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Too Far, Too Fast: Sochi, Tourism and Conflict in the Caucasus
Too Far, Too Fast: Sochi, Tourism and Conflict in the Caucasus
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 228 / Europe & Central Asia

Too Far, Too Fast: Sochi, Tourism and Conflict in the Caucasus

The recent bombings in the south of Russia could prove a precursor to more violence and instability in the Caucasus if Moscow does not abandon repression for political dialogue.

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Executive Summary

Russia has invested extensive resources and prestige in the Winter Olympics to be held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, 7-23 February 2014. The tab, an estimated $51 billion, does not include a nationwide security operation to protect the venue against attack by a resilient and ruthless armed jihadi movement. A spate of bombings, including two in December in the southern city of Volgograd, show that North Caucasus Islamist terrorists are determined to strike opportunistically across the country to mar the games and challenge President Vladimir Putin, who has promised a “safe, enjoyable and memorable” Olympic experience. If ripple effects of security for Sochi and the ambitious regional tourism project the games are meant to inaugurate are not to worsen the situation in the war-torn North Caucasus, local communities must be assured they will benefit from the development plans, not fall victims to rapacious local elites or the abuses allegedly accompanying the Games. Equally important, they will need guaranteed long-term security, not simply oppressive security regimes.

To forestall attacks on the Games themselves, which will be held a few hundred kilometres from Europe’s most active armed conflict, the government has transformed Sochi into a tightly-sealed high-security zone. Tens of thousands of troops, police and special forces have been deployed, along with drones, advanced cyber surveillance and a special security regime. 

Even before the Volgograd bombings, which indicated that security cannot be guaranteed across the vastness of Russia’s nine time zones if the terrorists should choose to strike away from Sochi, the Olympic hosts faced many other challenges. Construction of facilities for the Games has been accompanied by serious delays, allegations of corruption and incompetence, violation of residents’ and workers’ rights, relocation without compensation and encroachment on unique ecosystems. The Circassians, one of the region’s main ethnic groups, bitterly criticise the choice of Sochi for the Games, describing the venue as the site of nineteenth-century Russian war crimes against their people. As the Olympic opening ceremonies approach, Moscow has tried to improve its human rights image, releasing among others Mikhail Kho­dor­kov­sky, the former billionaire and Putin political opponent, after ten years in prison, two members of the Pussy Riot punk band and 30 Greenpeace activists.

What has been less noticed is that the Games are to be the curtain raiser for an ambitious, expensive and risky plan to develop tourism across the North Caucasus as a whole, including in parts where active counter-insurgency operations are underway. The North Caucasus Resorts (NCR) project aims to create ten major resorts, including in Dagestan and Chechnya, republics that have been particularly affected by deadly conflict in recent years. The goals are 3.5 million tourists annually and creation of at least 160,000 jobs, at an estimated cost of at least $15 billion.

Planning for the Winter Games has already resulted in heavy-handed security policies in the North Caucasus that are more likely to exacerbate the situation in the region than calm it. In Dagestan, for example, attempts to rehabilitate insurgents and engage in dialogue with moderate Salafis have been replaced by a wave of repression against fundamentalist Muslims. Similar policies have been applied in Ingu­shetia, and security has also been tightened elsewhere.

These measures may temporarily suppress the symptoms of the North Caucasus insurgency, but they cannot solve the core problems. The region needs lasting peace above all, not more massive security operations. Ultimately, comprehensive conflict-resolution is required; currently the government appears committed to a course that boils down to “fighting terrorists until their complete destruction”, as President Putin put it in his 2014 New Year’s address.