South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham surprised many on Capitol Hill this week by suggesting that the U.S. should boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi if Russia grants asylum to fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. "It might help, because what they're doing is outrageous," Graham told The Hill. "We certainly haven't reset our relationship with Russia in a positive way. At the end of the day, if they grant this guy asylum it's a breach of the rule of law as we know it and is a slap in the face to the United States."
First of all, this is not a good idea. The last time the U.S. boycotted an Olympics -- 1980 in Moscow -- it didn't accomplish much besides giving the Soviets a propaganda victory and setting the stage for a retaliatory boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games. It's hard to imagine a Sochi boycott would be much more effective -- and given the amount of money U.S. companies have invested in the event, it's hard to imagine this actually happening. (Even staunch Russia hawk John McCain didn't seem too impressed by the idea, saying, "I think the experience of canceling the Olympics the last time around wasn’t very good.")
But if the U.S. were to sit out the games, one beleaguered whistleblower seems like a bit of an insignificant basis for doing so. For the sake of argument, if America is going to start playing the boycott game, recent Russian policies have provided much better reasons to do so:
1. Crackdowns on opposition
Blogger and opposition leader Alexey Navalny's five-year prison sentence for what are widely viewed as trumped-up embezzlement charges is just the latest example of the Russian government's crackdown on high-profile opposition figures, which has also included the harsh sentences given to the punk group Pussy Riot, and the macabre campaign against lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who was convicted of tax evasion this month four years after he died in prison under mysterious circumstances.
2. Restrictions on NGOs
President Vladimir Putin signed a law into effect last summer branding NGOs that receive foreign funding as "foreign agents" and placing further restrictions on their activities. The government has used the law to expel the U.S. Agency for International Development and suspend the election monitoring group Golos, which had publicized evidence of fraud in the 2011 parliamentary elections, sparking protests.
3. Human rights abuses in the North Caucasus
Just across the Caucasus from where the Games will be held, an Islamist insurgency continues to simmer in the republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan. According to Human Rights Watch, Russia's counterinsurgency campaign has included "torture, abduction-style detentions, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings." The murders of numerous human rights activists -- including Natalya Estimirova of the group Memorial -- remain unsolved.
4. Support for Bashar al-Assad
It's estimated that 10 percent of Russia's global arms sales go to Syria, with current contracts worth about $1.5 billion dollars. Even as international criticism of Bashar al-Assad's regime has grown over the last two years of civil war, Moscow has continued providing military support including air defense systems to Damascus. Along with China, Russia has repeatedly blocked sanctions against Syria at the U.N. Security Council.
5. Gay rights
As the U.S., Britain and other countries have taken major steps toward legal protections for gay rights, Russia has moved in the opposite direction, instituting fines for the "propagation" of homosexuality. Moscow's city council last year banned gay pride marches for the next 100 years. Gay rights groups and the International Olympic Committee have expressed concern over whether the new laws could affect gay athletes and fans at the Olympics.
U.S. adoption ban
In January 2013, a new law went into effect banning the adoption of Russian children by U.S. families. While there had been isolated cases of adopted children being abused or neglected -- including Dima Yakovlev, for whom the legislation was named, who died after being left in a hot car by his adopted father in 2008 -- the law was widely seen as retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. bill placing sanctions on officials linked to the late lawyer's death. The Russian law stranded more than 330 families who were already in the process of adopting children, many of them with special needs. There are more than 300,000 orphans living in 3,000 facilities throughout Russia, and the recent death of a girl with Down syndrome who had been due to be adopted but died in an orphanage in Nizhny Novgorod in May has galvanized opponents of the ban.
Would any of these problems be solved by a U.S. boycott of the Olympics? Almost certainly not. But at the very least they will still be pertinent in the winter of 2014, when Snowden's 15 minutes of fame will likely be long over.