The Olympic torch puts Caucasus on fire

Yesterday’s (29th December) suicide bombing at the train station and today’s explosion on a trolleybus in Volgograd, which together killed more than 20 people, are only the most recent terroristic acts hitting a Russian target during the countdown for the forthcoming Sochi Winter Games, which are scheduled to open on February 7. But they will not probably be the last until the beginning of the Olympics.

 

War Games

The Sochi Olympic Games, due to begin on next February - intended to be the stage of Putin’s new Russia - are becoming more and more the shortcut for the Chechen separatists to get into the world media spotlight.

In a video posted in July on YouTube, Dokku Umarov, the guerrilla leader who self-proclaimed emir of the Chechen separatist Islamic Caucasus Emirate in the southwest of the Russian Federation, said that Russians “plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea. We as mujahideen are required not to allow that, using any methods that Allah allows us”. Umarov also called on his mujahideen to use “maximum force to disrupt these satanic games”. With the Olympics less than two months away, Russian authorities have cracked down on the Dagestan-based fighters, but the recent suicide bombings in Volgograd (the previous on a bus on October 21st – where another “black widow” killed five people) raised security worries ahead of the Games.

 

Putin’s showcase

The Winter Olympics Games will take place just a few hundred kilometers from the North Caucus region, where rebels are fighting to install an Islamic state, and there have been concerns about security threats posed by an Islamic insurgency that has raged across the region.

Back in 2007, when Vladimir fostered Russia’s bid to hold the Olympics, he said that it would be a “safe, enjoyable and memorable experience”. Sochi 2014 is President’s personal showcase, to demonstrate to the world that Russia is back on the superpowers scene. A new counter-terrorism law has been signed on November to increase powers against terrorists, stating the objective liability of "relatives and close associates" of suspect terrorists, who will have to refund victims of the terroristic attacks from the damages they caused.

Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, referring to the Boston event, said: “Our efforts and readiness can't be compared to that. We are getting ready at the maximum level”.  That’s somehow true.

Sochi is under a virtual state of emergency: more than 30,000 policemen have been deployed in the city, army units (including a special forces brigade of veterans who served in Russia’s two wars in Chechnya) patrol the area, and even six Pantsir-S  air defense systems have been positioned in the region to protect the airspace along the southern borders from any flying threat, including cruise missiles and aircrafts. To give an idea, the 2012 London Olympics, which had already an unprecedented level of security, had a total military presence of 18,000 people.

 

The zone

This impenetrable security zone stretches 100 km along the Black Sea coast and 40 km inland. But there’s a detail: Volgograd lies some 650 km from Sochi. What the Volgograd bombings demonstrate is that Russia itself cannot be turned into a security zone stretching along two continents. President of the Sochi Organizing Committee, Dmitry Chernyshenko, promised the Sochi Olympics to be “the safest Games in history”. We believe that. But what about safety in other Russian cities? What do people from Volgograd think about that?

The issue of ethnic separatism in Northern Caucasus need to be resolved in a different way; safety needs counter-terror policies, not only air defense systems. Let’s hope it will not serve as a pretext for a new military intervention in the region.

GUALA