Russia's anti-Olympic spirit
February 7th, 2013
10:39 AM ET

Russia's anti-Olympic spirit

By Rachel Denber, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Rachel Denber is deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.  You can follow her @Rachel_Denber. The views expressed are her own.

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.”

More from CNN: Grand Sochi project highlights Putin ambition

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.

More from GPS: Why USAID is leaving Russia

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.

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Topics: Human Rights • Russia • Sports

soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. RALFhäggström Finland

    Today or yesterday, VITRYSSLAND or VALKOVENÄJÄ, usually gave out a list of 25 othwr countries that abuse human rights. And Mr LUKASHENKOS country is considered the last dictatorship in Europe.......LAADIDAA; Ralf.

    February 7, 2013 at 10:50 am | Reply
  2. baloneyjohn

    Nuts to this bleeding heart. Human Rights watch is a joke.
    Never states anything against those so called "Peaceful" Muslims

    February 7, 2013 at 11:32 am | Reply
    • Lindsey

      Totally agree.

      February 8, 2013 at 8:46 am | Reply
  3. matslats

    How come this blog never covers human rights abuses abroad sponsored by the CIA?
    Oh I see – there must 'good' human rights abuses and 'bad' human rights abuses.

    February 7, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Reply
    • matslats

      The police in the picture above seem to wear the same black cladding the world over.
      One world police force?

      February 7, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  4. Joseph McCarthy

    Just who are we Americans to criticize human rights abuses in other countries while we continue to slaughter people day after day in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen with those ungodly drones of ours and continue torturing political prisoners at Gitmo on top of it? Besides, I'm a Russophile myself and no system is perfect anywhere!

    February 7, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Reply
    • Matt in KY

      That weak display, combined with your next post (where you call the President a right winger), lead me to believe that you aren't American. I don't even think you're Russian. What are you?

      February 7, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Reply
    • Lindsey

      "Torturing political prisoners in Gitmo"?

      They are not politcal pruisoners, they are murdering raping terrorists.

      They are not "tortured" they are given anything they desire – free television, free tobacco, sports, any food, any worship they want, they are coddled.

      February 8, 2013 at 8:49 am | Reply
  5. Lindsey

    CNN is a crock and a joke.

    Barack Hussein Obama is a dictator, and CNN bends over every day and plants a big sloppy kiss on his ass.

    February 7, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      What you forgot to mention here Lindsey, is that Barack Obama is a right-wing fanatic who works for the M.I.C.(military-industrial-complex) and does what they tell him to do like all the others!

      February 7, 2013 at 7:12 pm | Reply
      • Lindsey

        "Right-wing" Obama? Wow, youneed to take off your tin-foil hat.

        February 8, 2013 at 8:35 am |
    • Steve

      Obama is a dictator? This is an insult to the billions worldwide who actually live under tyranny – religious, dictatorial, or otherwise. Maybe one day you'll leave your mother's basement and travel to a place without the freedoms you apparently so take for granted and feel at least a tiny bit of sheme about your ludicrous statemenet.

      February 8, 2013 at 3:33 am | Reply
      • Lindsey

        I replied to this, but CNN censored it.

        February 8, 2013 at 10:36 am |
  6. me NYC

    Not too different from China in 2008. The Olympics did nothing to spur openness.

    February 7, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  7. Lindsey

    This writer looks like he's sick

    February 7, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Reply
  8. Lindsey

    Hey ignorant blog-hatemonger. When did you every criticize Hussein?


    Cowardly hyena

    February 7, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Reply
    • Steve

      Ladies and gentlemen, this is the tactic #1 of cnn astroturfers (most of the time Russian or Chinese). When there is criticism of Russia or China, both of which have the resources and brains to be far better on human rights and freedom than they actually are, point to either ...

      – why didn't CNN look at country X?
      – some minor but actually doesn't really compare comparison to some other country ('look at the 2000 USA election'). (oh ya, look at transparency international's country rankings).


      – claim that all independent ranking and monitoring organizations are part of some grand conspiracy.

      it's always the same from the paid bloggers.


      February 8, 2013 at 3:36 am | Reply
  9. Lindsey

    Fareed Zakaria – looks like he's seriously mentally distubed. Must be his Middel East Islamic education

    February 7, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  10. j. von hettlingen

    The cost for hosting the Winter Olympics has increased to $50 billion making it more expensive than the summer Olympics in Beijing, and three times the cost of the London games last year. It is said that some of Russia's billionaire oligarchs are picking up the bill, voluntarily, saying it was time for them to do something for their country.

    February 7, 2013 at 4:25 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      please read: PART OF THE bill........

      February 7, 2013 at 5:03 pm | Reply
  11. Ragn

    Just read an article that US Justice government has asked some US broadcasting company to clarify its connections to some russian goverment owned broadcaster, to see if the first should be included in US registry of foriegn agents.
    The reports said the probe could lead to the broadcasting company being included in a U.S. government registry of foreign agents, a list usually reserved for lobbyists
    So such registry does exist in US. What's all the noise then?

    February 7, 2013 at 8:42 pm | Reply
  12. bola

    A Better Job Awaits You

    February 7, 2013 at 9:59 pm | Reply
  13. Pete

    Obvious American propaganda...obvious..."Human Rights" con artists are part sad part funny.

    February 8, 2013 at 2:51 am | Reply
  14. rightospeak

    Unbelievable.Human Rights Watch -what a joke ? Rachel is blind to Human Rights violations in Europe and the US . People are being imprisoned in Europe for "illigal opinons' -a clear violation of human rights. Ernst Zundel was kidnapped in the US, had his house burned in Toronto , spent over 5 yrears in jail in Germany as a Human Rights Activist. David Irving was in jail in Austria as well as others in Europe for "illigal opinions".
    A " besotted Russophile" writing this article ? A joke again. Rachel is an Imperial Parrot and most likely a rabid racist.

    February 8, 2013 at 10:44 am | Reply
  15. rightospeak

    Just wanted to make sure that my comments went through before writing any more. The enemies of free speech at CNN have a bad habit of removing my comments -a clear violation of Human Rights ( are you reading this ,Rachel ? ), so sometimes my inspiration of spreading the truth goes down the tubes. It can be frustrating.
    I think ,Rachel, that you need to read our Patriot Act and see how it fits with your idea of Human Rights .

    February 8, 2013 at 10:50 am | Reply

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