As the Winter Olympics begin in Sochi, a close Russian ally in Ukraine is suppressing and shooting pro-democracy protesters.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the hour of triumph for autocrats and the retreat of democrats is at hand as the world gathers to celebrate the shining rule of Czar Vladimir.
But do the Sochi Olympics really prove that President Vladimir V. Putin’s model of oil-fueled authoritarianism is the only one that can bring happiness and prosperity to Russia and the region?
Though my country, Georgia, has almost no oil, it might hold the answer. For the last nine years, Georgia has been growing at a higher rate than Russia. Two years ago, I initiated unilateral visa-easing with Russia. Since then, more than one million Russians have come to visit. These predominantly urban middle-class visitors from a wealthier country came in part to admire Georgia’s much better services and infrastructure. Usually it’s the other way around: People from poorer countries go to the richer ones for that experience.
Many Russian visitors can hardly believe that a small, once-impoverished, crime-ridden neighbor could develop all these new cities, with modern architecture and clean, safe streets.
The secret is simple. Georgia has no oil, but it can offer something to its citizens and the world that Russia still cannot. It ranks No. 8 on the World Bank Index for “ease of doing business,” while Russia ranks 92nd.
Russia is crippled by crime and corruption, but the European Union has consistently found Georgia to be the safest and one of the least-corrupt countries in the region, with a crime rate several times lower than Russia’s. Most importantly, Georgia is a democracy that went through a power transition in elections in 2012 and 2013 in which my party was defeated.
If you want to understand the difference between Mr. Putin’s system and an open democracy, you need to compare the two Black Sea regions near the city of Sochi: Abkhazia and Adjaria.
Abkhazia, which lies within Georgia’s internationally recognized borders, is just a few kilometers from Sochi.
When Russia was bidding to be host of the Olympics, it had enthusiastic Georgian support, as we believed holding the Games in Sochi would enhance chances for peace and improve relations. Instead, several months after the Kremlin won its bid to host the Olympics, Russia invaded Georgia.
The Kremlin sent in large numbers of troops and turned its previous de facto control of the region into an illegal military occupation. Since then, Russians have been busy erecting barbed-wire fences between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.
Abkhazia’s capital, Sukhumi, is half in ruins; the only visible construction is on Russian military bases. More than 70 percent of Abkhazia’s pre-war population has been expelled and the place looks deserted and gloomy.
Adjaria, just a few kilometers south of Abkhazia, is another Georgian region. In 2004, we managed to wrest it from the control of Mr. Putin and his local cronies. Since then, billions of dollars of foreign investment have transformed the place beyond recognition. Once backward and hopeless, it now has more new luxury hotels than Sochi and the atmosphere is much more relaxed and, needless to say, much safer. The number of tourists has risen tenfold and the population of its capital, Batumi, has doubled.
Despite all the money lavished on Sochi, the results are far less than what you would expect. That’s because in the 21st century it takes much more to succeed than the Putin model.
Building Potemkin villages is not going to restore Russia’s regional influence or have a positive impact on the neighborhood. Only real reforms, genuine modernization and an open society can achieve that. If Russia chooses that path, all its neighbors will rush to embrace it.
Nor will the Olympics soothe the many historic grievances plaguing the region, or bring peace, as it was supposed to do. The Games are a one-time propaganda event. Ice-skating ballerinas cannot silence the real grievances of those left behind to clean up the mess after the party is over.
The Games are being held on the site of a 19th-century genocide, in which almost all Circassians, the original inhabitants of the Sochi area, were methodically killed or expelled to Turkey. That wound has been kept alive by the Kremlin’s current approach toward the Circassians who remain in the region, and in its attitude toward other peoples of the North Caucasus. Russia’s leaders persistently refuse to treat people from Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria as equal citizens. The Kremlin regards their homelands as colonies where it has to buy off the elite and suppress the rest of the population.
This attitude was vividly demonstrated in the last few months when Russian security forces increased mass arrests of young people and took saliva specimens from most Muslim women because the government believed that a woman from Dagestan was responsible for a suicide bombing that killed 16 people. Such a heavy-handed colonial approach can only antagonize and radicalize the population, undermining Russia’s efforts to maintain control of the region.
Mr. Putin is also mistaken to think that the Olympics will shore up his hold on power. The last time Russia acted as host to the Games was back in 1980. The Olympics that year were meant to be a triumph of Soviet leadership and a demonstration of the superiority of their system.
Unfortunately for them, soon after the Games ended, the turmoil that eventually led to the demise of Soviet Communism began to grow worse. There are some striking similarities with Sochi, which, like Moscow, was turned into a showcase for the system. The Soviet regime didn’t allow nonMoscovites to enter the city — just as people from the region are now being shut out of Sochi.
Mr. Putin once called the dissolution of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, yet it seems he still fails to grasp why it happened. Just like Mr. Putin today, the Soviet leaders back then neglected the need for modernization, betting instead on consistently high energy prices.
After 1980, falling oil prices and changes in technology led to the eventual meltdown of the Soviet Union. Today’s Russia is teetering on the edge of recession, despite its oil boom. More broadly, there is a fundamental contradiction between Mr. Putin’s effort to tighten the screws and restore the past, and the dreams of people in and around Russia who are striving for a better future. As a result, Mr. Putin’s fate might well be decided in the cold streets of Kiev rather than on the balmy slopes of Sochi.
Mikheil Saakashvili was president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013. He is now senior statesman at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.