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Sochi and Northwest Caucasus – II

GB Geo-Blog

Sochi and Northwest Caucasus – II

Last week, we introduced the Northwest Caucasus, a strategically important region of Russia, and surveyed its three provinces – Stavropol, Krasnodar, and the ‘autonomous republic’ of Adygeia, homeland of the region’s indigenous Circassian people. This time, we consider the politics surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics, which are to be held in Krasnodar’s premier Black Sea beach resort, Sochi. The Games are intended to cement Russia’s links to the Northwest Caucasus. Yet, paradoxically, preparations for Sochi 2014 are only highlighting the problems that Russia faces in the region.

The International Olympic Committee’s announcement in July 2007 that it was awarding the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi – over rival bids from Austria and South Korea – came as something of a surprise. True, the city’s surroundings magnificently unite a subtropical shoreline with snowy mountains only kilometres away. However, as a resort, Sochi leaves something to be desired. Its physical infrastructure and tourism facilities were developed for Soviet citizens, who flocked there on cheap package vacations, and amenities are not at international standards. How did Russia secure the Olympics for this somewhat down-at-heel beach town?

Sochi’s win owes much to the determination of one man: Vladimir Putin, then President, and now Prime Minister of Russia. To bolster Sochi’s case, Putin made a personal appearance at the IOC deliberations in Guatemala City, where he pledged his full commitment to the success of the Games, and promised to invest US $12 billion in infrastructure improvements for the region. Sochi’s win was immediately touted in the media as a significant boost to Russia’s international standing, and as the crowning glory of Putin’s own tenure in the Kremlin. Sochi will be Russia’s first Olympiad since the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, and Putin undoubtedly meant the return of the Olympics to symbolize Russia’s own return to great power status. Still, it is not obvious why Putin wanted Russia’s winter games to be held in the country’s warmest region, long known more for sunbathing than for skiing. In other words, why Sochi?

The selection of Sochi for the Games has political – and indeed geopolitical – motivations. It fits in within a larger trend toward the enhanced importance of the Northwest Caucasus within Russia. The Russian government has made a priority of upgrading infrastructure and communications in the region. It is building a new highway from the Black Sea to central Russia. And it is pouring money into modernization of the province’s major port, Novorossisk – a hub for the trade in oil and other commodities, which will probably also become the new home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet when Russia’s lease of Sevastopol (in the Crimea, part of Ukraine) expires in 2017. Sochi 2014 will also stimulate the region’s economic development, and tie it more closely to the rest of Russia. In other words, both the Games themselves and the investments Russia is making into them demonstrate the Kremlin’s determination to maintain its presence in the broader Caucasus region. In addition, there is a regional political dimension: the Games were a triumph not just for Putin, but also for Krasnodar governor Aleksandr Tkachev, whose position as Moscow’s leading regional ally has been reinforced by Sochi’s win.

With Putin and Tkachev having triumphantly secured Sochi 2014, the Russian government must now practically prepare to hold the Games. However, since the IOC’s announcement, more and more questions have been raised about the Games. The concerns range from security, to construction and development issues, to the impact of the Olympics on the region’s physical environment and its indigenous population.

There are multiple, extant armed conflicts that are alarmingly close to the future Olympic city. Sochi is only kilometres from Russia’s border with the disputed region of Abkhazia – a major bone of contention in the recent Russia-Georgian war. Abkhazia, which is legally a part of Georgia, has been ruled by a separatist government with Russian backing since the 1990s. In August 2008, Russian troop deployments into Abkhazia, and shelling of Georgian territory from the separatist region, lured the Georgian government into its ill-fated offensive. Neither Georgia’s defeat in that war nor Russia’s subsequent recognition of Abkhazia’s independence has resolved the conflict, and hostilities could break out again. Indeed, whether or not there is another full-scale war, the Sochi Games will be taking place near a heavily militarized border between Russia and a neighbouring state – somethat that is hardly conducive to the Olympic spirit of international amity.

Along with the threat of another Russo-Georgian war, the Russian government has had to address increasing concerns about the risk of terrorist attacks in or near the Sochi Olympics. In the mid-2000s, as the IOC was reviewing Russia’s proposal, the country’s long-running conflict with separatist forces in Chechnya seemed to be winding down, with Russia triumphantly proclaiming the end of ‘counter-terrorist operations’ in the North Caucasus. More recent events, however, have belied Russia’s assertions. In several North Caucasus provinces, economic stagnation and the brutality and corruption of many of the region’s leaders have produced growing anger at Russian rule, as well as an expanding Islamist terrorist campaign throughout the region. Terrorist attacks in the North Caucusus, such as the assassination of local officials or explosions in police stations in Dagestan, do not always capture international media attention. But the recent suicide bombings on the Moscow subway evidently captured headlines around the world, and indeed suggest that the situation in the Caucasus is getting worse, not better. Although the IOC officially accepts Russia’s assurances that it can guarantee the security of the Sochi Olympics, security measures will have to be pervasive and stringent, and the atmosphere may be quite tense.

Along with the issue of security, questions are being raised about the construction spree that is supposed to produce a modern sports and tourism complex in Sochi. The 2014 Games are managed by a newly created corporation under mixed public and private ownership. While the Russian government has invested huge sums, and Putin has given the matter the attention that he promised, the new entity has been dogged with controversy from the start. There is unease about both the quality of the Olympic sites, and the transparency of the financing: not all the funds allocated for Olympic construction have necessarily been used for their intended purpose. Media reports indicate that tensions with the IOC have already emerged. Moreover, the building boom is not necessarily benefiting local businesses. The coming Games are accelerating an ongoing transfer of ownership of hotels and other tourist sites on the Black Sea littoral: smaller private owners (often members of the local Armenian community) are being edged (or forced) out of the tourism business, and being displaced by much larger corporate structures – often with political connections. Russian media sources have alleged that the city government of Sochi is selectively demolishing buildings (such as privately owned hotels) – ostensibly for building code violations, but in fact to make way for more powerful investors. All this suggests that, in contemporary Russia, it is difficult to carry out a major infrastructure project in a transparent manner.

Finally, there are questions about the environmental and cultural sensitivity of the Olympic planning. Environmentalists have expressed alarm about the impact of Olympic construction on the fragile ecology of the Black Sea littoral, which includes a major national park. In early 2010, the World Wildlife Fund angrily suspended its cooperation with Russian authorities, alleging that Olympic construction was causing irreparable destruction of habitats and contamination of watersheds. Moreover, Sochi 2014 has exposed disagreement between the Russian state and some native peoples about the proper development of Olympic sites. As discussed in last week’s piece, the indigenous Cirassian people formerly inhabited the entire Black Sea coast, including Sochi, but are now concentrated in Adygeia. Some Circassian activists allege that Olympic construction is already resulting in the destruction of important historical sites. In particular, the mountain area known as Yasnaya Polyana, slated to be the site of the downhill events, was the location of a decisive battle between Russian troops and Circassians during Russia’s 19th century conquest of the region; the name actually means ‘Red Meadow,’ – a reference to the blood spilled there. While North American Olympic cities like Vancouver and Salt Lake City have wrestled with this continent’s own painful aboriginal history, Russia’s Olympic preparations have shown unwillingness even to acknowledge native peoples’ concerns, let alone address them in the planning process.

In short, the Sochi Olympics were intended both to showcase Russia’s rising political fortunes, and to reinforce its presence in the Northwest Caucasus. Having said this, much will have to change between now and 2014 if the Games are to produce the impression on foreign observers for which the Russian government is hoping.


Matthew Light is Assistant Professor at the Centre of Criminology and Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (CERES), University of Toronto.


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