Russia’s Bid For International Prestige: A White Elephant?

Russia’s President Putin placed his country’s bid to host the 2020 World Expo in Yekaterinburg last week in a short video posted to his official website. For unexplained reasons, Putin’s appeal was in English and did not contain subtitles.

Many in the Russian blogosphere found the President’s appeal embarrassing, with several noting that Putin was only reading text on a teleprompter and had not memorized the speech [ru]. Another blogger criticized his accent [ru]:

Какой ужасный акцент у него на англ.

What a terrible accent he has in English.

Sochi's Olympic Mascot, 21 February 2010, photo by Jennifer Jones, CC 2.0.

Sochi's Olympic Mascot, 21 February 2010, photo by Jennifer Jones, CC 2.0.

Another joked:

лет ми спик фром май харт. ин инглиш

Let me speak from my heart. In English.

This line previously made the rounds online after Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko gave Russia’s 2018 World Cup acceptance speech in broken, heavily accented English.

Meanwhile, more details emerged about rising construction costs and growing corruption in Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov released a report on corruption surrounding the games titled, “Winter Olympics in the Sub-Tropics: Corruption and Abuse in Sochi” [English translation here]. In the report, Nemtsov reminded people that the budget for the Olympics has now exceeded $50 billion.

As Nemtsov traveled the press junket, the head of Russia’s Development Bank (VEB) said in an interview [ru] that many of the loans given out for Olympic construction projects are unlikely to be paid back, and that the Russian public will have to make up the difference.

LiveJournal blogger Andrei Malgin posted [ru] a similar story [ru] titled, “The Curse of the White Elephants.” According to folklore, the King of Siam used to gift a white elephant to those he wished to ruin.

Белые слоны почитались как священные животные и не должны были работать, но стоимость содержания слона разоряла получателя такого подарка.

White elephants are revered as sacred animals and should not have to work, but the cost of keeping the elephant ruined the recipient of the gift.

This prompted someone to comment:

А впереди ещё ЧМ-18. Уууу…

And there is still the World Cup in 2018. Oooo…

The budget news for the 2018 World Cup is not promising, either. Russia’s Finance Minister, Anton Siluanov, said last week that Russia could not afford to sign a blank check for the World Cup. He cited [en] the Winter Olympic games in Sochi next year as a precedent for setting limits on spending for the World Cup in 2018.

The experience we have in other major events such as Sochi shows that there may be cost-increase issues for some events and proposals to add more items…. For this reason we think it will be reasonable today to make the decision that the sum of additional spending — 250 billion rubles — is final.


When Russia won in December 2010 the privilege of hosting the 2018 World Cup, Putin pledged funding from oligarchs like Roman Abramovich (owner of Chelsea Football Club), saying [en]: “I don’t rule out that Mr. Abramovich may take part in one of these projects…. Let him dip into his pocket a bit. It’s no big deal; he won’t feel the pinch. He has plenty of money.”  Whether or not Abramovich has paid out remains unclear.

Putin dressed as The Joker, standing over Sochi, burning Russia's Olympic cash. Image by Petr Leycans, 13 June 2013.

Commenter Valery Tyukhtin saw something more sinister behind Putin’s bids for international prestige:

России нужны не PR-акции мирового масштаба, а национальные проекты с реально полезными результатами: внедрение передовых технологий, строительство новых современных предприятий, улучшение ЖКХ и т. п. Но Путин, как какой-то диверсант, придумывает всё новые сверх затратные проекты, от которых не будет никакой пользы народу.

Russia does not need these PR projects of a global scale, but national projects with real useful results: the introduction of advanced technologies, the construction of new modern enterprises, improvement of housing and communal services, etc. But Putin, like a saboteur, comes up with all these new super costly projects, which will not benefit the people.

As Putin continues to pursue his policy of using international events to show that Russia is worthy of investment, the country's taxpayers are coming to realize that they are the ones footing the bill.

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