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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
A Moment for Peace in the South Caucasus
A Moment for Peace in the South Caucasus
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.

A Moment for Peace in the South Caucasus

Originally published in The International Herald Tribune

The United States, the European Union and Russia don’t seem to agree on much these days. But in the volatile South Caucasus, they concur that Armenia and Azerbaijan need to sign an agreement on Friday if they are serious about finding a peaceful solution to the decades-old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia has invited the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders to the city of Kazan on Friday and expects they will finally put their signatures on a “basic principles” text they have been wrangling over since 2007. This will be the ninth meeting that Medvedev hosts with his Caucasian counterparts.

To some, the deal on the table may not seem like much. After all, it would still only mark the start of a process, not its conclusion. But if Medvedev can get them to put ink to paper, it will be a rare and significant step forward in this confrontation and a validation of the Russian leader’s persistence.

The signs seem promising. In a strongly worded statement issued at the May G-8 summit meeting in Deauville, France, Presidents Obama, Medvedev and Nicolas Sarkozy of France, representing the mediators of the “Minsk Group” charged with settling the dispute, highlighted the Kazan meeting and demanded no further delay. Indeed, time is running out because this autumn campaigning will begin in the region and in the Minsk Group countries for 2012 and 2013 elections, thus complicating matters for some and driving the issue lower on the priority list for others.

Nagorno-Karabakh has been pushed down the ladder for too long. It has often been described as a “frozen conflict” ever since a cease-fire deal was signed 16 years ago leaving Armenian forces in control of the mountainous territory and surrounding areas, at least 13 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory. However, shooting across the line has been killing dozens of people every year. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been trying to outdo each other buying sophisticated weapons — with Azerbaijan spending as much on arms as Armenia’s total state budget — in expectation of a major war. Pressure to reverse the status quo by force is especially increasing in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital.

A final settlement would allow some 600,000 internally displaced people to return to their homes and offer a sense of security for the approximately 150,000 people currently living in Nagorno-Karabakh. It would put an end to fears of a regional war, in which, because of existing security accords, Russia could step in on Armenia’s side and Turkey on Azerbaijan’s, and Iran would be unlikely to stay on the sidelines. 

It is now up to President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan to decide if war or peace is more threatening. They have done very little to prepare their people for peace and a lot to prepare them for war. But they could still convince their citizenry of the advantages of compromise. If a deal is forthcoming in Kazan, they will need to do a lot to prevent spoilers from surfacing.

The deal on the table includes withdrawal by Armenian forces of most of the Azerbaijani territory they occupy around Nagorno-Karabakh, the deployment of international peacekeepers, the establishment of an Armenian security corridor, return of displaced persons, interim status for Nagorno-Karabakh, and the promise of a “legally-binding expression of will” to determine the future status of the territory at the end of the process.

This is very balanced. But it will take 10 years or more to implement. Armenians and Azerbaijanis have spent the past two decades building up reservoirs of hate and don’t trust each other to respect their commitments. The Armenians want quick implementation to ensure that Nagorno-Karabakh gets independence, Azerbaijanis are in no rush to let go of a territory that Aliyev says will remain part of his country as long as he is president. Even with a deal, the United States, the European Union and Russia will have much to do after the ink is dry. They may have to begin the painstaking work of drafting a comprehensive peace agreement and start physical planning for implementation. The occupied territories have been destroyed, massive reconstruction will be needed, as will international peacekeepers. The E.U. especially will need to quickly provide civilian, military and economic assistance. If there is no speedy follow up to an agreement in Kazan, and firm international commitment to support it, the deal risks unraveling.

Or, if the presidents don’t sign, the international actors will have to start preparing for a renewal of fighting that would be drawn out. With so much violence already happening in the broader region, this is not an eventuality that the United States, the E.U. and Russia can afford.