Thursday, July 05, 2007

Sochi 2014: Burden or Blessing?

What will Russia be like in 2014? This is the first thought arising, after the initial joy of learning that Sochi won its candidacy for the 2014 Winter Olympics. The next thought is what the games will do to wonderful Sochi, sprawling by the Black Sea at the foot of the Caucasus mountains. And, indeed, what will the Olympics do to Russia?

As much as one feels joy for Sochi and Russia, one is filled with apprehension of what role the Olympics might play in the development of future Russia. On the positive side, though, it is delightful that nowadays major sports' events go to Eastern Europe. Earlier this year, Kiev and Warzaw were granted the UEFA 2012 soccer championship, and one might expect similar events to take place in other East European countries in the future. This is a clear sign that Eastern Europe has come out of the shadows of the 1990s, and that these states are now on the verge of being considered equals among nations, in the very subjective eyes of the world.

Also, arranging the Olympics will bring jobs, growth, and development to the Russian Black Sea region. The downside of it is, of course, the negative side-effects of exploitation, and Greenpeace has been an ardent opponent of Sochi's Olympic bid, fearing devastating consequences to the unique and fragile natural environment of the region.

The major fear though, is what political role an Olympic game may play for an increasingly authoritarian Russia. Historically, the Olypmpics have too often been exploited for political reasons, and used as a vehicle for competition instead of cooperation between states. Starting with the Berlin 1936 Olympics, the games have at times been an instrument of propaganda, instead of the vehicle to bring nations together in the peaceful exercise of sports, as intended by the Olympic ideals. At the peak of the Cold War, the Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 summer games serve to illustrate how far from these ideals states may go - even in sports - to pursue petty propaganda interests.

The Soviet discovery of the propaganda value of sports also has a tragic history. Already in the 1950s, Stalin initiated what, by some, has been called the Soviet sports' war, as part of the growing international tension of the early Cold War period. In the 1960s, a whole generation of soviet children was screened for athletic aptitude, and thousands of potential talents were put into special sports' schools from an early age. However, far from everyone can become a champion, and the ones - the overwhelming majority - that failed in the constant competition were discarded with little education or ability else than the mere force and tenacity they had acquired through a life-long existence of training. It was simply a spoil-system beyond imagination.

The reality facing the outcasts of soviet sports was a downfall from the pinnacle of society to the bottom of the social ladder. The only alternative to the sort of menial labour, where physical strength was demanded, was to enter a life of crime. Thus, the sportsmeny formed an ideal breeding-ground for organised crime. They possessed all the qualities - cultivated from an early age - needed for success within this line of business: ambition, competitiveness, ruthlessness, discipline, resolution, loyalty, and team-spirit. As society had turned their back on them, they now turned their backs on society, and in the chaos of soviet demise achieved many of the successes in crime that they had been denied in sports.

However, what was most frightening with the development of soviet sports, was how it excacerbated the elitist ideology of the system. Sports came to epitomise the cult of strength associated with totalitarianism. It was an ideology thriving on the comtempt for weakness, in which masculinity was associated with strength and purity, and femininity with weakness and impurity. That this cult of masculine strength had homoerotic overtunes - as was the case in Nazi Germany - is still evident in current Russian society. With no intention of offence by such a comparison, it would be quite impossible to even imagine Putin's Western contemporaries - such as Schröder, Chirac, or Blair - posing for "swimsuit pictures" as a means of improving their political image. Still, this kind of pictures of Putin and other Russian politicians are easily available on the Internet. Even an upright liberal as former SPS-leader Boris Nemtsov - and incidentally also the great son of Sochi - posts "glamour pictures" on his personal website. What Putin and Nemtsov have in common is that they both belong to the generation of soviet sports, which now forms the leadership of Russia. How the élitist ideals that formed Putin's generation will express themselves in tandem with the 2014 Sochi Olympics is only for the future to see. Still, sports and politics is not a good mixture for a state in authoritarian spin.

It is true that the father of the Olympic movement, count de Coubertin, formulated the motto of the games as Citius, Altius, Fortius - Swifter, Higher, Stronger. However, this expresses an ambition for the common improvement and development of mankind through sports, instead of the competitive elimination between individuals and nations that signifies élitism. Indeed, the very symbol of the games - the olympic rings - represent the unity of the continents, and in ancient Greece, the Olympics stood out as a period of peace, even during times of turmoil and war. As count the Coubertin himself stated: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

As Russia has now been awarded the 2014 Winter Olympics, it is an invaluable opportunity for the country to reach recognition among nations by striving to fulfill the Olympic ideals also for its people and politics. One can thus only hope that Russia's leaders will be wise enough to embrace these ideals for the benefit of society, instead of using it for purposes of political propaganda in an era of increasing international tension. Or else it can become a burden for future Russian generations, instead of the blessing it might bring. However, nobody knows what Russia will be like in 2014.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Swedish East European Blog Update 2007

Should a foreign minister be allowed to blog? This has been a burning issue in the Swedish media and blogosphere this year. The blog in question, Carl Bildt's Alla dessa dagar, is a personal weblog, describing the daily chores and reflections of his life as foreign minister. His critics, mostly representing traditional media, hold that this sort of one-way-communication belittles the critical role of media, and that Bildt runs Sweden's foreign policy through a blog.

That Bildt is next to the only prominent Swedish blogger, who regularly writes about Eastern Europe, is a little recognised fact. With a life-long commitment to regional issues, support for the independence of the Baltic States in the early 1990s, and role as EU mediator in former Yugoslavia, Bildt has insights and knowledge in this area unique to Swedish politics. Regrettably, and in contrast to his dormant Bildt Comments, his current Swedish-language blogging efforts at Alla dessa dagar are but daily notes dotted down in the margins of a life as a travelling salesman in foreign policy, and lack the clear views and analysis that he previously provided his readers with. It would probably have been much more interesting if Bildt's critics had been proven right, viz. that he would actually run Swedish foreign policy through a blog. Instead, it might seem that Bildt has fallen victim to the noblesse oblige of his office, by self-imposed censorship. The truth of the matter may, however, be much closer at hand: As foreign minister, life is simply too demanding to write analytically in the precious little spare time available.

In comparison to the 2006 review of Swedish blogs on Eastern Europe, Bildt is one of the few bloggers remaining. Only about half of the blogs in the 2006 survey are still active. On the positive side though, the number of Swedish East Europe bloggers has expanded, including some very promising new blogs, forming potential nuclea of blog clusters. The evolving pattern is thus a division into media, politcal, Slavophile, organisational, and expat blogs.

A decisive point for the expansion of the issue specific blogosphere was probably the October 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya. The leading Swedish evening paper, Aftonbladet, intensified coverage on Russia, and started cooperating with Novaya Gazeta. Recently, some experiments have also been made with blogging, by Johanna Melén's Moskva direkt, and one might expect this to become a recurrent feature of reporting.

The most regionally initiated blogger among Swedish journalists is indisputably Kalle Kniivilä of the Sydsvenska Dagbladet daily. He regularly posts stories, mainly about politics, in Swedish, Finnish, Esperanto, and Russian at his blog diVERse. Kniivilä's enthusiasm for his subject clearly shines through, and despite clear and strong views, he delivers a reasonably balanced coverage. The only downside of it is that you never know which language to expect, potentially discouraging regular reading. Still, it is definitely worth the effort.

Another journalist blogging about Russia is Sylvia Asklöf of Barometern-OT daily. She regularly blogs in Swedish at Sylvanien - a title obviously alluding to both her own name and the subjects she covers. The intention is to deliver her own reactions to our time, developments in Russia, and some tidbits about Swedish politics. By blogging, she shares her reflections and experiences of some 15 years as a russophile.

An infant Swedish East European blog cluster is the political, totally dominated by liberals. With the Swedish International Liberal Forum (SILC) as a base, a number of blogs about the region have been started. The first was Tobias Ljungvall's blog on Belarus, which regrettably closed down about a year ago. Instead, SILC activities have given rise to e.g. Amanda Lövkvist's blog Lindrig huliganism (Swedish), which main focus is on the situation of the Russian liberal opposition. Lövkvist - as was the case with Ljungvall - had also a book published by SILC on the topic of her blog. It also seems Amanda is running a blog in Russian called olydiagron, with views from Stockholm and St. Petersburg.

Another liberal in the blogosphere is Andreas Ribbefjord, with Andreas's Blog on Russian and Swedish foreign policy and current affairs. Coverage on Russia is, to a great extent, based on experiences from cooperation between the Swedish liberal party and its Russian counterpart Yabloko and the dissenters' movement.

Similar to both the political and media blogs are a few Slavophile blogs, which often offer interesting views and insights. Mi Lennhag at provides really good coverage of Eastern Europe with a focus on Russia. Anna-Maria Norman posts various pieces on the Ukraine at en salig blandning, and currently also runs a summer 2007 Ukrainian travelogue - ukraina 2007 - with her friend Hanna Söderbaum. Norman has both commitment to and insight into the Ukraine, which hopefully will encourage her further publishing efforts. A recent Slavophile addition is blogger Bjolso, who writes about politics and society at Ett annat Ryssland and about music at Russian music video blog.

The third tendency is that organisations and institutions dealing with the region are beginning to discover the blog media. Already last year, the Swedish Union of Journalists used Fredrik Nejman's Ukraina-blogg to cover a cooperation project with its Ukrainian counterpart. Now, as this cooperation seems finalised, its blog will probably go into hiatus. An NGO-activist, Swedish Amnesty Russia coordinator, is Johanna Lärken, who runs Med blicken mot öster, which regularly presents views and reflections on Russian politics and civil society. Also, Gunilla Lindberg - a member of the Swedish-Polish Association - publishes Bulletinenbloggen, as a complement to a Swedish-Polish online journal. A nascent Polish exile blogger community is also discernible, revolving around the foremost Swedish expert on Polish politics, Jakub Święcicki. At the Święcicki blog, he writes about politics and society - currently Poland under the reign of the Kaczyński twins. Politics, culture, and society are also the subjects of choice for other bloggers in this promising group of Polish exile kulturnye and intellectuals. Furthermore, the special Swedish system of adult education - the Folk High Schools - leaves its imprints on the blogosphere by Ove R. Eriksson's blog Eurasia Studies, reflecting on the experiences of East European studies at Österlens folkhögskola. The organisational category may also include Göran Dalin's Allt om Georgien - a hub for the Georgian diaspora community in Sweden - covered already in last year's review.

Then, there are the expat blogs. A blogger already known to many interested in the area is Erik Petersson's Dushanbe Pictures, which is still going strong in contrast to his Moscow blog Samtidigt i Moskva that seems to have gone into indefinite hiatus. With Dushanbe Pictures, Petersson regularly posts pictures from Tajikistan, and his photos are really worth seeing. The Central Asian perspective is complemented by a Caucasian, with C-G Erixon's CG Bloggin' - until recently based in Abkhazia.

Among the seniors of Swedish East European bloggers is Murmansk-based Wictoria Majby's Ryska Rövarhistorier, which after a period of hiatus, has recently resumed posting Russian cock-and-bull stories. A welcome addition is A Russia of my own, by Josefina - an aspiring writer based in Yekaterinburg. Writing in English, she posts stories and reflections from a provincial perspective of the Russian Urals, with the motto "Ambition mixed with vodka gets me up in the morning." However, she is not exclusive among regional reporters. Erik i Ryssland is a Swedish expat who has been living in and reporting from Rostov-na-Donu ever since 2005.

Turning to the big cities, another fine newcomer is Expat i Ryssland by female boxer Anna Ingman, who blogs about a training-existence in St. Petersburg. She also contributes with regular chronicles to the Västerbottens-Kuriren daily. Guran i Moskva and Thomas i Moskva are two blogs by Swedish teachers, telling about life and school in Russia. Furthermore, Kina i Moskva blogs about experiences and fashion in the Eastern metropolis. Turning west, Mats i Warszwa writes about his endeavours in the Polish capital. Last but not least, Sweden has - for the last year - had a welcome visit by one of the long-standing Russia bloggers, namely American expat Megan Case. Her unpretentious and down-to-earth accounts of life in Russia have gradually developed into an indispensable component of the expat Russia blogosphere, and she has also recently started blogging in Russian at американка, к сожалению.

To sum up, the Swedish blogosphere on Eastern Europe is undergoing expansion and some of the necessary stabilisation to form the dynamic density needed for a blog community. What is also positively surprising is that the number of women blogging about Eastern Europe equals that of the men, which seems an exception to the international East European blogosphere. A disadvantage for the international audience is that blogs, with few exceptions, are in Swedish. For Swedish bloggers though, the domestic audience seems larger than the international, even when blogging about events and phenomena taking place abroad.

As for contents, it is obvious that the Swedish blogosphere on Eastern Europe is much more Swedish than it is East European. For better or for worse, much of it reflects both the norms and values of Swedish society, and its views and perceptions of Eastern Europe. This is especially so when it comes to Russia blogging, where the idealistic often takes precedence over the realistic, which may prove dubious in the long-run, as Swedish views and Russian realities become too divergent. Still, despite this caveat, the Swedish blogosphere on Eastern Europe seems to meet with a bright future - a situation unforeseen but a year ago.