SOCHI, Russia — The shadowy underbelly of the Sochi Olympic Games is the downplayed domestic hostilities in Russia’s North Caucasus region. The Russian Muslim-majority of the North Caucasus has been struggling for political autonomy since 1994.
Russia has been actively suppressing the antagonistic separatist movements that are occurring only 300 miles east of the picturesque Black Sea municipality of Sochi.
Fears of terrorist attacks have made the Russian government significantly expand its counter-terrorism program. This is is understandable, as the Sochi Olympics are most expensive (costing in excess of 50 billion) and debatably most corrupt Olympic Games ever. The record amount was upsetting too many, who viewed it better for the economic development.
Over 13%, or 18.1 million people, are below the poverty line, with an annual growth of 1.1% per year.
Residents of the North Caucus fear a terrorist attack on the Olympics would only bolster tensions and lead to another conflict. The Russian military presence has already been felt. Prior to the Olympics, Russian Special Forces began what was categorized as the “most extensive security operation” in Olympic history.
Many local residents feared for their well-being. Some argue that the counter-terrorism operations were leading to the “total destruction of the youth.” Many young residents of the region are fleeing in vast numbers.
One Chechen who withheld his identity out of fear stated many fled as far as Moscow to “protect themselves” from military raids. Russia’s violent actions in the last decade have turned the nationalist separatist movement into one driven by a “more radical vision of Holy war” which has attracted fighters. The vast majority of citizens are neither are radicalized or supportive of separatism.
The constant destruction caused by Russian security forces do fuel resentment and are detrimental to bettering relations.
The reality of the circumstances on the ground comes after the rejuvenation of Chechen capital, Grozny. It has been portrayed as a “slow motion civil war.” Experts say Russia will never fully control the rebel activity through belligerent means and are actually bolstering recruitment of rebel combatants. In 2013 alone, 529 people died as a result of fighting between rebel combatants and Russian forces.
Out of the 529 people killed, “127 were Russian Security Officers,” coming close to the 160 who died “during the same period in NATO’s war in Afghanistan.”
Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, director of the International Crisis Group in the North Caucasus sees it as an ongoing cycle. She states that committed Jihadist “don’t need much” to actively fight, arguing that a bomb is “quite cheap” to produce, creating an intricate predicament for Russia “to deal with.”
Sochi itself is not without controversy, as it is the sight of the 1864 mass genocide by the Russian military of the Circassia people. The survivors were promptly deported to countries such as Syria and Turkey. Many have been seen peacefully protesting outside the Olympics for the return of their ancestral homelands.
Why would Russia select such a capricious province to host an intercontinental event such as the Olympics?
Arguably, Vladimir Putin’s preference to host the Olympics in the North Caucasus was a politically strategic move. His political livelihood was born out of this war. Russia’s fervent proposal to host the Olympics began in 2006, and Putin was “basking in his hard-won status” as the Russian ruler who conquered, and seen as a line of attack to “cement his triumph.
The Olympic’s was costly political propaganda. Alexei Navalny, Russian anti-corruption campaigner, saw the Olympics as a waste of essential wealth that could of greatly benefited the nation; he argues that the Olympics is “a notorious monument to Vladimir Putin, a monument to embezzlement, a monument to corruption.”
In a way, Putin does see the Olympics as a ‘monument’ to his growing autocratic rule. He stated in an interview that he saw the Olympics as a way to wash away the “negative and pessimistic attitude” brought upon by the tribulations Russia had faced, making a note of the “collapse of the Soviet Union,” the loss of its Superpower status and the “bloody events in the Caucasus.”
The Olympics was Russia’s effort to divert concentration away from their past digressions, and self described “humiliation of the 1990’s.”
Small actions have shown the governments attempts to distract from Russia’s blemished past. Ramzan Kadryov, current President of Chechnya, allegedly changed the date commemorating Joseph’s Stalin mass deportation of Chechens from in the middle of Olympics on February 23 to May 10.
The Olympics have been plagued by being involved in the geopolitics of the North Caucasus. This is not a crisis that will be easily solved by the Russian government.
– Joseph Abay
Sources: Statesman Journal, New York Times, Al Jazeera America, Salon, The New York Review, Mother Jones, Foreign Policy, CBC, IB Times, Forbes, NBC News
Photo: New York Post