around geographically. This will be a great boost to the northern Caucasus region, which is in urgent need of infrastructural modernization. Sochi by itself is too small to accommodate the entire Olympics. Should he win, however, he will be responsible for more than words.

Here's to Nemtsov and the Russian liberals proving themselves in deeds finally, not at round-tables!

TalkingHead1 Author Profile Page:

Mr. Reinert, I suppose it makes one feel better to look down on others in worse shape, but let's worry about the internal affair within Russia when we got a full plate of big problem at home to deal with, starting with the economy, of course.

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