The True Cost of the Olympics in Middle-income Countries

OK, so I’m going to be talking about the Winter Olympics in Sochi, but all’s fair when the title is already a bit long. People often call investment in Olympic events a waste of money, something seen across all countries – from London to Athens. This is a fair call to make when these events are simply one-off, and the infrastructure built is used once and twice maybe.

Photo via Raul Pacheco-Vega

Photo of Sochi terrain model from

Would it be fair to say the same thing of the Sochi Olympics when there is a lot of talk that Sochi will become a major resort? Spending the money now, rather than later, on infrastructure, is a good idea. It is clear that Russia is woefully underdeveloped, and it would take a lot of money to bring it up to date. When there are areas that Russia wants to showcase, it will spend the money in the interests of long-term use, which is why poorer countries can sometimes pay more for these big events.

However, through the eyes of a well-developed and richer country, this can be confusing. Some of the reporting, which is often more than secondhand, on Sochi, is misleading. For example (from The Guardian ):

One should also have sedatives close to hand while reviewing the figures. Russia has become one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and is barely making an effort to hide it. For instance, one of the Sochi 2014 Olympic projects – a 50 km road – costs nearly $8bn

This specific road being a supposed example of corruption in building for the Olympics, has been debunked (which is silly because it’s not actually hard to find examples of corruption in Russia):

The only problem with looking at Russia through this failed state prism, without bothering to corroborate sources, is that in no sense can the Adler-Krasnaya Polyana route be described as just a “roadway” . Intended to be completed within 3 years in an area with a poorly developed infrastructure, this so-called “road” also includes a high-speed railway, more than 50 bridges, and 27km of tunnels over mountainous, ecologically-fragile terrain!

In places like Vancouver or the US, infrastructure and development are already present, if a country like Russia wants to showcase a remote city in a country with crumbling and poorly maintained infrastructure, they’re going to have to spend more.

How we see Russia

Daniel Treisman, an ‘area studies’ scholar on Russia, wrote of two methods that people use to write about Russia.

The first approach is to focus on the country’s dark side, to present Russia as a land of deformity. … From sixteenth century European travelogues, one learns that Russian peasants at that time were drunks, idolaters, and sodomites. Seventheeth century travellers report that the country’s northern forests were a breeding ground for witches. Then come the famous denunciations of the Marquis de Custine, along with the jeremiads of Chaadaev – a homegrown convert to the idiom – who, just as Pushkin was publishing Eugene Onevin , chastised Russia for failing to contribute anything to human civilisation. Russia, he charged, was a “blank” page in the intellectual order,” which existed only to “teach the world some great lesson.” Much journalism and historical writing shares this preoccupation with the country’s dismal side.

… Most of the sinister features that upset the critics are, sadly, typical of countries at similar levels of economic development. Russia is unique, but in the way that Belgium, Argentina, and Malaysia are unique – no more, no less.

Illustration from an article in the Financial Times; titled

Illustration from an article in the Financial Times; titled “Russia takes a step backwards”

The second approach is:

to turn mystical when Russia is mentioned, to exult in paradoxes and wallow in the exotic. Russia, it is said, is unique and unknowable. It hides its secrets from social scientists and statisticians. … Its roads are Möbius strips; its parallel lines cross many times. Such talk usually progresses to speculation about the Russian soul, itself conceived as a jumble of contradictions. Russians, wrote the philosopher Nikolay Berdyaev,a re Dionysian yet ascetic, violent yet gentle, ritualistic yet hungry for truth: “In the Russian soul there is a sort of immensity, a vagueness, a predilection for the infinite, such as is suggested by the great plain of Russia.” In short, an easy place to get lost.

Whilst mystification and vilification are no way to study a country, Treisman goes on to say:

a generation of work by social scientists from both Russia and the West has shown that the country’s economic and politics are perfectly susceptible to careful observation, measurement, and reasoned interpretation. The apparently chaotic surfaces of political and economic life often turn out to conceal quite intelligible patterns that are in many ways similar to those found elsewhere.

Furthermore, there are patterns of foreign policy that are reasonably unique to Russia. The obsession with the ‘near abroad’ (bordering countries that were former parts of the Soviet Union/Russian empire) and ‘great power’ status, as well as Russia’s independence from foreign powers are obvious, and there have been attempts within the field to explain them as political narratives/myths unique to a country’s identity.

Orientalism in the Polish Borderlands Culture

The “Borderlands” are a region to the East of Poland with a longstanding mythology in Polish discourse. Being at different points in history part of the Polish state, they are a central place of political confrontation and national identity. The very term hints that they are part of Poland, albeit not in the centre. Speaking vaguely, they can form a part of ‘Greater’ Poland, constituting the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which I have written about already .

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth map

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth map

Looking further into the word, it symbolises an ‘Otherness’ of the area’s inhabitants, who are defined only in their peripheral location from the Polish centre, which lowers their position in Poland. They are also ‘orientalised’, made exotic and uncommon to the Polish norm.

In 1996, at the ‘Borderlands Conference’ in Warsaw, Ryszard Kiersnowski slammed the then Polish Pope for talking about Lithuanians of Polish origin, but not about repressed Poles. Using the word “Borderlands”, Kiernowski isolated these Poles from Lithuania as their homeland. Kiernowski’s views are not an anomaly, and according to many who talk about the “Borderlands”, they are to be exclusively Polish. At around the same time as the conference in Warsaw, the Catholics of Przemyśl (a multi faith city), closed the doors of one of their churches, when their highest Earthly superior within their belief, attempted to hand the shrine to Ukrainian Catholics for the sake of good relations.

In many post-Soviet countries, there has been an idealisation of the past. In Russia for example, the pomp and grandeur of the former Russian Empire, together with its emblems and the might of the Orthodox Church, has seen a strong revival. In Poland, however, a cult has been formed around the lost lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and ‘greater’ Poland in general.

Many of those within the “Borderlands” react strongly against the Polish discourse, and it can easily be seen as a Polish Orientalism. Polish views on the Borderlands , exclude those who do not identify as Polish but who live in the Borderlands, such as Ukrainians, Ashkenazis, Belarusians, Lithuanians, etc. In this respect:

Orientalism was more susceptible to the influences of the culture that had created it than to the supposed aims of its research, also created by the West; hence its history shows both cohesion and clear connections with the culture dominating in its surroundings. [Said 2003, 57, also see 56].

In summary, the concept of the Borderlands in Poland is harmful to outsiders, and bears many similarities to colonial discourse. The assumption of the Ukrainian borderlands as pastoral, idyllic, and backwards (implicitly inferior), creates many problems and prejudices (Beauvois 2005, 8-13), and is a barrier to better neighbourly relations. As Said says, “culture [is] regarded as politically and even historically innocent; in my opinion exactly the opposite is true …” [Said 2003, 63].

Mapping Eastern Europe, a Postcolonial Narrative?

The EURASIA PROJECT , formally unveiled two years ago by Vladimir Putin, can be described as ‘essentialist’ in postcolonial terms. Essentialism is the practice of groups deciding upon identities, which can often be used as a means of maintaining the status quo or gaining further influence. In a previous post I spoke about the alterity assigned to those in the post-Soviet space by its outsiders:

The ‘ terra incognita ‘ of Eastern Europe … is often referred to in both Western and Eastern discourse as ‘borderlands’, reducing the culture there and its people as merely a place between the East and West. Whilst at times this discourse has been reclaimed by ideas of the Rus as a ‘two-headed eagle’, strong and facing all sides, in modern times this can be seen as a view that sees Eastern Europe as neither the ‘Other’ or the West. Talk of Russia, the Baltics, Balkans, and Eastern Europe in general is often talked of as peripheral to Europe. Indeed, there have been casual attempts to define Russia as an Asian country.

Eurasianism as a contemporary foreign policy concept has been around since at least Gorbachev’s “New Thinking”, speaking as an alternative for those who see Russia as having a special place in world politics. As Russia is not imbued in a disadvantaging colonial power relationship, it was able to create a ‘grand narrative’ surrounding itself and the near abroad. A grand narrative, or ‘metanarrative’, claims to be a truth concerning the way the world works, and creates a story that explains and merges local or native narratives.

English: Ethnic map of the European part of th...

Ethnic map of the European part of the Russian Empire

Whilst Eurasia can be a simple geographic term, it can also imply a lot of political meanings and ‘truths’, referring to the historical and ‘legitimate’ influence over the territory of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the post-Soviet sucessor. The term encompasses widely different ethnicities and cultural groups, from Karelians and Chukchis to Moldovans, Chechnyans, and Tatars. The unifying narrative, enforced through colonial education of the ‘Slav’, the ‘Soviet’, or ‘Eurasian’, has only a Greater Russia as a common denominator.

The resurgence of these narratives can reflect hidden political threats and the new capabilities of certain groups. The alterity (state of being different) given by the pro and anti West that divides all these different ethnicities and countries domestically, unites them as a whole with an identity crisis. Eurasianism gives the new Russia historical legitimacy in its quest for regional influence, and discursively unites key actors within the post-Soviet space. Furthermore, it discursively neglects the pro-Europe within its near abroad, nurturing instead a pro-Russian elite.

Poland & the Postcolonial

Poland has, for hundreds of years, been surrounded and conquered by its neighbours. Recent history up until the very late 20th century has been no better, with Soviet-imposed massacres and brutal repression. Colonialism has evidently been a great part of Polish history, being a land between great powers, yet there is a reluctance in postcolonial literature to include colonial presence in Eastern Europe.

Yet some have recognised Ireland as a postcolonial country, with Eastern Europe as an unknown:

only one European country has thus far been exempted from the binary ‘First World-Third World’ model now governing post-colonial studies. This is Ireland which is, as Seamus Deane remarks, ‘the only Western European country that has both an early and a late colonial experience’ […] Deane is careful to distinguish here between East and West; [which] remains terra incognita in recent theory. [Cavanagh 2003, 63-64].

The ‘ terra incognita ‘ of Eastern Europe (and Poland, which Cavanagh references), is often referred to in both Western and Eastern discourse as ‘borderlands’, reducing the culture there and its people as merely a place between the East and West. Whilst at times this discourse has been reclaimed by ideas of the Rus as a ‘two-headed eagle’, strong and facing all sides, in modern times this can be seen as a view that sees Eastern Europe as neither the ‘Other’ or the West. Talk of Russia, the Baltics, Balkans, and Eastern Europe in general is often talked of as peripheral to Europe. Indeed, there have been casual attempts to define Russia as an Asian country.

Colonialism, as well as cultural and geopolitical dominance, have played large roles in Eastern Europe. Numerous states have attempted (and at times succeeded in) exercising full or partial control over other countries, others have even occupied with settlers, and it is certainly not rare for there to be a system of economic exploitation. It is not that this has been confined to the history books either, Soviet presence being the greatest example, but also the aims of different groups during periods of ethnic conflict in the Balkans.

‘Outside’ influences such as that of the Turks in South-Eastern Europe, or that of the Austro-Hungarian empire, are underreported in postcolonial studies. German cultural dominance imposed in Poland, for example, still holds sway over local elections even (see below).

Polish voting patterns, with former German territory overlay.

Polish voting patterns, with former German territory overlay.

Polish railway infrastructure.

Polish railway infrastructure.

However, this is not to say that Poland was always the oppressed. The Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth was a force to be reckoned with, and whilst it didn’t quite have the same level of brute as other European powers it still made efforts to assimilate other cultures and civilisations. This is also not to say, that colonisation of Poland, and colonisation outside of Europe are in any way equal. The point of this post is to highlight how postcolonial studies can overlook colonial discourse and events purely because of current affairs.

To further confuse those who delve deeper, there are also efforts to rehabilitate Eastern Europe away from the “Other”. The Economist states that the term has “connotations of “poverty, marginalisation, and weirdness” which is for most states there, “anything but.”  Membership in Schengen, the EU, NATO, and the reemergence of Russia in world politics as an ally of the West all play to the narrative that Europe is no longer divided. A video that plays with the concept of Eastern Europe, and attempts to think up new terms,

Cavanagh , C., 2003, Postkolonialna Polska. Bia ł a plama na mapie współ czesnej teorii, “Teksty Drugie”, No. 64; 18-19. Quotations taken from other sites, which in turn quoted Cavanagh’s English version.

How Populism in Russia is finally tackling Corruption

For many years, corruption has been a normal part of life in the post-Soviet Russia. Oligarchs would bribe ministers for government contracts, ministers would bribe judges, and those who could afford it would bribe the government officials on the street. That might have changed after Yeltsin stood down, but in relation to the other crises at the time (economy, Chechnya, etc.) it has been less than satisfactory.

Putin’s approval ratings up until 2008. Compare with today –

Having a popularity rating around 70% or more meant there was little to gain in tackling a resistant and toxic problem. A booming economy too, meant that the money lost through bribery and corruption was ‘affordable’. However, both the high rating by the public and seemingly endless boom were not to last. We can see now how the Russian state is being influenced by 1) a weaker economy, and 2) a more demanding populace.

The Active Citizen

The current ruling party, United Russia, has been increasingly viewed by the oppositionist blogger Alexei Navalny’s term – the “party of crooks and thieves”. Amid unexpected mass demonstrations, and a stronger opposition holding the Kremlin to account, President Vladimir Putin was forced to genuinely take the corruption problem head-on.

Last December, Medvedev outlined three conditions needed to be able to fight corruption effectively:

  1. Political Will (of the leadership)
  2. Political Demand (of the constituents)
  3. Legislative Foundation

Since then, the Kremlin (or at least enthusiastic minorities within) have been slowly building upon these three preconditions.

Political will has been encouraged, and in some instances, coerced. The former Defence Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, was sacked and put under investigation after it was alleged that he had sold ministry assets for his own benefit. One of the previous ‘rules’ of Russian politics was that if you were in Putin’s circle and stayed loyal, then you could expect at least the same. Serdyukov was loyal, but corrupt, does this imply a new principle in Moscow? Putin claimed that he removed Serdyukov to foster “conditions for an objective investigation”.

There has been a strong and active citizen involved in anti-corruption too. The recent citizen journalism that exposed Vladimir Pekhtin and his undeclared assets was a catalyst that led more to go, and will have unforeseeable consequences in the Duma. Two similar legislators, Lomakin and Tolstopyatov, rapidly followed suit . More lower house representatives will apparently be affected soon , and word is that it will affect the upper house too . Olga Kryshtanovskaya remarked that:

A certain section of the elite is in a state of obvious confusion. People do not understand what is happening. They doubt whether they can exist within this system. Some are leaving. Some are being dismissed …

Along with this, Russia has acted upon its less than favourable judiciary , and enacted stronger legislation. Membership in the OECD’s anti-bribery convention proved a moment where there was no turning back, either the current political elite solves this or they fall with it.

The Austerity Alternative

The government currently loses hundreds of billions of dollars every year due to corruption or ‘grafting’. Since the economic crisis, growth has slowed to a modest 2.2% at last view.

Stronger legislation since mid-2012 has enabled senior officials such as the CEO of the state electricity firm MRSK, ex-ministers such as Yelena Skrynnik, and high profile government contractors such as Yury Urlichich, to be held to account in front of the law.

In 2012, the government stopped altogether state-owned companies to subcontract other companies where the ownership was not known. State officials and representatives have been forced to declare incomes, interests, and assets.

However, most importantly, arrests have been made, it seems for all the media hype there is actually something important going on here.

Related articles

Russian Foreign Relations: Norway

Historically, relations between the Soviet Union (of which Russia was a ‘successor state’) and Norway were at times more than cold. Territorial and environmental disputes, as well as a high-profile treason case all contributed to an uncooperative relationship. Tensions meant that the Soviet Union and Norway generally kept a distance.

Whilst there are still longstanding issues today, many of the issues inhibiting cooperation and a closer relationship have been resolved.

Foreign ministers Sergey Lavrov (L) of Russia and Jonas Gahr Store (R) of Norway

Foreign ministers Sergey Lavrov (L) of Russia and Jonas Gahr Store (R) of Norway

As Political Deficit has stated on more than one occasion ( 1 , 2 , etc.) , Putin and Russia are not uncompromising ideologues as they are at times painted to be – but firm pragmatists (or realists in IR terms). As Mark Adomanis of Forbes said:

Putin cares about the bottom line … if you look at how he’s actually conducted foreign policy it’s surprisingly defensive and reactive. More than that, he’s actually been pretty effective.

In short, modern Russian relations should be good with Norway as long as Norway doesn’t threaten Russian power – economic or otherwise. This works as a theory, and in real life.

In 2006, Norway was said to want an equidistant border between the two countries – following a ‘median line principle’. This was its stance since at least the 1970s, something that fell on deaf ears with the Soviets. Finally, in April 2010, a deal was made following over four decades of disagreement . Lavrov remarked that the treaty:

opens way for broader cooperation of our countries in the energy sphere. Besides oil and gas searching, now, there will be possibilities of cooperation in other spheres, including navigation and transport.”

United Press International reported that Putin would personally prefer Norwegian companies to other companies to work in Russia. This marks a positive view of Norway within Russia as a professional and wealthy country to do business with. The Russian military is also keen to partake in exercises with its Norwegian counterpart – something unthinkable a few decades ago.

As a conclusion, , Russia’s resurgence and non-confrontational leadership has enabled it to make stronger connections across Europe and solve the problems it faces in countries such as Norway with relative ease.

This post was made with the help of