If Vladimir Putin could go back in time six and a half years to that day in Guatemala City where he appeared before the International Olympic Committee to convince them to award the 2014 Winter Olympics to Sochi, would he have preferred to pass? At the time, hosting the games was so important to him that he departed from his rule of always speaking Russian in public and gave his speech in English with closing remarks in French. This was his personal project – erecting a display window of the New Russia to the world and transforming his favorite holiday town into an international five-star venue. Since then he spent four years as prime minister, returning in 2012 after constitutional changes that virtually ensure he will remain in power until 2024.
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On Friday, as he opens the games, that dream will become reality but this was hardly the picture he had planned to present. Even if the Olympics come and go without a suicide bombing and the snow collected last year from the mountains above Sochi is enough for a couple of weeks' skiing, these games will go down in history for having taken place in the shadow of terrorism, suppression of ethnic minorities and homosexuals, deprivation of local residents, pollution of nature reserve and water sources and inconceivable waste of 51 billion dollars - four and a half times the original budget, which were squandered mainly on corrupt contracts to Kremlin cronies and infrastructure that can barely supply sufficient power and drinking water to the Olympic villages.
And yet, nothing seems to touch Putin. Not a muscle moves in his serenely expressionless face as he continues his PR tour, skiing, playing ice-hockey and petting snow leopards in the Sochi zoo. No one threatens him. The temporary stand-in for president, Dmitry Medvedev has been swiftly cut back down to size; the oligarch who dared to defy him, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed for a decade and is now a broken man in exile. The shining chess grand-master Gary Kasporov proved to lack any real support and continues to criticize Putin mainly from outside of Russia. The new champion, Alexei Navalny is already being forced to contend with corruption charges and a clever smear-campaign tainting him with allegations of nationalist racism. No one imagines a real challenge to Putin in 2018, though Putin would probably welcome a candidate who will give the elections at least the appearance of an open competition.
Even outside Russia he seems to rule. Russian pressure prevented Ukraine from signing a key agreement with the European Union and in Georgia the presumptuous Mikheil Saakashvili has been dumped in favor of a more pliable president. Putin's vision of a customs union of former USSR republics is evolving, not into a full return to the Soviet empire, but at least into an infrastructure for a Russian-led rival to the EU. Further afield, in Syria, Putin has prevented the West from attacking the Assad regime and preserved Russia's influence in the Middle East.
But Putin is under no illusions. He knows that with its ageing population and reliance on income from oil and gas which will probably not rise in price over the coming decade, Russia is on the brink of major financial catastrophe. And despite his previous success in ruthlessly putting down the Chechen rebellions, Islamist terror within Russia's borders has simply shifted place and shape – and has by no means disappeared. On the international stage he is fully aware that his achievements have mainly been due to the weakness of the Obama administration and the Eurozone crisis.
Putin's biggest asset was always his strongman image; the only one capable of ensuring stability and security, preferable in the eyes of most Russians to a weak democratic leader. The Sochi farce won't bring him down but it has already cracked that image despite the fawning broadcasts by the Kremlin-controlled television channels, the painting of the wasteland around Sochi in green, and the high wooden fences hiding the slums from view - not even a gold medal for Russia's ice hockey team could obfuscate the farce.
The most surprising discovery last week in Sochi was the readiness of the city's residents, those who may have been expected to be grateful for the massive investment, to complain of the broken promises and mirage of progress Putin built upon their backs. And they blamed him directly - not the oligarchs, not the corrupt officials nor the Chechen terrorists. With the last independent television channel remaining in Russia about to go out of business and environmental activists hounded out of the city and forced to leave the country, the protests have emigrated to the internet and to social media, and they cannot be tucked away.
In sixteen days the Olympic torch will go out and the inevitable transformation of most of the Olympic venues and athletes' villages into ghost-towns will begin. In a few years what will remain will be a monument to the hubris of one leader. It happened in other cities that hosted Olympic games. Sochi is not the first and certainly not the last place where billions were sunk to pay for fleeting glory. But the damage these games have caused Putin will not be wiped away. If one day the people of Russia find the strength and courage to evict him from the Kremlin, the seeds will have been sown in Sochi