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Olympic truce

Once the Sochi Games have passed off, Putin will once again be playing hardball

There is now less than a month to go before the inauguration of the Winter Olympic Games at Sochi on the Black Sea coast of Russia, and Moscow does not want any loose ends. Toward the end of last year, Putin amnestied the magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and two members of the group Pussy Riot. Among the many violations of human rights that go on in Russia, the always selective attention of the West had been concentrated on these two cases, and on the rights of sexual minorities. To Putin this third issue is particularly convenient since it confirms his inner conviction of the moral decadence of the West, in which a vast majority of Russians are in hearty agreement with his views. Any attack on him from this direction, the president calculates, can only strengthen him. Only the ever-unpredictable North Caucasus seems likely to throw cold water on his plans.

The autumn was a fruitful season for Russia, which won the tug-of-war with the EU in Armenia and Ukraine. But the Russian victory in the latter was not total: the Euromaidan protest movement got in the way. When the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, announced he was breaking off negotiations for an economic partnership agreement with the EU, Ukraine's slide toward the Eurasian Union under Russian hegemony seemed inexorable. But the vigorous and tenacious wave of demonstrations in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Kiev's chief public square, now nicknamed the Euromaidan) has changed the political climate, and makes Ukraine's entry into the customs union with Russia look extraordinarily difficult -- so much so that the top officials in Kiev are themselves denying it.

During the Games and the Geneva negotiations on Syria, Putin will behave like a responsible statesman

The Euromaidan movement has resuscitated the dying European option, with the acquiescence of a certain number of Ukrainian oligarchs, who fear an exclusive dependence on their unstable Muscovite connections. Thus, the astute maneuver with which Moscow knocked out the EU in November may backfire if Moscow finds itself spending 20 billion euros to back an inept government, and fails either to lift Ukraine out of limbo or bind it firmly to its sphere of power.

We should not expect any major maneuvers during the winter. Russia wishes to show a smiling face in Sochi. But, once the Olympic truce is over, the Kremlin will be playing its usual cards again. As well as preparing for the reelection of Yanukovych (for which it will be necessary to put a lid back on a media space that has shown a surprising pluralism in the last month), the pressure will be centered on preventing Moldova and Georgia from signing agreements with the EU. As for the Georgians, who are accustomed to the hardest face of Russian power, it remains to be seen how they will react if Moscow begins to deploy its soft power, for example, by eliminating the obligatory visa, or facilitating immigration and the sending of remittances.

For the Moldovans, the Olympic truce may save them from having their gas cut off in the middle of winter, a thinly veiled threat Russian Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin dangled over their heads in September. But afterward they are going to face heavy Russian pressure to prevent the present pro-European government from signing an EU accord before the elections in November of this year. During February, with the Sochi Games and the Geneva negotiations on Syria (another matter in which he feels comfortable), Putin will behave like a responsible statesman. With the spring thaw, his imperial ambitions are very likely to sprout again.

Follow me on Twitter @jordivaquer

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