There has been a lot of tallk about the security situation for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. And for good reason. The Black Sea resort town is located just a stone’s throw from the scene of a lot of recent political terror, and a number of terrorist groups have publicly announced their intention to violently disrupt the games.
Russian officials have responded by lining up the most draconian measures ever to be orchestrated for an Olympic event. Athletes and visitors can expect massive security checks at almost every turn. Sports fans will be required to show passports and undergo airport-level checks to get into all venues. Internet and mobile phone activity will be under constant surveillance. Unmanned drones will patrol the skies above, naval ships will guard access by sea, and tens of thousands of police and military personnel will be on duty.
While we will never be completely safe from terrorists who are willing to kill themselves and others to make a point, we believe that the massive security measures that Putin has put in place will have the intended effect. Travelers to Sochi will have all the protection that one of the world’s biggest armies can provide.
Still – the more you know before you go, the better your chances of staying safe. That’s forward thinking.
A REGION RICH IN HISTORY AND CONFLICTS
Sochi and the Caucasus region have a rich and often violent history that stretches back to pre-Roman times.
The North and South Caucasus are home to over 50 different ethnic groups. Today, the North Caucasus is mostly Russian and comprises republics such as Chechnya and Dagestan, which were invaded by Russia as recently as the 1990s. The South Caucasus includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (only recognized by three non-UN states) and parts of Turkey and Iran.
The Caucasus have long been fought over by a variety of clans, religious groups and states. Everyone from ancient Greek senators to Ottoman rulers and Georgian politicians have had designs on the region, and this has led to a noticeable diversity in Sochi’s cultural identity. Nowadays, Sochi’s population consists primarily of Russians, Armenians, Ukrainians and Georgians. The main religions are variants of Christianity and Islam.
TERRORISTS READY TO SPOIL PUTIN’S OLYMPIC DREAMS
In the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, a number of groups have announced plans to make trouble for Russia’s prestige project and settle historic scores. Here’s a shortlist of who to keep an eye on:
- The “Caucasus Emirate”: Led by Dokka Umarov, a Chechen Islamist separatist, the organization’s main goal is independence for Chechnya. Sharia law is also on the list of things to do. The group has been involved in several attacks in Russia, including the 2009 derailment of the Nevsky Express, the 2010 Moscow Metro bombings, and the 2011 suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport.
- Other Chechen separatists: Unaffiliated with Umarov, several other Chechen, Ingush and Dagestan groups have expressed similar goals: liberating the Caucasus region from “Tsarist Russia” and establishing independence for Chechnya and neighboring republics. One such group was responsible for the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis, other terrorist credits include the training of female suicide bombers, or “Black Widows,” who have targeted public locations and public transport as recently as October, 2013.
- Syrian rebels: Russia continues to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and a number Syrian rebel groups have announced plans for retribution during the 2014 Olympics. The threat could come directly from Syrian rebels themselves, from Russian terrorists who trained in Syria, or from local Islamist groups showing their support for the rebels.
- Circassian/Caucasian rebels: Over the course of the Caucasus’ history, Russia pioneered the concept of ethnic cleansing and killed over 400,000 Circassians while forcibly deporting another half million to Turkey. Sochi was the last holdout of Circassian resistance in 1864. Apsua Qaeda members, as well as the Abkhazian Parliamentary Committee for Return have expressed intentions to retaliate for past Russian sins.
POLITICAL TERRORISM IS OLD NEWS IN RUSSIA: A BRIEF REVIEW OF RECENT EVENTS
While the Caucasus has been a crucible of tension for millennia, events of the last two decades in particular cast a long shadow on the Sochi Olympics.
- 1990s Russian-Chechen wars: Chechen separatists declared independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union disintegrated. The First Chechen war broke out in 1994 and lasted for about two years before Russian troops pulled out. The conflict reignited in 1999 when Russian troops occupied Chechnya anew. With there are no official casualty figures, many estimates indicate that as many as 150,000 Chechen civilians and 15,000 Russian lost their lives between 1994 and 2003.
- September 2004: Islamic separatist militants, mostly Ingush and Chechen, occupy School Number One in Beslan, North Ossetia. Their demands: the recognition of Chechnya’s independence by the UN and the withdrawal of Russian troops. Of the 1,100 taken hostage, 777 were children. Over 380 people died.
- July 4, 2007: Sochi is chosen as the host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
- 2008: Russia announces investments in the Olympics and Sochi’s infrastructure, with expected total budget of USD 50 billion, the most expensive games of all times.
- August 7, 2008: A five-day war between Russia and Georgia breaks out, triggering fears of retaliation during the 2014 games.
- March 29, 2010: Two suicide bombers kill 40 people in Moscow’s subway. Islamist insurgents claim responsibility.
- May 26, 2010: A bomb stuffed with shrapnel detonates in Stavropol, wounding over 40 people. Russian law enforcement officials state that there are “no less than four groups” in the region thought capable of having committed those acts.
- January 24, 2011: Suicide bombing at Domodedovo International Airport, Russia’s busiest airport, with 37 dead and 173 injured. The bomber was a 20-year-old male Ingushetia native affiliated with Dokka Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate.
- 2012: Russia passes laws banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors”. Widely perceived as anti-gay bullying, Putin and Russia go on record as being against LGBTs, and
- Spring 2013: Additional security measures are announced, including military presence, security drones and special passes for spectators requiring a passport number and photo to attend Olympic events.
- Summer 2013: Russia maintains its political support of the Syrian regime, prompting fears among Russian security officials that Syrian rebels could attempt to sabotage the games as retaliation.
- October 2013: Despite denial from officials, Russian journalists report that all electronic communications in the region will be constantly monitored by the FSB.
- October 21, 2013: Six people are killed in a suicide bombing on a bus in Volgograd. The attack is blamed on a 30-year-old-woman from Dagestan.
- October 28, 2013: President Putin backtracks on his previous statements regarding LGBT attendance. “We are doing everything, both the organizers and our athletes and fans, so that participants and guests feel comfortable in Sochi, regardless of nationality, race or sexual orientation,” Putin said, according to RIA Novosti, a Russian news agency. LGBT groups have pointed out that the anti-gay laws passed in 2012 are still in full effect.
Be sure to check out our next blog, "How to stay safe at the Sochi Olympics".