It is now day five of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the trending headline on Twitter has been #sochiproblems. Despite the games being the most expensive to date, clocking in at $50 billion, there is little doubt that Russia doesn’t have their act all together. With American snowboarder Shaun White bashing the quality of the half pipe, and reporters in the field tweeting hilariously bad conditions it’s clear that at the 2014 Olympics it’s fun to hate on the host. However, buried beneath photos of sinks putting out brown water, or athletes having to break down bathroom doors, is the important public relations story of the Russian Amnesty Bill.
Passed in mid/late December the bill called for the immunity to both international and Russian prisoners charged with hooliganism. Raising the question: what exactly counts as “hooliganism” in Russia? Well, if you are the Russian rock band Pussy Riot it means singing anti-Putin songs in a public forum, an offense for which the duo was charged with a two-year prison sentence. Or if you’re a Greenpeace activist from the Arctic Sunrise crew, hooliganism means obstructing offshore drilling in international waters. For Russian officials the term “hooliganism” seems to more loosely mean “we can put you in prison if we want to.” And in a justice system largely devoid of individual protections they can… at least until the Olympics.
It’s not a secret that the release of the crew of the Arctic Sunrise and Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was a PR stunt. It is frankly a smart way for Russia to move the spotlight away from very clear flaws within the Russian political system.
By quickly passing the amnesty bill prior to the Olympic games the Russian government was taking out an inexpensive insurance policy. The release of a handful of political prisoners is nothing compared to the shadow that could be cast on the games if protests took root. And keeping political protest out of the spotlight seems to be a goal for Putin and the Russian government. At the start of the games Putin placed a ban on demonstrations and public gatherings in Sochi between Jan. 7 and March 21. The ban has since been somewhat alleviated as the games kick into high gear. Gatherings now “require approval in advance from the authorities” and knowing the reputation of Russia’s bureaucratic system the easing of the ban probably means very little.
Next time you see a #sochiproblem put yourself in the shoes of the Russian government. Would they rather have the international community hear that Sochi is a mess, or that Russia is imprisoning American, British and Italian activists? At most, bad hotel conditions end up on Twitter, but protest en masse against unlawful imprisonment may force the country to make some actual policy changes, especially if those protests took place at the Olympics.