As all eyes turn toward Russia for the Winter Olympics, the security of athletes, visitors and residents alike is top of mind. Beyond safety and competition, Russian authorities clearly also view Sochi as an unparalleled opportunity to showcase the country’s rich culture and growing economic clout.
Prodded by their political leaders and television and radio media predominantly under state influence, Russians themselves will be expected to galvanize around this unifying event. But will they? Surely many will answer this call, as Russian pride is on display, but the question speaks to the widening media and democratic cleavage – and voices both inside and outside of the country that have sought to draw attention to it.
An opening panelist at the World Democracy Forum in late November, for instance, one prominent Russian journalist and civic activist, Irina Yasina, lamented what she views as the emergence of “two Russias”: one passive, focused on economic well-being and stability, and largely television-centric with respect to the consumption of news and information; the other more outwardly engaged and mobilized online in search of what they view as real and genuine democratization.
For the former – characterized by and large by an older demographic – the nexus between the symbolism and importance of the Olympic Games and the constant flow of imagery and messaging via state television will likely fuel unity and cohesion. For the latter, the reality may well prove more complex, a mixture of emotions and actions both in support of this important domestic endeavour and in search of political action stemming from the unique intensity of the Olympic spotlight.
Russia is hardly unique to civic dissidence and protests both on the ground and online. In neighbouring Ukraine in late 2013, prompted by a decision by that country’s government to reject a partnership agreement with the European Union in favour of closer Russian ties (including a customs union aggressively sought by Russian President Putin), tens of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets.
In a manner akin the Arab Spring, social media fueled the growth of this movement that continued throughout December and brought tens of thousands to Kiev’s Independence Square to welcome 2014 in protest. Megan Metzger, a graduate researcher at NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation lab, reported in a Washington Post blog that as many as 2,500 tweets were deployed hourly at the peak of the uprising, facilitating real-time communications and an adaptive logistics apparatus likewise comprising more than 150,000 followers on Facebook.
Moreover, online global amplification (here in this country there were media reports of those of Ukrainian heritage tracking social media for updates) likely shielded protestors from what could otherwise have been a more brutal crackdown by state police and security forces. With presidential elections slated for next year, tensions mount between a more Western-leaning and often more youthful and online segment of society and those more attracted by the Russian President’s talk of Russia and Ukraine as one Slavic people (a message propagated by state television in both countries).
With a massive security presence by Russian forces in Sochi, widespread protest at the Games is unlikely, but protest there has been. During the lead up to the Games, key sponsors such as Coca Cola faced online petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures – demanding the company undertake some form of protest against Russia’s recent adoption of blatantly anti-gay legislation.
Even as private sponsors have largely sought to deflect the issue, the underlying public mood, often coalescing via social media channels, has left its mark, swaying President Obama, for instance, in his selection of three openly gay athletes to lead the American delegation at the opening ceremonies. Similarly, many view the release of dozens of political dissidents by Russian authorities in recent months as a PR effort to sketch an alternate narrative of openness and tolerance.
Despite the ideal, the Olympics have never been free from politics. The world has come a long way from the cold war and 1980 boycott of Moscow’s Winter Games and it is impossible not to wish the Russians well (save perhaps for a gold medal hockey game…). What will be interesting to watch is whether Sochi serves as a bridge or a spike between the two Russia’s and their diverging media and political cultures.