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Great Projects or Great Illusions?

How will Sochi fare? photo: jan zeschky/flickr

Much has been made of Russian great power politics. Western media has been swamped with reports of Russia’s assertive energy politics, its Cold War-style military parades and photographs of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in shirtless macho poses.

More discreetly however, Russia has been striving to display the country’s greatness through the realization of various projects that commemorate Russia’s glorious history and show off the country’s modernization and economic growth. By holding prominent international events, Moscow hopes to restore the country’s national pride and revive some of its regional centers through the development of infrastructure projects that typically accompany such events.

But will Russia’s investments into these events improve its image abroad and bring much-needed progress for its lesser-developed regions?

In 2008, the G8 summit of the world’s major industrialized nations was held in St. Petersburg, which had undergone extensive renovation for the city’s 300th anniversary in 2003. In 2012 Russia will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit (APEC) in Vladivostok, once the capital of the Soviet Union’s Pacific Ocean fleet. Today the region has lost most of its industrial base and has seen its population decline. Putin hopes to stop Russian emigration from its sparsely populated Far East and once again turn­ Vladivostok into Russia’s Pacific capital. It remains to be seen whether the massive financial injection of 553 billion rubles ($18 billion) for preparations of the APEC summit will allow the city to establish itself as the new center of trade with China and Japan.

As a nation famous for its athletic accomplishments during the Soviet era,  Russia is also looking to restore its glory in the sporting world. Kazan will host the 2013 Summer Universiade, setting the scene for a possible future bid to hold the Summer Olympics. More importantly, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are expected to propel Russia back onto the world stage of sporting events. However, although the winter games in Sochi have been a source of immense pride for some Russians, they have been heavily criticized for corruption and the staggering financial costs involved. While recent Olympic Games were budgeted at between $3-9 billion, the tab for Sochi has most recently been estimated at up to $41 billion. However, after the disastrous results of the Russian team at the last Olympic Games in Vancouver, Moscow is keen to make this event a success. Finally, Russia is hopeful that it will clinch the deal for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the holy grail of the sporting world.

Clearly the impact of events such as the World Cup transcend the sporting aspect, exemplified by the far-reaching socio-economic consequences of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. There has been much debate on whether the general population benefits from the huge investments accompanying such events, or whether the positive aspects are overshadowed by corruption, evictions and environmental damage.

Time will tell whether Russia can overcome the already numerous corruption scandals surrounding the preparations of the Sochi Winter Games, stage a successful event  and perhaps repair its damaged great power persona.