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Western leaders stay away from Sochi Olympics. Snub to Russia?

Many Western leaders have issues with Russia today – Syria and human rights among them. For the US, add NSA leaker Edward Snowden. However, Asian leaders and those from former Soviet republics are in Sochi.

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Members of the Russian team enter the stadium during the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014.

Patrick Semansky/AP

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When the Winter Olympics opened in Sochi, Russia, Friday, no major Western leaders joined Russian President Vladimir Putin in the VIP section.

No Barack Obama, no David Cameron, no François Hollande, no Angela Merkel.

But Asian leaders, and the heads of post-Soviet states on Russia’s western flank, were there in full force.

The divide offered a vivid picture of where Russia – and its ambitious, nationalist leader, Mr. Putin – stand in the world today.

President Obama’s vaunted “reset” with Russia has long since fallen on hard times, leaving US-Russia relations today dominated more by disagreements over Syria, Edward Snowden, and human rights inside Russia. With the NSA leaker sitting in Moscow and still divulging information from his purloined intelligence documents, Obama and all other senior Obama administration officials took a pass on the Games.

The Western Europeans – in a tug of war with Russia over the political turmoil in Ukraine; like Washington, unhappy with Russia’s staunch backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; and also getting an earful from their domestic human rights advocates about conditions in Russia – also decided to stay home.

But that does not mean the world is snubbing Sochi.

China’s President Xi Jinping is there, as is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – both from neighboring countries that have crucial energy ties to Russia, and both of which would love to win Russia’s support in their increasingly bitter regional rivalry. Joining them is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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And a Russia that in some quarters is still smarting from the loss of the Soviet empire may take some solace in the fact that at least eight leaders of former Soviet republics are on hand in Sochi. Perhaps no leader will be more closely watched than Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich, who was blasted for heading to Sochi while home boils.

In all, more than 60 national leaders and heads of international organizations will attend the Games, said Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the 2014 Sochi Organizing Committee, in remarks to the press on Thursday. To underscore Russia’s perspective that the world is coming to Sochi, Mr. Chernyshenko noted that the cohort of heads of state and government is the largest ever to attend a Winter Games.

To drive home the point, he said the number of world leaders in Sochi is about triple the number that attended the 2010 Vancouver Games. So there, he might have added.

Putin has sought to remain above the undignified talk of numbers, emphasizing instead that Sochi will be an opportunity for leaders not just to marvel at athletic exploits, but to discuss some of the world’s most pressing issues as well.

“I can talk to colleagues about security, economy, the Middle East, Afghanistan,” Putin told journalists as he toured the Olympic Village earlier this week. “Syria, Ukraine, lots of them, you know,” suggesting the breadth of issues that leaders could discuss during the Games would make Sochi something of a mini-United Nations.

And indeed, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be in attendance – although he punctuated a press conference Thursday with a blast at any form of discrimination against gays and lesbians. Mr. Ban did not refer specifically to Russia in making his point, but the issue of anti-gay legislation is a key reason Western leaders are snubbing the Games.

Small hints have surfaced to suggest the Russian leadership is none too happy with the Western no-show. The clearest rebuke came from Foreign Minister Sergeu Lavrov, who dismissed as “nonsense” the tallying of leaders’ attendance and the report card on Sochi that many, particularly in the media, are trying to make of it.

“No one has ever counted,” Mr. Lavrov told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, as he participated in the Olympic torch relay in Sochi on Thursday. “They started counting when they decided that they should spoil things for Russia so that Russia would feel uncomfortable.”

The hint of bitterness in Lavrov’s observation reflects the surprise and resentment that Russia’s top leadership feels at seeing the Western emphasis on the problems at Sochi, ranging from the worrisome terrorist threat to how any LGBT athletes might be treated there, some Russia experts say.

“They see a tendency to accentuate the negative, which is not the narrative Russia wanted,” says Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies and a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. The message Sochi is meant to convey, he adds, is above all, “Russia is back.”

Others say any official bitterness may reflect how the West’s portrayal of Sochi is playing with average Russians.

“Emphasizing the negative strengthens the hand of the isolationists inside Russia,” says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. While it may not be the intent, the Western criticism leaves many Russians with the sense that the West is “ganging up on Russia,” he says.

But some Russians, on the other hand, just seem to want the Games to go on without the soured whiff of politics. The Russian rock musician Andrey Makarevich has sung many a lyric critical of the Kremlin and the direction Russia is taking. But he is in Sochi for the Games, he says, and will leave his protests for a later date.

“For these two weeks, you have to call a truce,” he told Time magazine, in words he might have meant for the outside world. “We have to pause all the politics and let the Games be a celebration,” he said. “When it’s over, we can go back to criticizing each other.”


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