Cross-Country skier Riikka Sarasoja-Lilja of Finland speaks with a coach during training ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center on February 5, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Cross-Country skier Riikka Sarasoja-Lilja of Finland speaks with a coach during training ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center on February 5, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Russia has spent an estimated $50 billion on construction and infrastructure projects for the upcoming winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, making it the most expensive games ever. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and many Russians hope the Olympics will showcase the beauty and power of Russia. Yet Sochi is also highlighting the nation’s problems: the terrorist threat within its borders, state corruption, anti-gay laws and press censorship. As criticism mounted leading up to the games, Putin released hundreds of prisoners. Diane and a panel of guests discuss security and human rights in Russia.

Guests

  • Greg Feifer former Moscow correspondent, NPR; author of the forthcoming book: "Russians; The People behind the Power."
  • Andrei Sitov Washington bureau chief, Itar-Tass news agency of Russia.
  • Susan Glasser editor, Politico magazine.

Transcript

  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics begin tomorrow in Sochi. The games are highlighting a number of problems in Russia from corruption and human rights to terrorism. This morning, U.S. officials warned airlines with direct flights to Russia of possible toothpaste tube bombs being smuggled into the games.

  • 11:07:21

    MS. DIANE REHMHere to talk about security and human rights in Russia: Gregory Feifer, the former Moscow correspondent for NPR, Susan Glasser of Politico, and Andrei Sitov with the Itar-Tass news agency of Russia. Do join us. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your mail to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Welcome to all of you.

  • 11:07:55

    MS. SUSAN GLASSERMorning.

  • 11:07:55

    MR. ANDREI SITOVThank you. It's a honor...

  • 11:07:56

    MR. GREG FEIFERThanks for having me.

  • 11:07:57

    REHMGood to have you here. Gregory Feifer, you spent a number of years in Russia and have just come out with your new book, "Russians; The People behind the Power." It's estimated Russia spent more than $50 billion on the Sochi games. Why so much?

  • 11:08:24

    FEIFERWell, I think you -- we have to remember when Russia won these Olympics, the right to host them. It was 2007. Russia was at the height of its post-Soviet resurgence. It just comes storming back on the world stage, eager to show its new status. But it was also a time when Vladimir Putin, the president, was nearing the end of his two-term limit.

  • 11:08:51

    FEIFERHe knew he had to step down, and he was searching for ways to boost his personal power that would see him through having to step down. And, as we now know, of course, he's come back for a third term. So these Olympics were very much about saying Russia has arrived back on the world stage. But I think there's something else that characterizes these games.

  • 11:09:15

    FEIFERIt's -- to me, it's a very Russian affair. Russia's a place that's built St. Petersburg, its imperial capital, to be the European city on a swamp. Tourists to the Kremlin can see the world's largest cannon that's so big, you can't even fire it, the world's largest bell that is impossible to hoist on a bell tower.

  • 11:09:39

    FEIFERIt's very much in the tradition of these grandiose projects aimed at showing that Russia is catching up to the West. And almost always, they fail. Russia now is -- maybe Moscow is swimming in oil money. You see fancy restaurants, traffic jams filled with luxury cars, and yet drive 10 miles outside of Moscow. Villages are literally dying.

  • 11:10:05

    FEIFERYou -- once bustling villages are now muddy tracks surrounded by houses with maybe two elderly people living on them. Houses have trees growing out of them. The countryside is blighted by poverty, alcoholism. One out of every five Russian male deaths is due to the effects of alcohol, and a huge corruption -- the country's headed toward crisis, I think, in some ways.

  • 11:10:32

    REHMSo -- but, Susan, the ski jump alone cost more than $260 million. Explain what happened.

  • 11:10:41

    GLASSERWell, look, the current estimates in there are disputes obviously about what exactly was spent. But by some estimates, it was more than $50 billion. Just to put that in context, that's more than every single Winter Olympics ever held before combined. So in part, of course, it is a story of corruption. It's a story of what was the world's largest building site for the last several years as they scrambled to turn and -- this is like building St. Petersburg on a swamp that was unoccupied.

  • 11:11:11

    GLASSERYou're talking about Sochi. Most Americans may not realize this is a resort on the Black Sea. It's a summer resort. It's a beach resort. It is surrounded by mountains as well. There's been an enormous investment and effort to turn what was Vladimir Putin's favorite ski resort into this world-class arena. There have been high marks for some of the new venues that have been built. But the infrastructure literally did not exist.

  • 11:11:35

    GLASSERSo you have -- on the Black Sea, you have this summer resort. I was there a few years ago. It's a very kitschy and really down at the heels place. When Vladimir Putin made this audacious bid to get the International Olympic Committee to agree to this as the venue, it was, you know, decaying, collapsing Soviet-era buildings combined with a sort of kitschy boardwalk, lots of very sort of thuggish-looking hotels.

  • 11:12:03

    GLASSERThe old Soviet grandeur, this was a place that was designed to be the ultimate resort for the proletariat in Soviet times, beautiful flower-filled boulevards all decaying, all decrepit. Now, this flood of money has come in, and you have these hotels and things. But the cost, I think, is breathtaking.

  • 11:12:22

    REHMAndrei Sitov, people are excited.

  • 11:12:27

    SITOVThey are.

  • 11:12:27

    REHMRussians are excited about the games. But aren't some of them concerned about all this money being spent?

  • 11:12:36

    SITOVWell, definitely there are some people who are expressing concerns about that. But I am a Russian who's lived for 18 years in Washington, D.C., so I am a Russian with an American perspective. And that will color all of my comments. I can agree with Greg on one thing and one thing only is that Russia and the Russian leaders have never been content to just be equal to anybody else in the world. They want to be better than anybody else in the word.

  • 11:13:11

    SITOVAnd Putin is urging the Russians to remember those times and then to build something grand, new that they can be really proud of. And I think that the country generally supports the idea. As for the price tag for the Olympics, the estimates were right. The official Russian government estimate for the Olympics themselves is $6.4 billion. The $50 billion that everybody talks about is some of money that supposedly has been spent on the development of the whole region. And, as Susan has just pointed out, it's a region that needed development badly. They needed roads. They needed...

  • 11:13:56

    REHMSo you're talking about the whole of the area around Sochi as well as the Olympic structure itself?

  • 11:14:00

    SITOVYes. Yes. Diane, they needed a system to treat sewage, for God's sake, in that place. They didn't have that, that being a resort. So basically they needed to develop everything from the roads to, like, the airport to the sports facilities and to the ecological facilities. They've built new electric power stations, replaced old ones. The quality of air there has improved dramatically. So they are developing the whole region for the future for Russia and for the Russians.

  • 11:14:41

    REHMAnd do you believe that will benefit all?

  • 11:14:45

    SITOVAnd I do believe it will benefit all. And if we need a context -- everybody's speaking about how this Olympics is more expensive than the other Olympic Games. But being here in the U.S. I would ask the Americans to consider that even if -- and I don't believe that. But even if all that money was corrupt and stolen, the $50 billion, it still is dwarfed by the amount of money that the Americans have spent on their wars in recent years on Iraq, on Afghanistan. It's 10 times, it's 100 times more than that.

  • 11:15:28

    REHMAndrei Sitov...

  • 11:15:29

    SITOVAnd I am for spending money on building things rather than on bombing and destroying things.

  • 11:15:36

    REHMAndrei Sitov, he's Washington bureau chief of Itar-Tass, the news agency of Russia. Susan Glasser is editor of Politico magazine. Jeffrey (sic) Feifer, former Moscow correspondent for NPR, his latest book coming out this month is titled "Russians; The People behind the Power." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Gregory, I'd be interested in your response. In terms of corruption, how much corruption is it talked about that has gone into the construction of this Sochi site?

  • 11:16:35

    FEIFERWell, that's an excellent question and one we'll probably never get to the bottom of. A Swiss Olympic Committee official estimated that about a third of the money went toward corruption, towards bribes and kickbacks. But there are things that you can actually pinpoint. We do know that around $7 billion went to companies connected to one man alone.

  • 11:16:59

    FEIFERNow, $7 billion is roughly the cost of the entire Vancouver 2010 Olympics. This one man happens to be Putin's childhood friend and former judo partner. So, you know, this gives you an idea of the, you know, kind of way these Olympics have been put together. But I think...

  • 11:17:16

    REHMBut how much evidence is there of corruption? Are we making generalities here in the West simply because Russia has been and Mr. Putin remains a competitor?

  • 11:17:34

    FEIFERThat's an excellent question. And I think that the corruption here reflects what's going on in the whole country. Corruption may be an unfortunate byproduct of business and politics in Western countries. It's everywhere. In Russia, really, it is the system. A former Central Bank banker -- now, this isn't some -- this isn't transparency international, a watchdog.

  • 11:17:58

    FEIFERThis is a former Central banker, said, in 2012, at least $50 billion was sent illegally out of the country. You know, an old Russian joke has it that -- has a newspaper reporting Putin's latest reform program. It says the points of this program is to make people rich and happy. And then it says, see list of people attached. How does it get away with it? That's a big question.

  • 11:18:25

    REHMAnd that is the voice of Greg Feifer. He is the author of "Russians; The People behind the Power." Short break here. We'll be right back.

  • 11:20:00

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the games in Sochi, the Winter Olympics on which Russia has spent a great deal of money. There are wide-ranging estimates from that of Andre Sitov of Itar-Tass news agency of Russia. He said something like $6, $7 billion dollars. The estimates go all the way to $50 billion. One thing that we heard this morning and yesterday about security concerns, Andrei.

  • 11:20:46

    REHMAnd talks of people who are participating in the Olympics not wanting their families to come. How firm do you believe security is and will be at the games?

  • 11:21:04

    SITOVI think that the security of the games themselves, the places where the sports events will be held and the spectators will be is probably as secure as it can be in today's world.

  • 11:21:19

    REHMWhat does that mean?

  • 11:21:21

    SITOVIt means that all -- every measure, every conceivable measure has been taken by the Russian government itself, bringing in about 40,000 troops and security personnel to ensure the safety of all participants. But also, I hope, and I think I have reason to hope that it is being helped by international partners of Russia. Just the other day, President Obama at the White House had a meeting at the Situation Room, where they were discussing the Olympics.

  • 11:21:52

    SITOVAnd I presumed they would be discussing the question of security. Everybody offered help.

  • 11:21:57

    REHMBut how much -- how open was President Putin to hearing from, cooperating with, joining forces with the U.S. to provide security?

  • 11:22:10

    SITOVI'm sure on this particular issue. Every Russian -- and President Putin has said that many time that he welcomes the cooperation of the people around the world on this issue, except of course the ultimate responsibility is with the Russians.

  • 11:22:24

    REHMOf course. Susan?

  • 11:22:26

    GLASSERWell, I think, you know, we'll see what happens over the next few weeks of course at the games. And everybody is wishing for them to come off without a hitch.

  • 11:22:33

    REHMAbsolutely.

  • 11:22:34

    GLASSERAnd I think it's important. You know, it's on Russian -- President Vladimir Putin. It's also, I think, potentially depending on if things go awry on the International Olympic Committee, it is an extraordinary decision to have these Olympics held in Russia near the scene of not one but two recent conflicts. There is an ongoing low-grade insurgency just a few hundred miles away from Sochi that has been playing out every since the two wars in the break-away region of Chechnya...

  • 11:23:04

    REHMSo you would not have, if you had been on the Olympic Committee, you would not had been in favor of Sochi?

  • 11:23:14

    GLASSERIt's an extraordinary -- and it is a very unprecedented decision, Diane.

  • 11:23:18

    REHMYou're not answering my question.

  • 11:23:20

    GLASSERYou know, luckily, I'm not on the International Olympic Committee.

  • 11:23:22

    REHMBut?

  • 11:23:23

    GLASSERBut I think there should be some real scrutiny to how that decision was made.

  • 11:23:27

    REHMHow do you believe the decision was made?

  • 11:23:31

    GLASSERYou know, I am flummoxed by it. Honestly, to this day, I've never understood why the decision was made, whether the individual members who voted on this have ever been held to account for their votes and why they made this decision.

  • 11:23:44

    REHMAndrei?

  • 11:23:45

    SITOVLet me jump in here for a second. I've been thinking about this a lot, obviously, like everybody else. Like Susan said, I want the games off without a hitch. But when I was thinking about -- specifically about security, we all remember that the biggest security incident at the Olympics was with the Israeli Olympics team in Munich. And I was thinking about that. And I ask myself, does this mean that we should preclude the Israeli athletes from going to the Olympics?

  • 11:24:20

    SITOVThat the Israelis, for instance, if they want to host the Olympics, that we say no, you can't do that because you live under constant threat. And my answer to that is no, of course not. The answer to that is we need to stand up altogether against this terrorist threat as a whole civilized world. And when I think about this threat, the first thing I remember is that when the United States was attacked on 9/11.

  • 11:24:47

    SITOVRussia was the first nation to stand up and say, we are with you guys on this. We are standing down our orders.

  • 11:24:52

    REHMGreg Feifer.

  • 11:24:53

    FEIFERWell, listen, we're talking about Russia here. And Susan very astutely pointed out that not only Sochi a subtropical resort, so it, you know, begs questioning why hold the winter event there. But also, I think, holding the events so close to an active rebellion, no Olympics has ever been held close to military operations like this. It's a feat of will. It's another show that Putin wants to show he's in control of the situation.

  • 11:25:22

    FEIFERThese Olympics are going to go ahead. But I think it really, you know, the mountains are crawling with soldiers. There are anti-missile installations. There are submarines there. All these draws attention to the fact that Russia has a serious, serious security threat in the North Caucasus and it's because of Putin's rule.

  • 11:25:41

    REHMWhat about the video we saw recently regarding three potential suicide bombers, Susan?

  • 11:25:51

    GLASSERWell, I think this is an important point about the question of security and what it tells us about Russia. Again, Russia is on the world stage now and under scrutiny in ways that perhaps Vladimir Putin intended perhaps he didn't in bringing this attention on to Russia. And the mountains are also crawling with journalists and they are writing both about this war that has been fought inside Russia using, in many cases, very harsh means and tactics.

  • 11:26:22

    GLASSERJust in the immediate neighborhood of Sochi, there were not only ongoing threats of potential suicide bombers, just a few weeks ago, this is not a theoretical challenge, in Volgograd, there were not one but two attacks in Volgograd on civilians. And while there may be a flood of troops, as Andrei pointed out, the Russians are doing, of course, everything that they can to ensure there are no incidents involving directly the Olympics.

  • 11:26:49

    GLASSERBut we all know Russia is a big country. It's impossible to fortify everything. There is a long history of spectacular terrorist attacks. When I lived in Moscow, there was the attack on the Moscow theater in which hundreds of people were held hostage, many of them died by Chechen militants. There was simultaneous bombings of airplanes that fell out of the sky.

  • 11:27:10

    REHMOkay. But now we're talking about Sochi. The U.S. is planning to send two Navy warships to the Olympics. How do you feel about that, Andrei?

  • 11:27:25

    SITOVI think that both the U.S. government and individual U.S. citizens if they want to feel more secure. For instance, some people I know, at least the company that's been selling the insurance has announced that there are some people out buying additional insurance to be evacuated if something happens. They are offering to do that to feel safer. But the Russian side feels its obligation is to make all the guests are safe.

  • 11:27:55

    REHMDo you...

  • 11:27:56

    SITOVAnd they will do that.

  • 11:27:57

    REHMDo you believe that Sochi was a good choice for the Olympics considering everything that's been said?

  • 11:28:05

    SITOVAbsolutely.

  • 11:28:07

    REHMYou do?

  • 11:28:07

    SITOVAbsolutely, of course. The Russians, as you yourself pointed out at the beginning of the program, the Russians are very excited.

  • 11:28:14

    REHMYes, indeed.

  • 11:28:15

    SITOVAnd very happy that we finally have the event -- the sports event of this magnitude to come back to our country.

  • 11:28:22

    REHMAll right. What about human rights? What about the question of Russia's anti-gay policy, for example?

  • 11:28:33

    SITOVDiane, I think this question has been blown completely out of proportion.

  • 11:28:36

    REHMHow so?

  • 11:28:36

    SITOVFirst of all, the people who are discussing this do not even touch up on the law itself. What's in question is a law that was recently passed by the Russian government. And the first thing to say about this, obviously, is that any government and any nation can pass any laws that they see fit.

  • 11:28:55

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:28:55

    SITOVAnd what President Putin likes to point out in this context is that there are scores of nations around the world where homosexuality is against the law, is criminalized. In Russia, it is not criminalized. In Russia, the gays enjoy every right as any other citizen. What the law prohibits, and of course then the question how effectively this can achieved, is not to promote the homosexual lifestyle to minors.

  • 11:29:33

    SITOVAnd, you know, again, I live here. My son attends an American public school. And when a teacher brought in a book about pilgrims, same-sex marriage in between pilgrims and had the kids read the book in class, the American parents complained about that. They did not want their children to be exposed to the teaching. As far as -- we never took part in this. As far as I know, it led nowhere. But it's a sentiment that the parents are entitled.

  • 11:30:07

    REHMAll right. Susan, what about that?

  • 11:30:10

    GLASSERWell, I think, Diane, this is an example, and there are many of the scrutiny that naturally comes to Russia in the midst of these games. They have gone out of their way to sort of put Russia on the world stage. And I think this is an example, and there are many others, where there is a gap both in values and in laws and in practices on the part of the government and in others in terms of both human rights acceptance of gay culture.

  • 11:30:38

    GLASSERAnd, you know, having lived in Russia for four years, I have to say that, you know, it's virulently homophobic society in terms of its public conversation and stance.

  • 11:30:48

    REHMHow is that demonstrated?

  • 11:30:50

    GLASSERWell, this law is the most notable aspect of it. You know, it is a country where free expression is very uneven, where there are not the same sort of protections as Americans are accustomed to. It is a country with a very different set of living standards and expectations. You see these stories now of all the American journalists and foreign journalists arriving in Sochi and tweeting their outrage.

  • 11:31:14

    GLASSERYou know, not just at hotels that aren't finished but at the living conditions that they're encountering. And remember, these are, you know, you're having Western culture, Western reporters and athletes coming to a country that comes from a very different place.

  • 11:31:30

    REHMAll right. And on that point, Greg Feifer, have U.S. journalists sort have been unfair in their characterization of Sochi and the Olympics because of Russia, its lifestyle, its president, you know, has the press gone overboard?

  • 11:31:58

    FEIFERNo, I don't think so. I think that hosting the Olympics one invites this kind of criticism. But I think there's a deeper question here and that is because two-thirds of Russians say that homosexuality is immoral. So Putin isn't out there. He is appealing to his base of supporters. He has about 60 percent of support and he's not a, you know, he's not a nut job. He's doing what he has to to stay in power.

  • 11:32:27

    FEIFERThe question is why, after two decades after the Soviet collapse, do Russians continue to support an authoritarian leader like this who has presided over a tremendous amount of corruption as we are discussing. Have they learned nothing from their very painful past? You know, Russian to many foreigners is a mystery. And in my book, I look at Russians' daily behavior, their family life, their work, their drinking habits.

  • 11:32:55

    FEIFERAnd what's clear to me is that while Russians' way of doing things may appear chaotic to us, they're very successful at achieving their own aims.

  • 11:33:03

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm going to open the phones now. We'll take callers. Let's go to Alexander in South Bend, IN. You're on the air.

  • 11:33:21

    ALEXANDERHello, Diane.

  • 11:33:21

    REHMHi.

  • 11:33:23

    ALEXANDERThanks for your work.

  • 11:33:24

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:33:26

    ALEXANDERI'd like to speak to Susan and echo some of the comments that Andrei made. I think the $50 billion on this is pretty similar to the initial amount of cash that was lost on the plane the very first year of Iraq. And the scrutiny that Susan keeps referring to that the Soviet Union is under right now, the same type of scrutiny that the United States is under. I'm also an immigrant. And I've lived here for most of my life from Russia.

  • 11:33:55

    ALEXANDERAnd I see an incredible amount of violence in my society that people are neglecting. And for instance, right now, there can't be gun legislation passed and our leaders that we elected are stopping it and they're putting us in danger and nobody is saying, should we stop events here? And I'd like Andrei to speak to that. Thank you.

  • 11:34:13

    REHMAll right, thanks for your call. Andrei?

  • 11:34:17

    SITOVI've written a lot about this. This is terrible. In Russia, in Moscow, we just had the first school shooting. Well, it's probably not the first ever, but the first public event of this sort that is similar in character to what's been happening in the U.S. And in the U.S. as the Associated Press just pointed out, they've had 11 school shootings this school year alone. I've been asking the White House about this a lot.

  • 11:34:49

    SITOVI've been in controversies about this a lot. Frankly, my personal take on this is this is the reverse side of the American freedom, which is the abuse of freedom by deranged individuals. And the fact is the politicians are not doing anything about it.

  • 11:35:08

    REHMAll right. Susan?

  • 11:35:09

    GLASSERWell, you know, I would have -- I'd love to come on sometime and talk with you about the problem of gun violence in American schools, but we're talking about Russia today. And I think you have to sit back and, look, there's a long history and context. And the caller, I think, slipped his tongue and said this of the union. And in many ways this conversation reminds me of a classic Soviet tactic, which is to -- anytime they wish criticism raised of what was at the time a totalitarian dictatorship, what you had was Soviet officials talking about the flaws of American democracy.

  • 11:35:41

    GLASSERTalking about the lack of civil rights for African Americans in the American South. And, you know, one is equally capable of being concerned about the lack of civil rights in America and also expressing dismay and sadness around the lack of human rights in Russia today under President Vladimir Putin.

  • 11:36:00

    SITOVSusan.

  • 11:36:00

    GLASSERI find this conversation astonishing, especially since we're talking about holding the Olympics literally a few hundred miles away from a place where Russia fought two brutal wars on its own territory in Chechnya, which seems perhaps a more relevant conflict considering that it took place in the immediate vicinity of these Olympics than to talk about Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • 11:36:21

    GLASSERAnd by the way, I should say, I covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in Chechnya. And I think that anyone who thinks that you can make this false equivalent and that the absence of a good action on the part of the Americans has anything whatsoever to do with human rights in Russia today. It's just -- it strikes me as a very Soviet tactic.

  • 11:36:40

    SITOVSusan, I started out by saying that I speak from my personal experience. And my personal experience over the past 18 years has been here in D.C. This is why I'm making this comparison. But I'm more than willing to engage with you in any discussion of human rights on any other policy issues that you want to raise.

  • 11:37:07

    REHMAndrei Sitov, he is Washington bureau of the Itar-Tass news agency of Russia. When we come back, more of your calls, your email. I look forward to speaking with you.

  • 11:39:59

    REHMAnd welcome back. One question we were talking about just before the break -- and that is the conditions of the hotels, the structures that the journalists, the guests are all going to -- what's happened there, Andrei, unfinished structures?

  • 11:40:23

    SITOVI've seen the blogs. They look sometimes hilarious, sometimes appalling. I think what I need to say about this, like, maybe three things, first, we need to thank our guests for pointing out to us the things that we still need to do to make them feel totally comfortable. And I'm sure the Russians will do those things, and then the hotels will be up to the standard, then, second, that...

  • 11:40:54

    REHMBut why wouldn't they have been, knowing that...

  • 11:40:58

    SITOVThe way -- again, I did not specifically look into that issue. But the way they describe it, I think the government was concentrating its effort on the infrastructure development and on the sports facilities. The hotels were developed by private companies, so maybe...

  • 11:41:15

    REHMAnd could that be where corruption crept in?

  • 11:41:18

    SITOVThat might have been where the corruption was. The issue of corruption in general there, the way that, again, the Russians describe it is that there has been cost overruns and that it happens anywhere and everywhere. I think anybody who's ever done a kitchen remodeling knows that he'll be over budget by the time he finishes. And, frankly, again, Susan, as a Russian journalist in America, I should say that when we look at happened with the launch of Obamacare, I mean, the Americans know for a fact that the governments are never on time and don't budget.

  • 11:42:01

    REHMOK. Susan.

  • 11:42:03

    GLASSERWell, look...

  • 11:42:04

    REHMI don't want to get into Obamacare.

  • 11:42:06

    GLASSERLet's not talk about Obamacare. I think, Andrei, what I was trying to say before really gets to this question of different cultures. And that's what you're seeing in many ways is a clash of cultures. In some ways, what we're hearing, the complaints of journalists coming to these hotels in Sochi makes me laugh because it -- in fact, it's just Russia that they're encountering. There's not anything particularly corrupt.

  • 11:42:28

    GLASSERWhat they're encountering is a very different set of living standards. You know, my goodness, look on the Internet, and you'll find all sorts of shocked blogging about the toilet situation in Sochi. And, you know, it rings pretty true to somebody who lived there for four years. We have very different standards about what's acceptable in public life. But I want to say this about Sochi and the journalists.

  • 11:42:49

    GLASSERYou know, the first rule of American politics -- the White House knows this well -- is if you want to get good coverage, make sure the press is well-fed and well-housed. And for -- I don't know who was responsible for the media village in Sochi, but whoever was made a big mistake, which is to say, regardless of what they did, these were mostly sports reporters coming to Russia to cover the games.

  • 11:43:11

    GLASSERThey're not coming there to write about human rights. They're perfectly, in some cases, in a way that does not reflect well on them, willing to ignore human rights and the real condition of the Russian people. But give them a hotel room without a functioning toilet, without a bed, without a hotel lobby that only has a picture of Putin, as many people have tweeted, and you're going to get bad coverage.

  • 11:43:35

    REHMAll right. And, Greg, let's talk about the release of some very prominent political prisoners prior to Sochi.

  • 11:43:48

    FEIFERSure. I mean, Susan was saying the difference in cultures, and I wholeheartedly agree. It is a different culture not only in living standards. But talking about the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the formal royal tycoon, and Pussy Riot and other political prisoners, a lot of people saw through this as an attempt to improve Russia's image before the Olympic Games.

  • 11:44:12

    FEIFERBut I think it's actually much more than that. It's also an attempt to show just how powerful Putin is. He's not only this strong authoritarian type, but he's also a beneficent czar who can pardon people when he sees fit. And it is when he sees fit. This was his whim. The announce of Khodorkovsky's release was done sort of off the cuff. But I think it shows him also to be a master of appearances.

  • 11:44:39

    FEIFERTo us, he seems like a sort of a caricature of a corrupt dictator type. But he's actually craft his image very, very carefully. And I think this is part of the difference in cultures. In Russia, the creation of facades is very central to the traditional political system. And Putin is brilliant at that.

  • 11:45:00

    REHMAll right. I'm going to go back to the phones to Brandon in Long Island, N.Y. Hi. You're on the air.

  • 11:45:09

    BRANDONHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call and to all your guests.

  • 11:45:10

    REHMSure.

  • 11:45:12

    BRANDONI just want to make two comments real quick. Number one is that -- I mean, I know it's the summer (sic) Olympics. But I think we're forgetting all the problems that happened in Beijing. And, you know, they had human rights violations and a lot of problems setting up the games and everything. And I think it's unfair to hold Russia to a different standard. I mean, it's not their fault that they're trying to do their best. And I think they are.

  • 11:45:35

    BRANDONAnd the second thing is -- it's a long time ago, but what about what happened in Atlanta? I mean, there was a bombing there. Is America responsible for that? Or is that just something that happens in a big prolific event? All right. Thanks, guys.

  • 11:45:47

    REHMAll right. Thanks for your call. I think he raises good points.

  • 11:45:52

    FEIFERThey are good points. And we can sit here and discuss comparisons until the end of the day. And I think Susan is very right, that this is a very old, sort of Soviet tactic. Let's not talk about the problems in our country. This is a show about now we're discussing the problems in Russia. So, you know, we were talking about the North Caucasus. And this is Russia's top security threat.

  • 11:46:17

    FEIFERAnd it's because of, under Putin, there are corrupt local pro-Kremlin governors and all sorts of politicians running this region that are marginalizing the local population. I was recently in a tiny village in the Caucasus Mountains in Dagestan, the region that's now said to be the most violent. And the security forces were trying to find militants in the mountains.

  • 11:46:49

    FEIFERSo how do they do this? They isolated this village. They set up a so-called counterterrorist cordon around it for a year. For a year, people couldn't leave without getting special permission. Soldiers who were camped out there killed livestock, chopped down apricot trees, made life very, very difficult. Now, what was the result of this? They didn't catch a single militant. But the entire village ended up converting to Salifism, a radical form of Islam, and said that they would live by Sharia Law.

  • 11:47:20

    FEIFERThey said, this isn't Russian territory anymore. Now, this has profound effects on the rest of the region. When there was a dispute with a neighboring village, which was a traditional Sufi Islamic village, over -- it was something to do with a young man in one village fell in love with a young woman in another. Her brothers didn't like it. It ended up being -- resulting in a shoot-out. Now, this wasn't just a dispute over love. Now this was a dispute between a Salafi village and a Sufi village. And you can just literally see society tearing apart at the seams. And this is thanks to Putin's regime.

  • 11:48:00

    SITOVYou know, I think we do need to come back to the regional subject. And I was, from the beginning, coming over to talk about the Olympics, except that, of course, I do not want to talk about the Olympics just in terms of the supposed corruption, abuse of human rights, and all of that. Again, it's a huge, huge sports event for the world.

  • 11:48:25

    SITOVActually, you know, one of the best quotes so far, as a journalist, that I have seen coming out of the Olympics was the quote from the International Olympic Committee president, a German Olympic champion, Mr. Bach, who said -- who called on the politicians not to hide behind sportsmen's backs and trying to score points, political points.

  • 11:48:50

    REHMHmm. Hmm.

  • 11:48:51

    SITOVHe has said, you know, some political leaders have refused invitations that they didn't even have. And so I ask Jay Carney yesterday, at the briefing, whether President Obama has an official invitation. But I didn't get an answer to that.

  • 11:49:06

    REHMAll right. Let's go back to the phones to Bill (sic) in Orlando, Fla. You're on the air.

  • 11:49:15

    ADELHello. Thanks for getting my call. It's actually Adel, not Bill.

  • 11:49:20

    SITOVAdel.

  • 11:49:21

    REHMGo ahead, sir.

  • 11:49:22

    ADELAll right. I just want to understand something. Is this a sporting event? Or is it a political event? Let's concentrate on this beautiful event that everybody's supposed to look at and, you know, applaud these Olympians for their stamina and for their, you know, their performances and then celebrate the good side of the culture.

  • 11:49:45

    ADELEvery single culture has good and has bad. I know your guest doesn't like comparisons, but it's staring at you in the face. I mean, the terrorist threat is everywhere. I think we should just go back and celebrate this event. And it's just such a beautiful event. Russia is a beautiful. Every -- Sochi is beautiful. The world is beautiful. Let's concentrate on the positive. Thank you.

  • 11:50:10

    REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for calling. What do you say to that, Susan, let's just concentrate on the beauty of the athletes, the sports, the events?

  • 11:50:22

    GLASSERWell, look, it's a great sentiment, and Americans are a very, you know, positive, more or less, and sentimental people. And I think that that is, generally speaking, absolutely the way in which most Americans will experience these events. And certainly when it comes to the security threats, Americans are very -- they have solidarity in mind. They're shocked and appalled when there's an attack on the people in Volgograd, just like they would be if it was in the United States. So I think that's very...

  • 11:50:47

    REHMAs it was in Boston?

  • 11:50:49

    GLASSERAbsolutely. That's very important context, number one. But, number two, it's not the role of journalists and to celebrate and to applaud and just to think positively. One of the reasons we're having this conversation today is about the choice of the International Olympic Committee to endure a politician, Russian President Vladimir Putin's bid to hold the Olympics in Sochi. Was this a suitable venue for these games? Why is it in a subtropical beach resort? Will there be the right conditions? Some athletes...

  • 11:51:18

    REHMHow do you answer that question?

  • 11:51:21

    GLASSERSome athletes are already expressing concerns about the ability to perform their best in a venue in a location like this. So, you know, one would always like to disentangle sports and politics. But the very origins of the Olympics themselves, of course, are absolutely enmeshed between politics and sports. And...

  • 11:51:39

    REHMGreg, how do you answer the question of why Sochi was chosen?

  • 11:51:46

    FEIFERWhy the Olympic Committee chose Russia and Sochi?

  • 11:51:48

    REHMYes. Yes.

  • 11:51:49

    FEIFERWell, I think we will never know. But President Putin exerted a tremendous amount of pressure. He went to -- if I'm not mistaken, the decision was made in Guatemala. He traveled there himself. He put a lot of personal pressure. And there are rumors, unsubstantiated as far as I've seen, that the Russian oil -- rather gas monopoly Gazprom spent a lot of money getting that bid probably -- I can't back this up with anything. But probably it was corruption.

  • 11:52:19

    REHMBut don't -- doesn't every country that wants the Olympics on their ground exert that kind of pressure, spend that kind of money? I'm trying to understand what you see as the difference in the process between this effort on the part of President Putin and other countries. Is there?

  • 11:52:50

    FEIFERI suspect that every country engages in this. Russia has a lot of money to spare. I think also, a part of it may have had to do with the 1980 Olympics. Perhaps there was a sense that Russia deserved to have an Olympics after the 1980 Olympics were boycotted after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And it's interesting also that these Olympics, although there's no Cold War, but they also mark very hostile relations with the West. And they're driven by Moscow, I have to say.

  • 11:53:23

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Andrei, do you want to comment?

  • 11:53:29

    SITOVYes. I did want to say one thing, and I -- frankly, I'm a political reporter here in D.C. I do not know much about sports in this -- sports background of these events. But it strikes me as interesting and unusual that, after a very long drought, Russia not only got this, but Russia got the student's games -- International Student Games. Russia got the finals of the World Cup in soccer, which, for the Russians, probably is bigger than the Olympics, or at least for many Russians.

  • 11:54:02

    SITOVAnd then, for instance, the neighbors of Russia, Belarus, which has terrible relation with the United States, got the finals for the World Hockey Cup, again, the biggest international competition. My explanation for that -- I didn't check, but I just feel that way -- is that the worst at this point was in the financial crisis. People did not want to spend too much money on these events. And actually the Belarusians bought their championship after -- I think the check with somebody else declined. They already won the right, and then they declined the...

  • 11:54:40

    REHMSo follow the money, hmm?

  • 11:54:42

    GLASSERWell, Belarus is commonly known as the last dictatorship in Europe, so I'm not sure that's a model that anyone is looking to. But I -- you know, look, we don't know. We'd love to have subpoena power and figure out a way to really understand what was at the heart of it. I think it's a fair and important question to ask whether this was a suitable venue and why and how it came to...

  • 11:55:01

    REHMAll right. To finally Tony in Pittsburgh. You're on the air. Quickly, please.

  • 11:55:07

    TONYYes. I just want to comment, and I'd like some feedback on this about the press coverage of the terrorism question and specifically to Susan. In this era of global terrorism, exactly what logistics or tactical advantage does someone have being 300 miles away? I mean, global terrorism has a reach wherever. And do you feel that all these backstories that you're giving -- you know, somebody doesn't want to take their grandmother to the Olympics -- is actually feeding and embolden the very terrorisms that everyone says they're so concerned about preventing.

  • 11:55:39

    REHMAll right. Thanks for calling.

  • 11:55:41

    GLASSERWell, look, I think you have to just look at the numbers. Look at what has unfolded in Russia over the last decade-and-a-half. There have been a large number of terrorist attacks inside the territory of the Russian Federation. The vast majority of them have had to do with the conflict in the North Caucasus. Repeatedly, when I was there covering these incidents, you would have Russian government statements in the immediate aftermath of something like the horrible Beslan school massacre and saying, well, there's an international involvement. There's foreign terrorism here.

  • 11:56:10

    GLASSERAnd, by and large, these were incidents that had to do with Russia's internal conflicts, with the conflict in the North Caucasus. That doesn't mean that there's not also a global terrorist threat. And, again, Americans, by and large, are extremely sympathetic to the idea that this is unacceptable for whatever reason it's being carried out. It's not as though Americans are in the least bit sympathetic to the idea of terrorism being waged on the territory of Russia. So I think it's very important, though, to go and look at the facts. And it's not some amorphous vague threat.

  • 11:56:41

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:56:42

    GLASSERIt's the threat specifically from the leaders of this insurgency inside Russia to the Olympics.

  • 11:56:47

    REHMAll right. Andrei, last quick word.

  • 11:56:48

    SITOVAnd I think -- yes, I think the best illustration to that question is the fact that the alleged perpetrators of the terrorist act back in Boston came from that very same region in Russia and the very same insurgency. It's a global threat.

  • 11:57:03

    REHMAndrei Sitov of Itar-Tass, Susan Glasser of Politico magazine, Gregory Feifer, he's the author of a just-released book titled "Russians; The People behind the Power." Thank you all so much. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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