Putin’s Occupation Olympics

By Eugene Kontorovich
February 5, 2014

The upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi has naturally led to a critical look at the host country’s human rights record, with particular focus on issues such as the treatment of gays and journalists.

Yet in a less-noticed offense, Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the Olympics to advance his violations of international law — namely, as a tool for expanding Russia’s control over the occupied Georgian territory of Abkhazia. Despite the conquest of a neighboring nation — an action almost unheard of since World War Two and banned by the U.N. Charter — the international community has scarcely protested.

Russia has used the proximity of the Olympics to solidify its latest conquest. The main town of Abkhazia, Sukhumi, is a short drive from Sochi. Much of the materials for the massive Olympic construction projects — rock and cement — are taken from Abkhazia. Russia has quartered thousands of construction workers for the Games in Sukhumi, further blurring the lines between Georgian territory and Russia proper.

Russia and Georgia had clashed over the latter’s border provinces since the breakup of the Soviet Union. In 2008, Russia fought Georgia, its tiny neighbor, in a brief war that resulted in Moscow fully conquering two pockets of territory — South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In international law, these territories remain occupied parts of sovereign Georgian territory.

After the war, Russia recognized occupied Abkhazia as an “independent” state. Following the lead of Turkey’s “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” Russia sought to present the situation as one of cession and self-determination rather than aggressive conquest.

But other countries have not bought the ploy, and continue to regard Abkhazia as an occupied Georgian territory. Abkhazia is a puppet, propped up entirely by Russia. Its residents have been given Russian passports, its economy runs on Russian grants, and its territory is controlled by the Russian military. It is a de facto conquest of Russia — violating international norms of sovereign borders.

Right after the 2008 war, Western nations threatened various diplomatic wrist-slaps for Kremlin’s conquest — suspending G8 membership and the like. None of those measures materialized. Indeed, in the Alice in Wonderland world of international diplomacy, Russia remains a member of the Middle East Peace Quartet, whose principle goal is ending what it sees as Israeli occupation. And instead of sanctions, Russia gets to host the Olympics, using newly conquered Abkhazia as a staging ground.

Moreover, the Russian proxy regime now engages in what the West regards as a major crime elsewhere — bringing settlers into the occupied territory to solidify the demographic balance against the few remaining Georgians.

The totality of Russian control was demonstrated in late January when, just weeks before the Olympics, Russian forces unilaterally moved the Russian border seven miles into Abkhazia. The extraordinary timing of the action shows Russia has understood that the world is giving it a free pass when it comes to the conquest of its neighbors.

The international silence about the deepening occupation of Georgia seems even more like acceptance when contrasted with the diplomatic outrage the U.S. and EU express about what they regard as occupation elsewhere.

For example, the EU has recently taken the position that it would be illegal to do business with Israeli companies that operate in the West Bank. Of course, by this standard any participation in the Sochi Games — from corporate sponsors, to contributions and fees from national Olympic committees — would be forbidden. Making “ending occupation” the centerpiece of U.S.-EU foreign policy while playing the Occupation Olympics magnifies the extent of the West’s Caucasian capitulation.

Four years ago, former U.S. ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker wrote that “attending the 2014 Olympics … would make all of us complicit in cementing in practice Russia’s changing European borders by force, even if we reject those changes in principle.” Now, the cement has set — cement that was itself taken from Georgia.

As Ukrainians protest Kiev’s fall into Russia’s rebuilt sphere of influence, Western nations must understand that such developments did not come out of nowhere. Countries in the region, like Ukraine and Armenia, have been paying attention as Moscow forcibly reconstituted parts of its old empire — violating legal principles the West claims to hold most dear.

PHOTOS:  (From L to R) Russian Federation Chef de Mission Alexander Kravtsov, Olympic Village Mayor Elena Isinbaeva and Russian President Vladimir Putin visit the Coastal Cluster Olympic Village ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at the Athletes Village in Sochi February 5, 2014.  REUTERS/Pascal Le Segretain/Pool 

People march during an opposition rally in Moscow, February 2, 2014. The banner reads “The place, where there are political prisoners, is not for the Olympics.” REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
8 comments

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About time someone in the US actually publicized Russia’s treatment of its neighbors.

Posted by roboticowl | Report as abusive

You mean Israel is not the sole “occupier” in this world? Or, perhaps, Israel is being treated in a discriminatory fashion?

Posted by YMedad | Report as abusive

The west’s shameful acquiescence to Russia’s invasion of northern Georgia was and is utterly disgraceful. As much grief as I’ve given Barack Obama for his lack of backbone in international relations, it was George W. Bush who politely rolled over for Putin in 2008.

Putin is nothing but a two-bit thug. He’s getting ready to do the exact same thing to eastern Ukraine that he did to northern Georgia. Let’s hope the west shows more spine this time around.

I am encouraged by the fact that the US and the EU came out in open support of Ukraine’s opposition last week, as well as by the fact that work seems to be underway on a financial aid package for Ukraine if it signs the EU trade agreement. Moving a couple of US aircraft carrier battle groups into the Black Sea would be a good follow-up.

Posted by Danram | Report as abusive

Kuddos to author noticing that South Ossetia and Abkhazia now independent countries.

Russia requested and received permission from Abkhazia to establish a security zone into sovereign Abhazian territory.

Georgia can suck it up, in 2008 they thought they can go on a killing rampage against Russian citizens,and they were dead wrong. Literally.

Posted by kommy | Report as abusive

If the US is so “concerned” about it, why don’t they boycott the Olympics instead helping the Russian occupiers to build up security measures against the local population, calling them “terrorists” in their own native homeland.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

Russian presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia does not satisfy the definition of occupation set by the the Geneva Convention of 1907, article 42 which states that: “Territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army,” and article 43 which states that: “The authority of the legitimate power having in fact passed into the hands of the occupant, the latter shall take all the measures in his power to restore, and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety, while respecting, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country.” In Abkhazia and South Ossetia authority is in fact placed in the hands of the de facto partially recognised authorities of the two breakaway territories, and not in the hands of the Russian military. The breakaway territories themselves have their own parliaments, governments, army, police force and other state institutions which are in charge of governance and the day to day running of their self-proclaimed republics. The authorities of both breakaway republics also enjoy broad legitimacy and support by the current populations of the respective territories, which overwhelmingly consider Russian troops to be liberators and allies, and not occupiers. Although the legitimacy of these de facto governments is disputed internationally, it is important to note that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are recognised as independent by six UN member states and that international law does not specify a lower ceiling on the number of states recognising an entity before it can be considered a legitimate member of the international community. Russian troops in both territories do not exhibit the behavior characteristic of an occupying army either.

For example, the Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia do not patrol the streets or set up checkpoints to control the local population, and are mostly confined to their bases. Although limited housing projects for Russian troops and their families near the bases have been constructed, there is no construction of settlements or other forms of colonisation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by ethnic Russians, akin to, for example, Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Russian control of the de facto borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is also not an arbitrary development, but has been negotiated in accordance with bilateral agreements between Moscow and the de facto authorities of the breakaway republics.

The decision of Georgia and some of its allies to recognise the breakaway republics as occupied by Russia is therefore wholly political, and does not have a particularly strong foundation in either international law or the actual facts on the ground. While the Georgian government hopes that its diplomatic effort to have these territories recognised as occupied will increase the pressure on Russia to withdraw its troops from both regions, the effort is mostly cosmetic, and unlikely to meet with much tangible success. The designation by Georgia and its Western allies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as “occupied” is also designed to reinforce the Georgian narrative of the conflict of being exclusively between Georgia and Russia, and not with the Abkhazians and Ossetians. However, this approach will likely only contribute to the further objectification and alienation from Georgia of the populations of both territories, which will again hamper any real effort to reach a settlement in to these conflicts.

Posted by Dolen | Report as abusive

“Moreover, the Russian proxy regime now engages in what the West regards as a major crime elsewhere — bringing settlers into the occupied territory to solidify the demographic balance against the few remaining Georgians.”
What is the West doing to put an end to the “major crime” of settlement construction in Palestinian territories?

Posted by ola_kala | Report as abusive

I would like to address two of the comments from this page. Dolen I see you’re very well versed in Caucasian politics however the situation that is in Georgia now is much more grave than you think. People from these so-called breakaway regions who had to leave as fugitives during the war do not see it as a story of self-determination. These people see it more as Russian intervention into something they had no say in. The war could have been avoided if not for Russia putting it’s troops into Abkhazia during the first war in the 90s. Even if they were considered de-facto nations then Russia is still overstepping bounds by moving the border by 7 miles. Kommy, according to you Georgians went on a killing spree against Russians in 2008. I would like to ask you to pick up a map and compare the two landmasses so that you can get the idea of your flawed logic. It would have made absolutely 0 sense for a country that size to go against Russia. The war started with Russia moving tanks and soldiers into then Georgian lands and calling it a breakaway region.

Posted by Zezva | Report as abusive