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Could Sochi Provide the Thaw That Anglo-Russian Relations Need?

Posted: 16/02/2014 21:19

It's already been over a week of sun, sea and well, some snow in Sochi, but yet more naysayers continue to join the chorus of disapproval over the Russian city's choice as host for the 2014 Winter Olympics and Paralympics.

This time, however, the criticism is not directed at President Vladimir Putin, Sochi or its subtropical climate, but at UK prime minister David Cameron, whose decision to forego the Games has been labelled a "missed opportunity" by International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach.

As with many other world leaders - Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, François Hollande, to name but a few - Cameron opted to shun Sochi and sent culture secretary Maria Miller along to enjoy the action instead.

Although Downing Street has gone to great lengths to deny that Cameron is staging any kind of boycott, Bach clearly is far from convinced. "I always think if you don't have a dialogue, it's a missed opportunity," he told the BBC in an exclusive interview. "A dialogue is always better than talking about each other. It's always better to talk with each other."

"Every government needs to take the decision as to how best to support their athletes," he added. "For the IOC, what is important is to ensure the Olympics are not used as a political stage."

Despite high-profile celebrities such as BBC sports presenter Clare Balding refusing to join the throng of boycotters, saying she refuses to be "cowed into submission" by Russia's anti-gay laws, Cameron is not the only one from the UK missing out.

The Western Daily Press recently revealed that no delegation from Sochi's UK twin town Cheltenham would be attending the Olympics. In fact, nobody was even invited despite Cheltenham welcoming the Sochi's 13-strong Lubo dance ensemble when the Olympic torch relay passed through the town in 2012 in the run-up to the London Summer Olympics.

Although Cheltenham's mayor Wendy Flynn has since announced that she wouldn't have gone to Sochi anyway on human rights grounds. "I don't want to go and celebrate as the mayor of Sochi's twin town when there are so many human rights issues on the table," she told the Western Daily Press. "I cannot even go there to discuss it because I would be liable to be locked up myself."

Cheltenham wasn't the only one to get snubbed either. Krasnodar, the capital of Krasnodar Krai, the same southern region where Sochi is located, was twinned with Nottingham in 2010 in a much-lauded partnership with Krasnodar's mayor Vladimir Evlanov.

Having lived and worked in Krasnodar for eight months in 2007, I have a particular interest in the city and contacted Nottingham city councillor Jon Collins who signed the 2010 agreement to find out if anyone from his constituency was heading to Sochi.

"Unfortunately, due to financial constraints we are currently not doing anything with cities we are twinned with," he told me in an email. "I'm unsure if we were invited to the Winter Olympics but we would not have attended in any case." When asked if he would have attended if invited and if the trip had been paid for, he said they still would have declined the invitation.

It was all the more interesting still when I discovered that the British Consul General to St Petersburg Keith Allan paid a visit to Krasnodar at the end of January to meet Mayor Evlanov to discuss preparations for the Games and ways to improve cross-cultural relations between Krasnodar and Nottingham. When asked what he thought of the meeting, Collins said he was unaware that it had even taken place.

Of course, in spite of outward appearances to the contrary, this isn't the first time that the UK has been seen to be reaching out to Sochi. In November the head of MI6 Sir John Sawers confirmed during a parliamentary hearing that after years of a "gap" in intelligence matters the UK and Russia had agreed to exchange information over security threats to the Games.

"We passed the Olympic flame on from London to Sochi, and we have a certain responsibility there, and we will take it forward step-by-step," Sawers said in the first open evidence session held by the UK parliament's intelligence and security committee on 7 November, 2013.

Given the growing concerns over security for the Winter Olympics following a spate of suicide bombings in the southern Russian city of Volgograd in recent months, it seems altogether wise that the two countries have finally opted to work together after Anglo-Russian diplomatic relations were plunged into a deep freeze in 2006 following the mysterious death of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in London.

Although relations may not have been completely "re-set" just yet given the news last week that the UK's High Court has urged home secretary Theresa May to reconsider holding a public investigation into Moscow's alleged role in Litvinenko's death. Indeed, the move may threaten to reopen the diplomatic rift before the Olympic flame finally fizzles out in Sochi.

 

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