Winter Olympics inflame tensions in Russia

Russia’s aim to deliver “the safest games ever” is called into question after two bombings and rousing nationalism.

Two bomb blasts in Volgograd in two days killed more than 30 people and injured more than a hundred [AP]
Two bomb blasts in Volgograd in two days killed more than 30 people and injured more than a hundred [AP]

Moscow, Russia – With a 60-mile security zone, extensive identity checks, drones and Cossacks patrolling the streets around Sochi, the Russian government is determined to deliver on its promise that the Winter Olympics, opening in the Black Sea city in February, will be “the safest games ever.”

But securing Sochi, which sits in the southern Krasnodar region next to the most active insurgency in Europe, is only possible through a monumental deployment of force that has already impacted the North Caucasus, where conflict with ethnic and religious minorities has flared for years.

This week, two bomb attacks in two days – on a bus and at a railway station – rocked the city of Volgograd, 420 miles northeast of Sochi, killing 30 people and injuring more than a hundred. While no group has claimed responsibility for the bombings, authorities believe them to be related and a warning sign as the games approach.

Second deadly blast hits Russia’s Volgograd

Moscow has geared up for the Olympics by running a repressive campaign in parts of the Caucasus region, particularly in Dagestan, leaving many to fear an escalation in the aftermath of the games.

“The perception of people on the ground is that they are waiting until the Olympics are over and then they’ll completely unleash some kind of a horrible campaign against everyone who is even remotely suspected of anything,” said Valeriy Dzutsev, a scholar of the region, who said the technology and manpower displayed at Sochi are there to stay.

Preparations for Sochi, where foreign laborers worked on most Olympic construction, also highlighted a separate set of problems: Russia’s treatment of immigrants and recent surges in nationalism and xenophobia.

While the issues differ in context and scale, the government has used similar tactics – including raids and arrests – to deal with both Russian minorities in the North Caucasus and foreigners. 

“Many people in other parts of Russia don’t perceive the North Caucasus as a part of their country, but a kind of inner abroad,” said Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, director of the North Caucasus Project at the International Crisis Group. “And many people in the Caucasus feel that they’re second-rate citizens.”

“Migration is part of the whole problem that is the dramatic deterioration of ethnic relations in Russia,” she added.

But with the games less than two months away, the Kremlin seems to many to be more focused on protecting the venues – and its own reputation – than addressing the country’s deep-running social and political tensions.

The government is shelling out an estimated $3bn to do that, including paying for 33,000 police and other officers and 30,000 soldiers – almost twice as large as the force deployed in London in 2012.

‘Real crackdown’

Security has been a priority for organisers since Russia won the bid to host the games, but the stakes raised after Doku Umarov, a Chechen militant at the helm of the Caucasus Emirate and Russia’s most wanted man, called on hard-liners to target the games in a video broadcast last July.

The group was behind the attacks on the Moscow metro in 2010 and Domodedovo Airport in 2011, which killed 39 and 36 people respectively, but it also functions as a loose umbrella for independent armed groups, based primarily in Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. A 2011 attack at a ski resort near Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, was widely regarded as a trial for a similar attack on the games.

In a way, the Sochi Olympics are being used as a sort trial run for various security training, ranging from increasing cameras to monitoring Internet traffic, which are likely then to be rolled out across the country.

-Mark Galeotti, analyst

“It’s clear that Sochi will be at risk,” said Matthew Clements, a security analyst specialising in the North Caucasus. The government’s large-scale operations will likely keep sports venues safe, he added, but may not protect “softer” targets, including hotels and transportation hubs – which were targeted in recent attacks, including this week’s in Volgograd.

But many are already looking beyond Sochi to a conflict with few prospects for a peaceful solution. Attacks like those in Moscow, as well as the recent arrest there of 15 people tied to the group Takfir Wal-Hijra, show that both the insurgents’ reach and the government’s response extend far beyond the mountainous region home to the games.

“In a way the Sochi Olympics are being used as a sort trial run for various security training, ranging from increasing cameras to monitoring Internet traffic, which are likely then to be rolled out across the country,” said Mark Galeotti, another analyst. “However much Russian authorities are promising that it’s going to be a gentle footprint security operation, that’s not what they’re gearing themselves up for.”

The clampdown at home has already begun with detentions, arrests, torture and intimidation. 

“There’s a real crackdown taking place in the North Caucasus,” Galeotti said. “The rules of engagement are much more liberal for the authorities.”

The crackdown extends beyond armed groups, and includes activists, environmentalists, critical journalists and religious and civil society leaders. Civic associations, mosques and Islamic schools, particularly run by Salafis, were closed down. 

Authorities have implemented a slew of controversial measures, like a law passed last month that makes the families of insurgents liable for damages. Home demolitions and seizures of land were announced in Ingushetia, and there were reports throughout the region of authorities forcibly collecting DNA samples from Muslim women, in an attempt to identify corpses after suicide attacks that are increasingly carried out by wives, widows and sisters of insurgents. 

Critics called such measures “collective punishment” and warned they would lead to radicalisation.

“We’ve seen over the past decade that there’s a cycle of repressive security measures being undertaken in this region actually leading to increased levels of recruitment as disillusionment grows among the community for what they see as indiscriminate action against them,” Clements said.

But the insurgency in neighboring North Caucasus is not Sochi’s only problem.

Critics have accused the government of silencing political dissent in the name of Olympic security.

The arrest, earlier this month, of Circassian activists – the indigenous people of the region around Sochi – was interpreted as a warning.

“This was an obvious demonstration of power with a clear intimidating message,” Sokirianskaia said.

Nationalism and xenophobia

The games also highlighted nationwide tensions around the issue of immigration, as nationalist groups have grown more vocal and anti-migrant sentiment has flared.

In Sochi, Olympic construction was carried out largely by migrant laborers from Central Asia, as residents of the North Caucasus – where unemployment is high – were passed over because of security concerns.

Foreign workers are widely exploited in Russia, forced into inhuman conditions and often denied payment. They are also regularly deported, as has allegedly happened to most laborers in Sochi.

“Olympic construction has used migrant work massively and now the authorities are very roughly detaining and deporting them,” said Sokirianskaia. “There was a whole economy behind it.”

When people come with their own traditions, customs, it causes irritation.

-Alexander Gorbenko, Moscow deputy mayor

Immigration reform has been high on the government’s agenda, particularly after nationalist groups rioted last October in the Moscow suburb of Biryulyovo, after a foreigner was accused of murdering a Russian man. Some 1,600 migrant workers were rounded up in raids following those clashes.

In an interview last month, Alexander Gorbenko, a Moscow deputy mayor in charge of regional security, dismissed the riot’s severity. He said the government condemns violent manifestations of nationalism, but added that the “improper” behavior of migrants is to blame.

“When people come with their own traditions, customs, it causes irritation,” Gorbenko said. “This isn’t just about nationalists, it’s also about our colleagues of non-Slavic origin and of Muslim faith who often act provocatively in Moscow.”

While much of the xenophobic sentiment expressed in Biryulyovo is premised on economic discontent, the increasing number of Muslims – both foreigners and Russians – following jobs to the cities has heightened tensions.

There are an estimated 20 million Muslims in Russia – roughly 14 percent of the country’s population.

In an interview last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged that a surge in immigration has posed a challenge to the country’s ethnic and religious “coexistence.”

The government is working to put the largely unregulated immigration system “in order,” including by requiring businesses to register migrants and secure acceptable conditions for foreign workers that are often kept as “slaves,” Lavrov said.

While Lavrov condemned nationalist extremism and said Islam is “part of Russia,” perceptions among self-proclaimed nationalists are more muddled, as many reject non-Slavic Russians regardless of their citizenship.

To many such nationalists, there is little difference between migrant laborers from Central Asia and the Russian minorities the government has identified as a threat to Sochi.

The Russian government has staked its reputation and deployed all its strength on delivering safe games. It might pull that off, analysts say, but the political and social tensions that the Olympics have highlighted – from immigration to the North Caucasus conflict – will challenge the government long after the last athlete has left.

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi

Source : Al Jazeera

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