Why Aren’t the Sochi Olympics Moderating Russia’s Human Rights Crackdown?

With the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014 approaching, Russia is regressing on human rights. In the last two years, it has increased its rate of harassing human rights activists, declined to prosecute violence against journalists (one of whom recently died from his injuries), and instigated a massive crackdown on NGOs.

In contrast, during the lead up to the 2008 Olympics China adopted a striking ameliorative tone on the issue of Sudan. In 2007, Hollywood celebrities exerted public pressure on the Chinese government, linking abuses in Darfur to the Chinese government. At the same time, Beijing stopped protecting the Sudanese government for a time. No one knows for certain whether it was celebrity pressure or not, but Beijing’s temporarily relenting on the Darfur issue (including abstaining –rather than vetoing — a key Security Council resolution on Darfur) prevented a full boycott of the games.

Russia, on the other hand, seemingly does not care. Celebrities, from Madonna to Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler have announced their intention to boycott Russia in various ways. During the Pussy Riot, tons of Hollywood celebrities condemned their trial and imprisonment. The Russian government did not care.

In a way, Russia has figured out that ignoring celebrity criticism doesn’t really carry any cost. As great an album as Brothers in Arms is, Mr. Knopfler is not going to affect the Kremlin’s anti-NGO campaign, or suddenly inspire them to prosecute horrific acts of violence against journalists.

President Vladimir Putin, too, has a role to play as well. A staunch believer in the idea of “absolute sovereignty,” Putin believes the international community does not have the right to dictate how his country operates. In practice, this means he feels little need to adhere to international precedent or norms, which is why he felt little compunction about unceremoniously pushing human rights groups out of the country.

Paradoxically, complaining about Russia’s crackdown has the potential to make matters worse: a stubborn Kremlin could simply dig in its heels. But that doesn’t mean protest is worthless – an Olympic boycott movement, which would affect Russia’s much-beloved national pride – might actually spur some reconsideration. Absent that movement, it’s likely Russia’s behavior will continue unmodified.