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Olympics can't mask Putin's many abuses

Jan 3, 2014 - By The Chicago Tribune

In 2007, when the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2014 Winter Games to the Russian city of Sochi, it raised hopes that the Kremlin was open to liberalization and reform. President Vladimir Putin did his best to charm the committee, and it seemed to work.

"The Games will help Russia's transition to a young democracy," said Dmitry Chernyshenko, who led the successful bid.

Lately, there have been surprising developments in Russia. Putin indulged the Christmas spirit by granting clemency to 30 Greenpeace activists and two members of a punk protest band. He helped secure a deal with the Syrian government to give up its chemical weapons arsenal.

But you'd have to ignore a lot to think the Olympics will work to moderate Putin's taste for repression at home and abroad. He was able to release all those prisoners only because his regime had put them behind bars on transparently bogus pretexts. He was able to get cooperation from Bashar Assad only because he's such a loyal ally of the savage Syrian dictator.

Putin's stern response to the horrific suicide bombings in Volgograd this week may be seen as understandable and justified. But when a Russian strongman threatens terrorists with "complete annihilation," the words suggest he will not be terribly discriminating about meting out punishment. Reuters reported that though 87 people were detained after the attacks, "there was no sign any were linked to the bombings or suspected of planning further attacks."

Ham-fisted police tactics are just another day at the office for Putin. When he was inaugurated in May 2012, hundreds of protesters were arrested, and some were beaten. Other Muscovites were locked up for wearing the white ribbon that symbolizes opposition to Putin.

Over time, his policies have gotten more punitive and paranoid, not less. What Russians are enduring today, says the pro-democracy organization Freedom House, is "the most severe crackdown against human rights since the collapse of the Soviet Union."

Putin may have thought hosting the Olympics would boost his stature in Russia and elsewhere. The actual effect, though, has been to focus more attention on his thin skin, contempt for Western values and unquenchable need for control. Unlike the regime in 1980, Putin has avoided a mass boycott of the festivities by other nations. But he won't avoid a spotlight that reminds the world of his abuses.

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