Behind the fireworks: The Olympic opening ceremony and political implications

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY

As Sochi's opening ceremonies filled the night with fireworks and historical pageantry, and Russia was on parade wearing what Vladimir Putin calls its "new face," various human-rights battles were continuing spookily behind the show biz.

As Sochi's opening ceremonies filled the night with fireworks and historical pageantry, and Russia was on parade wearing what Vladimir Putin calls its "new face," various human-rights battles were continuing spookily behind the show biz. For example -- next door in Ukraine, Putin's regime is still wearing the "old face." There, for years, Russia has been trying grimly to keep Ukraine from establishing closer ties with the EU, perhaps even EU membership. Since last fall, Ukrainian protests at Russian interference have gotten so fierce that some observers wonder if Putin will send troops into Ukraine to get his way.

Russia has a history of denying independence to Ukraine. That history has roots in czarist times, when a young Ukrainian republic was subsumed into the Russian Empire between the late 1700s and early 1800s. Moscow's control of Ukraine segued on through the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet era. Ukraine is the largest country that lies entirely within Europe. Its Black Sea ports, and its vast agricultural, petrochemical and mining riches, were deemed critical to the Kremlin's survival.

In 1991 that control ended when the Soviet Union crumbled and Ukraine declared its sovereign independence. Feeling its way towards democracy and European values, Ukraine formed a government with a new constitution, a president and parliament. In the first free election, over 90 percent of the electorate supported independence. Among the country's steps to human rights was decriminalization of homosexuality, which had been illegal under both the czarist and communist regimes.

After the heady days of 1991, little by little, a reactionary and pro-Russian element inched its way back into power in Ukrainian politics, capped by the election of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2010. Yet today many Ukrainians oppose that trend. They haven't forgotten the savagery of 1930s purges, when Soviet premier Joseph Stalin crushed Ukrainian resistance to collectivization of their agriculture, and attacked Ukrainian culture by sending many of the country's writers, artists and scholars to prison camps.

Ukrainian protesters are outraged at Yanukovych's willingness to cave to Moscow -- and they're demanding his resignation and a new election. Yanukovych has rejected the EU's possibility of a trade deal and loans, and is ready to accept a Russian trade deal and a huge Russian loan of $15 billion that would bind Ukraine closely to the old enemy. In January, the President also slapped an anti-protest law on the country.

None of this dark history was mentioned in tonight's opening ceremonies, of course. As the 3,000 athletes filed past the VIPs, President Yanukovych was there to view the march-by of the large Ukrainian team. The team got one of the biggest cheers of the evening from the crowd.

Today The Guardian reported that Putin and Yanukovych used their joint presence in Sochi to have a private talk on the Ukrainian situation. As yet, it isn't known what they discussed. Might Russian troops be on their way even before the Sochi games end? Stay tuned.

For Putin, a Ukraine wedded to European values would be ideologically uncomfortable. EU membership requires adherence to human-rights guidelines that Russia would not conform to, including the EU's declaration of human rights for LGBT people. So, thanks to Russian pressures, the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev has also passed a bill that recriminalizes homosexuality by prohibiting propaganda for anything LGBT. It's similar to the infamous Russian law, and it only awaits Yanukovych's signature.

If Russia takes a harder grip on Ukraine, that anti-gay law will surely be passed. It would be used to smash Ukraine's small but emerging and vibrant LGBT community that exists mainly in big cities -- publications, organizations, bars and clubs, and people who are out. It would also spread the Putin brand of homophobia across a vaster area of Europe.

Patricia Nell Warren is author of the award-winning and groundbreaking The Front Runner, along with some other fantastic novels and non-fiction books. She will be contributing to Outsports throughout the Olympics. You can read more about Patricia Nell Warren at Wildcat International. Copyright 2014 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.

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