The Olympics, security, and the North Caucasus

The Olympics, security, and the North Caucasus

The phrase “security of the games” has become a byline of the Olympic Games ever since the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, where gunmen belonging to the radical Palestinian group, Black September, took hostage and eventually killed 11 Israeli athletes. But it has become an obsession since the 9/11 attacks, even involving NATO forces in securing the 2004 Games in Athens. So much for the peace games…

The 2014 Winter Games will start in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 7 under the shadow of double suicide bombings in the city of Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, where Soviet armies in 1942 staged a bloody, and ultimately successful, defense against invading German armies during World War II. Volgograd today is an important transit hub, 700 kilometers from Sochi. The explosions, one in the central railway station and the other on a trolleybus, shook the city and the Kremlin on Dec. 29 and 30, 2013, killing 34 people and wounding 62. Nobody claimed responsibility for the attacks, though the usual suspects were North Caucasians, and authorities rounded up more than 700 people.

Analysts thought that the bombings were related to an effort to derail the Sochi Olympics and were perpetrated by Islamist militants from North Caucasus. It is no secret that North Caucasians are not happy to have the Games in Sochi, where they have resisted Russian occupation since 1864. The Chechen leader and the emir of the self-proclaimed Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov, called for maximum use of force on July 3, 2013, to prevent the Games from taking place in Sochi.

The Chechens see the Games as the last attempt by Russia to put its stamp on the North Caucasus.

Yet, the region has been in turmoil ever since the Chechen War in 1990s. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, established the federal district system in 2000, creating seven districts in Russia, in an attempt to enhance security in the country. President Dmitry Medvedev added the North Caucasus Federal District in 2010. They thought that the centralization and appointment of district governors from Moscow might ease the tension in the country. However, the unresolved social and economic inequalities, territorial disputes, and ethnic and religious tension continued and in 2012 alone, at least 700 people were killed in armed clashes in the North Caucasus.

The Olympic Games are important for Putin to boost his prestige and to claim to control the entire country. It will be a litmus test as to whether Russia can secure such a place, in the vicinity of a very volatile region, for a global sports competition. After the bombings, Putin ordered that the tightening of security measures should not overshadow the Games.

Yet, trying to prevent armed attacks with increasing security measures rather than focusing on the root causes is a futile task. Instead, Russia should focus on closing the social and economic gap between the North Caucasus and the rest of the Russia; and instead of ruling with an iron hand and selecting governors directly from Moscow, it should give a chance to the inhabitants to determine their future. Otherwise, it paves the way for more support for separatist movements, which become more radical as time passes.

Russia has been trying to regain its superpower image, at least in its near abroad, since the Russia-Georgia War of August 2008. Its support for secessionists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, its attempt to establish a Eurasian Custom Union, its arm-wresting tactics in Ukraine and, finally, its strong positions in a number of international developments, such as Libya, Syria and Iran, have been working so far. Yet, if it is not careful enough, domestic disturbances, starting with the North Caucasus, might put an end to its global power ambitions.