Sochi Winter Olympics 2014: A Primer

On Thursday, June 27, the Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted a discussion on the security concerns surrounding the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics with Sergei Markedonov, a visiting fellow with CSIS’s Russia and Eurasia Program. Markedonov presented his main concerns regarding the security of the Sochi Games, launching in just seven months.

I was lucky enough to spend a week in Sochi in 2010, as Russia began its preparations for the Games. The gorgeous mountains, seaside, and Olympic propaganda plastered on every billboard revealed little of the region’s precarious geopolitical position and fraught ethnic history. Of course, I dug deeper, both during my trip in interactions with locals and as a graduate student. What follows–I hope–is a digestible primer on the issues surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics, based on my own knowledge and views presented by Markedonov.

A view from a mountain near Sochi, looking down on the town and sea below.
A view from a mountain near Sochi, looking down on the town and sea below.

Sochi is located between the Black Sea and the famed North Caucasus mountains (the range where the Ancient Greeks thought Prometheus was chained to his famed rock). Sochi was enveloped by the Russian empire in the late 19th century after the Caucasian War, and since then, it has developed the reputation of Russia’s “Summer Capital,” where good Russian and Soviet citizens–the last Tsars, Stalin*, and Putin among them–flock to get their fill of sea air and sunbathing.

That’s what you’d find on the back of a postcard, anyway. Markedonov has a different view of regional geography: he finds Sochi’s proximity to instability paramount. The city is situated just 200 kilometers from the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, which Markedonov cited as the third most active terrorist zone in Russia. While terrorist activity in the North Caucasus region has declined in recent years, a Dagestani militant group has openly threatened the 2014 Games.

The causes of these protracted conflicts are varied and impossible to pinpoint, yet all have at least a shade of nationalism at their core. The Caucasian War, which brought more than 50 indigenous ethnic groups into the Russian Empire largely against their will, fomented these nationalist feelings. The end of the war was sealed with the forcible expulsion and eradication of one of the ethnic groups–the Circassians–from the region, referred to by many academics, human rights activists, and anti-Russian governments as the Circassian Genocide. The Circassian Congress claims 400,000 ethnic Circassians were killed, while 497,000 were forced to migrate to Turkey, leaving only 80,000 ethnic Circassians in their native lands at the end of the Caucasian war.

The snowy peaks of the North Caucasus, taken near Krasnaya Polyana, Putin's favorite resort, where some Olympic events will be held.
The snowy peaks of the North Caucasus, taken near Krasnaya Polyana, Putin’s favorite resort, where some Olympic events will be held.

On top of terrorism and genocide, Sochi is also in close proximity to the international conflict between Russia and neighboring Georgia, which resulted in armed conflict in August 2008. Since the Five Day War, the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which fall within Georgia’s borders, have become de facto Russian republics, cut off from Georgia and its government. Russian-Georgian reconciliation has been essentially non-existent; until Bidzina Ivanishvili was elected as Prime Minister last fall, the Georgian government threatened to boycott the 2014 Games. And who can blame them, with threat of terrorism, the ghost of genocide, and ongoing international disputes surrounding the host city?

With seven months before the opening of the Games, Russia has some scrambling to do to improve Sochi 2014’s image at home and abroad. Markedonov posited that with “creativity in public relations” and “a high standard of security service and inter-ethnic understanding,” the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics might just get off the ground without incident. Russia, of course, cannot afford “incidents.” The Games are of symbolic importance to the country; being the first held in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, Markedonov believes they represent Russia’s return to the “major leagues” of international policy.

I have no doubts regarding Russia’s ability to create a physically secure environment for Sochi 2014. They’ll just send in rows of OMON–riot police–like they have for years. Add a few security checkpoints, no doubt ethnically targeted, and the event will be secure in Russia’s eyes. But public relations and inter-ethnic understanding have never been Russia’s strong suit, and the very security precautions taken in 2014 may simply provide new fodder for old conflicts.

A statue of Neptune overlooking the Sochi boardwalk.
A statue of Neptune overlooking the Sochi boardwalk.

*Interesting fact: Stalin had a summer house in Sochi, complete with bunker and underground tunnel to the shore. You can visit it when you’re in town for the Olympics.

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