30 Dec 2013

Thin ice: who threatens Sochi’s Winter Olympics, and why

The resort is the playground of Russia’s elite, and in February hosts the Winter Olympics. But Sochi sits on one of the global flashpoints for Islamist terror. Who threatens the games – and why?

Stalin had a holiday home there and millions of sun-seekers flock to the resort every summer. This winter the world’s finest iceskaters and skiiers will visit the snow sports station 90 minutes away in the mountains. But the glitzy beach resort sits on an old political faultline.

And it also sees the opening of a new one, as two recent suicide bombs in Volgograd have painfully revealed.

Old battleground, and a new one

“Ever since Putin came in, he’s been trying to impose Russian rule on the North Caucasus area,” says Andrew Wood, a Russian expert at Chatham House.

“There’s a long-running conflict between Russian security forces and local people looking for independence.”

That has been causing wars in the region since 1800, but it is the 1990s wars in Chechnya that have done the most damage to the Caucasus region, where Sochi sits.

“The very brutal war in Chechnya, in particular, had the result of squeezing out resistance from Chechnya to other areas in the region,” says Mr Wood.

And mountainous Dagestan next door, with its tribal cultures, 30 different languages, and largely Muslim population has been most severely destabilised. The influx of displaced Chechnyans has added to the sectarian tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims, traditional Dagestani opposition to Russia, and tensions between the dozens of ethnic groups that make the region the most ethnically diverse in Russia.

Dagestan is famous for turning out world-class wrestlers, but its terrorists have been more prominent recently. An October suicide bomb in Volgograd was blamed on a Dagestani terrorist group, and Russian police are investigating Dagestani links for bus and train suicide bombers who struck Volgograd again in December, killing at least 30.

The country of 2.9m is also rich in oil and gas, increasing Russia’s determination not to let go of the area.

Holy war

And with Russian authorities blaming Islamist terrorists for the suicide bombings, it seems like a new battle is taking place in the Caucasus too.

But Mr Wood stresses that despite the fact that Chechnya and Dagestan are mainly Muslim while Russia is predominantly Orthodox Christian, religion is a side issue in the conflict.

“Another consequence [of Chechnya] has been for people to claim Islamic motivations,” he says, with South Caucasians sometimes picking up on 19th century ideas of setting up an Islamic caliphate in the area.

“But it’s not a religious conflict,” he says, “except that religion can be used to define different ethnicities. Religion is not the origin of this conflict.”

Still, Islamist ideology has given a new vocabulary and international outlook to the struggle in the area, says James Wertsch of Washington University, St Louis.

“In an age of instant global communication, one ominous result is that the fundamentalist identities that have emerged locally are tied to worldwide networks. In addition to fighting against Russia, for example, radicalised Chechens can now be found fighting with Islamists in Afghanistan and Syria.”

Volgograd in the crosshairs

With a heavy police presence in Sochi, it is other parts of the Caucasus region that are more likely to be targeted by terrorists.

Volgograd is the biggest city in the region, ethnically Russian and honoured nationally as a “hero city” for stopping the Nazi army in 1943. Formerly Stalingrad, the city’s five-month siege proved a turning point of the second world war.

Sitting between Russia and the Caucasus region, it is geographically and symbolically a target for terrorists from any of the disaffected Muslim states below it.

The city and its 1 million residents are a softer target than Sochi. And with a well-developed transport network – easier to reach.

And yes, says Mr Wood, the iceskating has encouraged it. “It’s taking place in the Caucasus area, and in terms of Caucasus history, it’s a significant place,” he says. “The Sochi Games are a symbol. The prestige of Putin’s regime lies on it.”