2014 Sochi Olympics will out-controversy 2008 Beijing Olympics

You heard it here first (probably): the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia will generate more controversy, put heads-of-state around the world in more diplomatically tense situations, and provoke more outrage among human rights activists before the games even start than the 2008 summer games did by the time they were over.  This would be no mean feat; in case you’ve forgotten, there’s an entire wikipedia entry devoted to the controversies surrounding Beijing’s Olympiad.  Before embarking on my reasoning for such a claim, some background information on the region is in order.  If you don’t like background information, skip down to the funny picture of Vladimir Putin.

Background information

Much like the 2010 Olympics which were split between Vancouver, a city, and Whistler, a mountain resort town two hours away, the 2014 games will be split between the Black Sea port of Sochi and the ski resort town of Krasnaya Polyana.  Both are in Krasnodarkrai, which is on the edge of the mountainous North Caucasus region.  The North Caucasus is extraordinarily diverse, inhabited by over 50 different ethnicities, many of whom practiced mystical Sufi Islam.  The region was conquered by the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century and has unwillingly been part of Russia in one fashion or other ever since.  The North Caucasus contains several republics that are in theory autonomous, but whose leaders are all appointed by the Kremlin.  The most well-known in the West of these republics is Chechnya, probably because the Russian Federation fought two wars there in the 1990s, and its complex, often violent history provides good fodder for Hollywood and Tom Clancy.

Technically Russia

The North Caucasus has a highly advanced, but opaque rebel infrastructure. Rebels under the command of Shamil Basayev fought Russian troops in a guerilla war that ravaged Chechnya from 1994-96.  In 1999, Basayev led an incursion into neighbouring Dagestan, and this, combined with bombings of apartment buildings in several European Russian cities that were blamed on Chechens, prompted the second Chechen war. Basayev was killed in the summer of 2006, and the current leader of the rebel movement is Doku Umarov.  In 2007, Umarov declared the creation of the Caucasus Emirate, a nominally Islamist group that was no longer fighting for just Chechnya, but all the oppressed North Caucasus peoples.  Although Umarov is often depicted as the mastermind, the emirate is actually quite decentralised, with individual jamaats in each republic, whose leaders and fighters seem to have more nationalistic than religious motivations.  Whether you classify their activity as insurgency or terrorism is of course a matter of perspective; but either way, they are a deadly force — In February of this year alone, they were responsible for 22 bombings and 31 shootouts, which killed over 50 people and wounded more.

Foreground Information?

One of the issues underlying all the potential hazards I will outline below is the ham-handedness of Vladimir Putin, who will almost surely return to the Presidency next term, after a brief spell as Prime Minister.  Whereas the Chinese government has constructed a well-oiled machine to manage dissent, Putin and his operatives tend to deal with opponents in a rather more primitive fashion. Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Alexander Litvinenko are two high-profile victims of Putin’s distaste for dissent.  So when challenges to the smooth running of the Sochi Olympics inevitably arise, Putin’s response is almost guaranteed to generate maximum outrage.

Even if the site of the Olympics weren’t so very, very close to the simmering cauldron of the North Caucasus republics, it would be vulnerable.  Although the militants in the North Caucasus regularly wreak havoc on the local authorities, they are by no means confined to local attacks.  Indeed in the last decade, they have carried out several very high-profile attacks in Russia.  These have included seizing the Dubrovka theatre with 900 people inside and holding it hostage  for three days; bombing a popular high-speed train that connects Moscow and St. Petersburg; and just this January, bombing Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.  In perhaps the most ominous sign for the officials in charge of security at the Sochi Olympics, terrorists have carried out several attacks in the ski area of Mt. Elbrus. Suffice to say, the Sochi Olympics will be an irresistible target for North Caucasus militants, all the more so because it’s so close.

Russian authorities still have three years to try to quiet down the restive North Caucasus, but there is almost no reason to believe they will be successful; Russian rulers  have been trying for 150 years with little success (Stalin deported entire ethnic groups  to Central Asia, for example).  There have been counterterrorist regimes in place somewhere or other in the North Caucasus for virtually all of Putin’s presidency, but attacks have only increased in recent years.  Recently, Moscow’s envoy to the region, Aleksandr Khloponin, had the bright idea to address one of the major underlying causes of terrorism –unemployment — through a grand economic development scheme.  But the patronage networks of local elites, as well as the plan’s reliance on foreign investors to put money in  a region that is still epically unstable, have doomed that strategy thus far.

SO, since the Kremlin will still have an armed insurgency simmering in Sochi’s neighbourhood, it is probably going to have to use brute force to contain the violence.  A supposed citizens’ self-defense unit calling themselves the “Black Hawks” has suddenly gained lots of attention in the Moscow press, by saying they would kill suspected militants and their children.  The Black Hawks are almost certainly a creation of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Moscow, as the article linked above argues.  This sort of gruesome collective punishment might grow more common as the need to maintain stability becomes more urgent with the approach of 2014.

Right now, Moscow’s tactics in dealing with the North Caucasus insurgency don’t attract much international attention.  For this reason, murders of the likes of Anna Politkovskaya, who reported on Russian forces’ brutality in Chechnya, and Magomed Yevloev, who owned a site that provided independent (i.e. not Kremlin-sanctioned) news in Ingushetia, are usually denounced by human rights organizations and certain watchdog groups, but fail to generate much international outrage.  As the world’s spotlight turns to the region in 2014, though, there will be much more scrutiny of the Kremlin’s doings.  This will leave Putin with three choices:

1. Restrict journalists’ access to the North Caucasus.

2. Allow journalists to report from the North Caucasus on all the unsavoury things happening there to an international audience.

3. Allow journalists to report from the North Caucasus, but assassinate the first one who writes about something unsavoury that the FSB is doing, as an example to others.

None of these would be very well-received by the international community, but nor are any of them implausible.  Again, you heard them all here first.

Another issue that will bedevil Russia’s attempt to host a problem-free Olympiad is the grievances of the Circassians.  The Circassians were one of the many ethnic groups with whom the Russian Empire warred in its imperial conquest of the Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The Circassians inhabited the area where Sochi now sits, and many consider their removal from this area in 1864 by Russia to be genocide.  The fact that 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of this alleged genocide only adds to the Circassians’ sense of injustice.  Previously Russia’s atrocities during the Caucasian conquest have not been well-known outside the former Soviet Union or European History departments (if even there).  But many Circassian activists see the Sochi Olympics as an opportunity to draw international attention to their historical grievances.  As China has learned all to well with Tibet, and Turkey with Armenia, the plight of a historically-oppressed people group can generate sympathy around the world, and complicate diplomatic relations.

All of this will invite unwelcome comparisons with the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Whereas the Vancouver organizers celebrated First Nations people groups and saw the Games as an opportunity to highlight the cultures of historically oppressed peoples, Russia will be seen as suppressing them.


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