Sochi's Olympic Security Obstacles

Political instability and difficult history confront Russia's winter games next year.

On February 7, 2014, the XXII Olympic Winter Games will open in the famous Black Sea resort of Sochi. These games will be the first Russian-hosted Olympics since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Thus, the Sochi games will provide an important symbol greater than mere athletic competition. The Sochi project is particularly important to Russian president Vladimir Putin. He considers the event as to be a demonstration of the Russia’s post-Soviet potential and its growing role on the international stage. It has also been interpreted as an integral part of Putin’s return to the presidency, as a way to secure domestic support and prestige.

Yet the choice of host city for these Olympics creates a number of challenges for Russia. Sochi, a popular summer resort, has long held the informal status of the "summer capital" of Russia, primarily because the country’s political elite often spend their vacations there. Yet, paradoxically, it was chosen as the venue for the premier global winter-sports competition. It will mark the first time in the history of the Olympics that the Winter Games will be held in a subtropical climate.

Climate aside, Sochi faces a number of more difficult challenges, having become the focal point of several thorny issues with geopolitical and security implications.

Security in the North Caucasus

Unlike recent Olympic host cities such as Beijing, London or Vancouver, Sochi finds itself much more vulnerable from a security perspective. It lies approximately one hundred kilometers from Karachay-Cherkessia and less than two hundred kilometers from Kabardino-Balkaria. The latter saw 156 people become victims of political violence last year.

Today, the North Caucasus breeds instability beyond the region itself. Terrorist attacks by the jihadist groups of the Caucasus have taken place in Moscow (the bombings of the Moscow metro in 2010 and Domodedovo airport in 2011) and on Russian railways (the bombing of the Nevsky Express train between Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2009). The jihadists of the North Caucasus claim to have spread their activities into the Volga region, where Islamist groups, including militant radicals, have become to take shape. Those bombings sent the message that the North Caucasus issue is not limited by geography, that they could export their fight beyond the borders of Russia’s most turbulent region.

Moreover, in 2007 some of the jihadist groups of the North Caucasus (such as “Dagestan vilayet”) said they were ready to attack Sochi and destabilize the Russian power structure. At present, “Dagestan vilayet” is considered one of the strongest militant groups in the North Caucasus and has been responsible for many high-profile terrorist acts, including a bombing during a military parade in 2002, the murder of a police official in Dagestan in 2005, and the death of the head of the Dagestan interior ministry in June 2009. The most ambitious counterterror operations in the North Caucasus, not including the two Chechen antiseparatist campaigns, were directed against “Vilayet.” It is considered to be a part of the “Caucasus Emirate” (CE), which is led by Doku Umarov, a self-styled jihadi of Chechen origin. Yet the structure of the CE is designed as a network and therefore does not operate within a vertical hierarchy. Moreover, it is not the only terrorist structure in this turbulent region.

The Circassian Issue

The upcoming Olympics will be provided in the place of symbolic historical importance. Sochi holds a special historical significance for every Circassian person. On May 21, 1864, Russian troops crushed the last bastion of Circassian resistance at Kbaada (now Krasnaya Polyana, part of the Sochi area) in the Western Caucasus during the Caucasian War. Grand Duke Michael Nikolayevich, the fourth son of the Russian Emperor Nicholas I, presided over a military parade of Russian troops through that territory, marking a great victory for the Russian army after years of bloody conflict. The demographic losses suffered by the Circassians from the war, but also the diseases and forced expulsion that came with it, were immense.

But the history of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus is not defined solely by these ethnopolitical and human tragedies. Russia’s conquest of the region brought about the comprehensive modernization and Europeanization of the Caucasus. This nineteenth-century event has become a persistent national trauma for Circassian populations the world over. For this reason, hosting the Olympics Games in Sochi has inflamed tensions over the “Circassian question” once again, prompting the ethnic and political mobilization of the Circassian communities, both in Russia domestically and through the global Circassian diaspora communities.

This issue is complicated by current challenges in Russian domestic and foreign policy. The interconnected issues include the persistent strife surrounding the disputed territory in Kabardino-Balkaria and political aspirations of ethnic minorities that feel underrepresented in government in Karachay-Circassia. The issue of Circassian repatriation from Syria has also become especially important as a result of the recent conflict, which has affected Syrian Circassian populations deeply. The Circassian issue has been also exploited by Georgia, which recognized the “genocide of the Circassians” in May 2011.

Sochi and the Russo-Georgian Relationship

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