Eugene Kontorovich: Vladimir Putin’s occupation Olympics
The 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 II 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.
EUGENE KONTOROVICH is a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, specializing in international and constitutional law. The opinions expressed are his own.