Sochi Games Showcase Putin's Hopes And Fears

Russian President Vladimir Putin has invested tens of billions in hosting the Winter Olympics at Sochi, his favorite resort town. We look at why Putin has stacked so much on this event — and what he hopes to gain.

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The 2014 Winter Games officially kick off today. And we're going to spend a few minutes to talk about the driving force behind them, Russian President Vladimir Putin. He's been in power since Russia began bidding for the games back in 2005, and he's made it a mission to bring them to Sochi. NPR's Corey Flintoff is on the line with us from Sochi to talk about why these games are so important to the man at the top. Hi there, Corey.


CORNISH: So what is Putin hoping to accomplish with these games?

FLINTOFF: Well, Audie, in part, you know, it's what every country wants to achieve from hosting the Olympic Games. I mean, they bring the world's attention to your doorstep in a way that probably no other event can. It's two weeks of virtually nonstop publicity.

But Vladimir Putin has several very specific objectives here. He wants to showcase Russia's progress since the collapse of the Soviet Union, going, you know, from an absolute basket case to a stable economy with a growing middle class. And the main reason for that is to show that Russia's an attractive place for foreign investment, which is something that this country very much needs, you know. And Putin also wants to show that despite an insurgency in the region and despite terrorist threats, Russia really has its security situation under control.

CORNISH: And does President Putin seem to be succeeding with those objectives?

FLINTOFF: Well, to really measure that, you need to look back at the time when Russia was making its bid, starting in about 2005. Back then, foreign investors were afraid of putting money into Russia, in part because Putin had just jailed the country's richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and confiscated his giant oil company. So, Putin desperately needed to portray Russia as a good place to do business.

Now, the problem is that the Olympics haven't done much for Russia's business image because of the allegations of corruption and cronyism that have surrounded the construction. Russia actually has improved its score on the corruption perception index that's compiled by Transparency International, but it still only ranks about 127th out of 177 countries. It hasn't done all that well in attracting foreign investment and Russian capital is still just bleeding out of the country because people don't feel that their investments will be protected by an independent legal system.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, the games are under unprecedented security because of homegrown terrorist threats. What if something goes wrong?

FLINTOFF: That's a good question, Audie. In 2007, when Russia won its bid, Putin may well have felt that the North Caucasus region would've been pacified by now. At that point, he had largely succeeded in crushing an insurgency in Chechnya after a very brutal war. Russia had endured some horrendous terrorist attack. You'll remember that hostage crisis at a school in Beslan back in 2004. That ended with the deaths of more than 380 people. But at the time, those attacks seemed to be largely in the past.

And what no one seems to have anticipated is that the insurgency in Chechnya would've moved across the border into Dagestan or that the Russian security forces wouldn't have been able to stamp it out. A rebel group from Dagestan has claimed responsibility for these suicide bombings that killed 34 people in the city of Volgograd back in December, and they've threatened to attack these games.

CORNISH: Now, given all this - the security concerns, the cost of the games, the reported massive corruption surrounding the construction contracts - what about President Putin's own standing? I mean, is this hurting his popularity with the Russian people?

FLINTOFF: Not so far. You know, recent Russian public opinion polls show that his standing is still very strong. It's in about the 60 percent range. And people also have very positive impressions about the games. You know, a recent Gallup poll show that nearly half of those polled were very positive about the Olympics in general. So unless there is some major development that could harm the image of the games, it looks like they're a net plus for Putin, at least in Russia.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff in Sochi. Corey, thank you.

FLINTOFF: My pleasure, Audie.

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