Despite Risks – Moscow Turns to Ski Resorts as Regional Panacea for the North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 111

Construction of the Sochi Olympics site (Source: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Moscow no longer expects that the situation in the North Caucasus region will improve any time soon. Even the Russian presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District, Aleksandr Khloponin, has been forced to admit on several occasions that one should not expect any positive changes in the region in the next three to four years (http://kavkasia.net/Russia/2011/1307309966.php). That being said, Khloponin could not help but make loud populist statements about forthcoming “foreign investments” in the region’s economy. A French bank called “Caisse des Depots et Consignations” is considering investing in the region. Established in 1816, it is considered one of the oldest state banks, “specializing in infrastructure project financing and pension fund management” (www.lenta.ru/news/2011/05/26/france/). The agreement on the French investments was reached at a meeting between the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and French President Nicolas Sarkozy during the session of the G8 countries in the city of Deauville, France, on May 26. However, in Russia, people do not like talking about the fact that French investments will be backed by Russian governmental guarantees (www.gazeta.ru/news/lenta/2011/05/26/n_1855813.shtml).

Such an initiative on the part of Moscow and Paris is thus more politicized than it is economic. The mere fact of foreign participation in the North Caucasus will be presented by the Kremlin as evidence of stabilization in the region against the backdrop of the upcoming Olympic Games to be held in Sochi in 2014. President Sarkozy would make many concessions to Moscow to just be able to complete the sale of the “Mistral” aircraft carrier to Russia. Besides, the French are clearly seeking to fill the void which has emerged since British and German businesses were pushed out of Russia (http://marker.ru/news/318). One should therefore look at this project of the French president from the angle of the French presidential elections set for the spring of 2012.

Moscow’s ambitious ski project contemplates building five tourist clusters throughout the entire North Caucasus (in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Dagestan and Adygea). However, it is increasingly being met with opposition from the environmental group Greenpeace and its local branch in Russia, which has called on French authorities to decline participation in what it calls “criminal projects” (www.tourprom.ru/news/13142/). Strangely enough, Chechnya is not being included as a part of the Kremlin’s ski resort panacea for regional problems in the North Caucasus. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s wish to have his own mountain ski resort center has been virtually ignored in the Kremlin’s regional ski projects. To bypass the refusal of Russian authorities to include Chechnya in the tourist cluster projects, Kadyrov set about building such a center on his own. He chose the high-altitude Itum-Kale district in the area of the village of Veduchi to build such a center, having tasked a famous Chechen businessman, Ruslan Baisarov, to oversee the related construction. One can be sure, knowing Ramzan Kadyrov’s abilities, that this resort will open sooner than the resorts financed by Russian authorities elsewhere in the North Caucasus. Ironically, Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the Russian presidential administration, was included for this very purpose, showing him on the ground where, how and who will create the Chechen international mountain ski resort center (www.checheninfo.ru/novosti/vlast/politika/7448-vsurkovya-zdes-vse-taki-doma-a-ne-v-gostyah.html). Each year, Surkov has been more and more inspired by a sense of patriotism for his homeland, increasingly talking about his Chechen roots, which have long remained a mystery to Russia’s citizens.

Yet, while one can attract foreign investors with a pledge of Kremlin guarantees, the issue of security is more relevant for a Western tourist than the public relations motives of Russian politicians. Given the annual reports of human rights groups, one should not expect tourists to line up to purchase tickets to visit the resorts, where a vacation will look more like extreme tourism amid the gunfire of militants, official bureaucracy, low-level hotel service, and local customs and traditions that might not only restrict the drinking of alcoholic beverages, but also limit opportunities for venturing outside the resort area, among other things.

Members of the Public Chamber under the Russia president had to confront the human rights situation in the North Caucasus themselves when they held another series of meetings with residents of the region. The venue for the public meeting in Makhachkala resembled a besieged fortress. Reinforced police units sealed off the building from those with whom the Public Chamber representatives came to talk. The storming of the building by dozens of people, who questioned the ability of those who had arrived from Moscow to solve their problems, demonstrated the intensity of the situation. On June 1, a rally held in Makhachkala was attended by 3,000 to 5,000 people, according to various sources. The rally participants protested the authorities’ persecution of all those deemed not to fall under the category of “official Islam” – namely, adherents of the Salafist tradition, among others (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/186647/).
There is only one step from misunderstanding to radicalization. And this step is most often taken by the authorities. One can detain, beat and insult a Muslim. One can close down a mosque, or not allow one to call others to prayer by azan [the Islamic call to prayer], as was the case in Beslan. Yet there is hardly anyone who can stop those who have decided to take revenge or have gone on the warpath. This makes the situation highly dangerous in North Ossetia, where a conflict between Muslims and Christians is becoming increasingly palpable (www.russian.rfi.fr/kavkaz/20110531-v-severnoi-osetii-zverski-ubit-dekan-universiteta). Each attack by authorities against Muslims is laying the foundation for future problems. Increasingly, the radicalization of the Muslim population in Ossetia, first and foremost of its youth, will generate a new spiral of armed confrontation leading to political turmoil in the region. In the beginning of the 1990’s, the entire North Caucasus was home to no more than a hundred Salafi members. By the beginning of 2000, the Salafis numbered thousands across the whole region. Today, they may already possibly number up to ten thousand in the North Caucasus. No, this number is not about those who are waging war, using deadly force – they constitute only a fraction – but about those who are ideologically feeding those fighting and who already constitute a certain layer in society.

Against the backdrop of the numerous antagonisms in the region, one should refrain from drawing any far-reaching conclusions about the next several years, because the situation is changing so precipitately to the disadvantage of Moscow.