Olympics and Russian soft power should not be oxymoron

Olympics and Russian soft power should not be oxymoron

When I was a kid, we used to sing this song: “One, two, three, long live Turkey, four, five six, down is the Polish ship, seven, eight, nine, Deutschland is a pig, ten, eleven, twelve, Italy is a fox, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, Russians are treacherous.

Thank God, kids these days are not taught this song. Yet, some of our prejudices still remain strong about foreign countries. Although the bear is one of the national symbols of Russia, as it is written on Wikipedia, “it is used by Westerners ...not always in a flattering context – on occasion it was used to imply that Russia is ‘big, brutal and clumsy.’” This is also the usual understanding for Turkey.

Yet, when one is to compare the number of world renowned composers, novelists, painters (which have nothing to do with the characteristics of a bear) Russia is far ahead of Turkey.

At first sight however, we Turks are much more welcoming and hospitable to foreigners than Russians, who are known to be more distant in the initial phases. My experience as a tourist in Moscow and Saint Petersburg a few years ago showed me it was not that easy to communicate with Russians.

When I set foot in Nizhny Novgorod, where I was to take part in the Olympic Torch relay, I was not sure what to expect since it was a city where the entry of foreigners was forbidden until the end of the Cold War. Pınar Farımaz, who was accompanying us in her first visit to Russia, did not exactly find the Russians to be friendly. Yet, she was the one who experienced something quite out of the ordinary! As she approached a police officer to ask through a translator where she could find a Russian fur hat, the officer gave the insignia in his hat to her as gift! We were all shocked (even the Russians accompanying us) and pleasantly surprised. As three torchbearers from Turkey, we had no trouble communicating with the locals during our run. This made me think Russians are probably ahead of their state when it comes to integrating to the world – because when it comes to state structures I feel Moscow still has a long way to go.

Let me explain. The majority of the Russians who were working in the organization were very friendly. But something was missing. As a group from Turkey, we were isolated. The local press was unaware of our presence. I wish, for instance, they could hear the story of Yonca Tokbaş, how she is changing lives through her charity runs. In Nizhny, 200 torchbearers took part in the relay. Couldn’t we get together before or after to interact? In our part of the run, we were 13 torchbearers. It is only through my personal efforts that I found out to whom I would give my torch: Leonid; a ballet trainer from Nizhny.

That’s all I know of him. This type of “Come, run, go” doesn’t exactly suit the Olympic Spirit.

I am therefore concerned about the games in Sochi. Is it going to be “come, compete and go?” Will Russia simply showcase its grandeur by spectacular opening and closing ceremonies and an impeccable organization of races? Where is the human touch going to be?

I understand the threat of terror and protecting human life is more important than anything. Yet, the Olympic Games under emergency rules would only serve to reiterate Russia’s image as an authoritarian state. This is not what the Russians should want!

Terrorism can never be justified, but there are other ways of combatting terrorism than implementing extraordinary security measures. We in Turkey learned about it the very hard way.

It is no secret that Moscow has a troubled relationship with the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus. Unfortunately, the more the “iron hand” approach will prevail, the more the locals will feel marginalized and become closer to radical Islamists.

Sochi, on the other hand, is known to be the traditional capital to Circassians who have suffered in the hands of the Russians during the end of the 19th century. The Olympic Games in Sochi are reviving sad memories of mass killings and forced deportation. Circassians were subjected to assimilation in Turkey too. They were forced to speak in Turkish and the names of their villages were changed. Fortunately, they are now benefiting from recent legal amendments (that were intended for Kurds actually).

When Canada hosted the winter Olympics, the four tribes who originally occupied the land on which the events were held were made part of the whole process, with an especially visible presence at the opening ceremony.

It is only understandable for Russia to make the Olympics a showcase for its return to the world stage as a global power. Yet in our days, states not only need to display hard power but also soft power if they really aspire for global roles.