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Letter from Moscow: Putin for Tsar

The Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi has been awarded the 2014 Winter Olympics and President Vladimir Putin will cash in the lions share of credit for the surprise victory.

At home Putin is widely seen as a strong ruler who restored stability after a decade of chaos ensuing the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has been presiding over a booming economy for seven years, wages are rising and life is improving for many in urban centres.

And now, on top of all that, Sochi has won the race to host the Games after Putin stunned the world when touting his country's bid in front of IOC delegates speaking in three languages, English, Spanish and French.

Sochi, where palm trees are 30 minutes drive away from the bottom of the ski slopes, had been the odd one out from the start of the Olympic bidding, running against well-established skiing resorts like Salzburg. The fact that the Russian Olympic committee could pull this one off, is seen by many as a confirmation that Putin’s course is right. He is often criticised by the West for his interventionist style of democracy, but ‘Hey!’ - Russians say – ‘It works! Can’t you can see?’

Putin is in the last year of his presidency as the constitution forces him to step down after two terms. This victory will proselytize many disbelievers, making them accept that Russia needs Putin. ‘Winning the right to host the Games will be an award for Putin, moreover an international one’, the Kommersant daily wrote a day before the decision.

And Russia’s small sect of incorrigible Western style democrats who believe in concepts such as free media, independent courts and fair elections, of course absurdly so in current Russia, are driven after the Olympic decision even more towards the margins of society.

‘We have deceived them a second time!’ my colleague Grisha said, ‘just like under Brezhnev, when high oil prices afforded the Soviet Union with a spell of prosperity and Moscow was given the 1980 Summer Olympics. And at what cost? All locals were driven out and the authorities put on a big show for the West for four weeks.’

Others thought they had to go public with their opposition to the games and staged a ‘theatrical protest’ in a central square in Moscow. But with more than 70 per cent of the population supporting the bid, the 'Coalition against the Olympics in Sochi' could not crack the attendance threshold of twenty. Besides bored media representatives, the only spectator was a stout and equally bored police colonel.
As soon as one of the protesters put on a Putin mask to dramatise a dissenter’s take on Russian politics and the Sochi bid, he put a swift end to this sacrilegious spectacle, whacked the rubber mask off the protester’s face, called for reinforcement and got all actors detained.

With the pathetic anti-Olympic movement removed and the go-ahead from the IOC in the pocket, Russia can commence with the building of the Olympic park in Sochi. And who knows, maybe the Russian President will pull yet another stunt during the presidential election in March 2008. The question of Putin’s successor has been the most tantalizing one in Russian politics of late and is bound to remain unanswered until we find out.

But after the victory in Guatemala, the call ‘Putin for Tsar’ seems less far-fetched than before.