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
Sochi borders Abkhazia, a de facto breakaway region of Georgia, which is itself a major strategic partner of the United States, the European Union and NATO. Abkhazia’s statehood and national independence have both been recognized by Russia, making the athletic events at Sochi into a major geopolitical issue. The Georgian authorities have many times called for a boycott of the Olympics, drawing comparisons between the Russia of the 2000s and the Soviet Union during its invasion of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.
The rise to power of the “Georgian dream” coalition during the parliamentary elections of 2012 has led the new authorities in Tbilisi to propose the normalization of relations with Moscow, and Georgia’s National Olympic Committee formally supported the country’s participation in the Sochi Olympics. Yet the principal conflicts, such as the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the absence of diplomatic relations, have caused the “Sochi issue” to remain one of the most salient, topical questions on the Russo-Georgian agenda.
Russia-Abkhazia: Asymmetric Partnership
Today, Abkhazia enjoys its status as an entity protected and supported by Moscow. However, concerns persist within the Abkhaz elite and public about the relationship with Russia, especially asymmetric nature of the relationship. The Abkhaz leadership and especially its opposition fear the penetration of Russian big business in the republic and possible engagement in property redistribution or oil explorations in the Black Sea. They also are concerned by the return of ethnic Georgian entrepreneurs who currently hold Russian passports.
Russia considers Abkhazia a territory that should be engaged in the preparations for the Olympic Games. This provokes some fear and phobias among those Abkhaz who are concerned about losing ethnic preferences that were obtained during the 1992-1993 war with Georgia. Thus, the Abkhaz leadership is suspicious of the ongoing infrastructure development taking place with Russian assistance. Abkhaz President Alexander Ankvab went so far as to reject the “Cherkessk-Sukhumi” road development project on the basis of questionable “ecological concerns.”
Protection for the Cossacks
As a part of the Krasnodar region, Sochi holds special strategic importance for Southern Russia. Its southern border is formed by what is left of Russia's Black Sea coast, and it plays host to Russia’s most important ports at Novorossiysk and Tuapse. This region is the third-most-populous Russian territory, trailing only the Moscow region, with 5.5 million people. Oil and gas pipelines from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan run out of Novorossiysk, and the Novorossiysk and Tuapse ports rank first and third nationwide in the rate of freight turnover.
The Krasnodar region is affected by considerable internal and external migration. For example, Armenians now compose roughly 30 percent of the total population of Sochi. This has provoked nationalist aspirations on the ground: Russian nationalism mixed with elements of Kuban’s Cossacks has become the official ideology of the regional elite. The result has been increasingly nationalist rhetoric, with Alexander Tkachev, the regional governor known for his close ties with the Kremlin, suggesting the construction of a so-called “migration filter” to prevent a repetition of the Kosovo scenario on the primordial “land of the Cossacks.”
The upcoming Sochi Olympics face serious security and geopolitical challenges. The first subtropical Winter Olympic Games will require from the Russian authorities not only high quality, creative public relations but also the ability to provide a high level of security. Without proper attention to the complex ethnopolitical issues at play in Sochi, the Kremlin will not reap the expected benefits from the games that it has sought for many years. Before the opening ceremony, Russia should prove that its return to the major leagues of international politics is more than just political rhetoric.
Sergey Markedonov is a visiting fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/kremlin.ru. CC BY 3.0.