"The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."
- Albert Einstein
Is it only me? Or is the post-Olympic nightmare that's currently unfolding in the Ukraine eerily similar to a set of cataclysmic events that occurred in Europe nearly 80 years ago?
History buffs will remember that Hitler's Olympics in 1936 were presented to the world in much the same manner as Putin's Games were offered to us last month. "We're showcasing the 'new-and-improved' Germany," crowed its Nazi organizers. "See how smooth and peaceful we can be? See how modern we are? It's obvious that the Third Reich means no one any harm..." The Berlin Games went off without a hitch. They were deemed a huge success in fact — and everyone went home praising the new regime for its hospitality and friendliness.
Sounds familiar? It gets even better. For less than two years later, the Nazis' jack-booted hordes were marching into Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland province to protect, as their leaders claimed, the German-speaking population from being over-run by ignorant Slavs (and Jews and Gypsies). Mere borders, said Joseph Goebbels, could not contain Greater Germany. The Volk would triumph. Destiny was in play!
And was it ever. The Western Powers hummed and hawed — puffed up their chests and croaked out their platitudes — but in the end appeasement won over conflict. The Germans could keep Czechoslovakia, they finally concluded, it was barely a country anyway. And Hitler's henchmen we're re-enforced in their belief that the Allies had no stomach for war. Which made them only bolder: their end game soon became too obvious to ignore.
And it begs the question: Could this Sochi/Crimea link be a case of acute déja-vu?
Danger always lurks around men who think they can change history. Like Napoleon and Lenin, Hitler, Bin Laden and Bush the Younger, Russia's Vladimir Putin sincerely believes he can flex his aging muscles and alter the path of destiny. And he's convinced his countrymen — who love nothing more than a macho leader — that he's the Slavic messiah who will carry them back to the glories of Imperial Russia.
Scary stuff, right? But what's even scarier is that Putin is playing chess while his Western adversaries are stuck on checkers.
His $60 billion Olympic gamble? All part of a master plan, I believe, to divert people's attention from what Russia's fearless leader was really up to in recent years. The Games — and the massive re-development of Sochi and Rosa Khutor — became the ultimate Potemkin Village; a magician's fancy (and expensive) illusion that offered the world exactly what we all wanted to believe. That we were all in this together — a happy, harmonious global family.
What a crock. Putin has no interest in becoming part of a harmonious global family. Indeed, his disdain for the West drips from every public statement he makes. Our pal Vlad, it's clear to anyone with a brain, wants to be the new Emperor of Eurasia.
Which is the really killer part... because he could actually make it happen. For while we were all being seduced by his splashy Olympic sirens and New Russia propaganda — Bigger, Fancier, More Expensive — Komrad Putin was busily re-structuring and re-capitalizing his armed forces (let's be honest folks — if the man is ready to spend $60 billion on a two-week seduction of the West, how much will he spend to become the most powerful leader in the world?).
Expansion is part of Putin's ideology. It's also a big part of his self-image — and like many authoritarians before him, he takes it very personally when those in his fold revolt. He already made that blatantly clear when little Georgia flexed its new sovereignty back in 2008. Retribution from the Kremlin came fast and hard. Speaking of which, we don't hear so much from the Georgians these days. Hmm...
Alas, I have no crystal ball to predict what might happen to the just-as-beleaguered Ukrainians in the coming weeks. At the time of this writing, though, it appears obvious that Obama and Co. are still twiddling their thumbs. At least for now. Besides, there really isn't much they can do; Putin's blitzkrieg invasion of the Crimea is virtually a fait accompli. Wild horses, as one troubadour once sang, couldn't drag Putin away from that strategic (and sentimental) fist of land.
But the real nastiness hasn't begun yet. Just wait till Uncle Vlad decides to send his troops across Ukraine to the shores of the Dnieper River (the de facto border between east and west). And it's bound to happen. I mean, why not? When the Allies didn't stop Hitler from annexing the Sudetenland, his followers took it as an invitation to invade even more "German-speaking" countries. Why should it be any different for Putin and his generals?
I know. I know. I'm probably making too big a deal of this thing. I'm letting my imagination run away with the facts. Still, the similarities between Germany in 1936 and Russia in 2014 have the hairs rising up on the back of my neck. That our modern leaders seem as helpless in facing down Putin as their Depression-era peers did in handling Hitler eight decades ago, well, that's kind of freaky too. I hate déjà vu.
And I can't help but wonder: Is this simply an untimely regurgitation of the oxymoronic Cold War (as Western pundits so badly want us to believe)? Or is there a bigger, even uglier, conflict lurking just below the surface? Oy vey!
But let's go back to the Olympics for a moment. What if I am right? What if Putin did manipulate the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the athletes and all the world's media to serve his own nefarious ends? More seriously — what if a global conflict is once again precipitated after a host country's blatant use of the Olympic symbols for its own propaganda needs? Doesn't that kind of make a mockery of the Games' host-city bidding process? Not to mention taking a bit of glitter off the Olympics themselves?
Seriously. I know I'm opening up a whole new can of Olympic worms here, but is there no limit to the IOC's greed? Everyone knows how the Russians landed their first Winter Games in history — they simply had more Olympic cash to spend than anybody else. As we've seen before, what Mr. Putin wants, Mr. Putin usually gets.
And please — don't tell me how pure and untainted the bid process has become. It's probably the most politicized (and coveted) prize in the byzantine world of modern entertainment.
But I digress. The point I'm trying to make is a simple one. The IOC needs to seriously revise its bidding process... yes, once again. Hosting the Olympic Games, in my mind, should be an honour reserved for countries where democracy, free speech and respect for citizens (be they male, female, white, black, red, green, Jewish, Muslim, gay, trans or...) are upheld in every corner of the land.
And we all know just how far Russia would have to evolve before it could even apply to bid under those standards. Reports have already emerged of massive human rights abuse — involving thousands of displaced and/or detained citizens — perpetrated under the IOC's watch during the run-up to the Sochi Games. Did the Committee's delegates simply hold their collective nose and look away? Or were they too pampered by their hosts to pay attention? Good question.
Don't get me wrong. I totally understand how these things happen. We're only human after all... Still, being anointed Olympic host city should signify more than a commercial plum that any dictator can buy with his citizens' money to legitimize his own regime (see Beijing in 2008).
Should be a fairly simple thing to set up too. The IOC creates a list of criteria — including, as I've mentioned, a number of simple "yes" and "no" questions: is there democracy, is there free speech, does the rule of law apply to all citizens — which every prospective bid city has to meet. Not "has to come close" or "will address in the future" or "is still working on it." Absolutely no ambiguity here: only those countries that clearly meet the new criteria will get to participate in the bidding process.
I mean, it seems so straightforward to me. I even think the Olympic movement would gain from such a process. Think about it: the selection of the Games' host city would mean so much more (to all participants) if such a stringent list of criteria were actually upheld... and promoted. But then I'm probably dreaming again — realpolitik being what it is in the 21st century.
In the meantime, spare a thought for our Ukrainian friends. Mister Putin is about to make things very hot in their neighbourhood.