Russia Ramps Up Information Security to Suppress Adverse News Reporting Around Sochi

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 14 Issue: 19

On September 30, the commander of the Russian ground forces, Colonel-General Vladimir Chirkin, stated that troops under his command would take part in providing security to the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014 (http://www.itar-tass.com/c96/896137.html). The statement came amid a series of other statements by Russian security services officials aimed at reassuring the public about safety concerns at the Sochi games. At a press conference on October 2, Federal Security Service (FSB) spokesperson Alexei Lavrishchev stated that the security services would step up their efforts to prevent riots (http://ria.ru/sochi2014_around_games/20131002/967288515.html). At the same time, Lavrishchev tried to signal that security in Sochi would not be overwhelming. “Measures taken to ensure the safety of the participants and the guests of the Olympics will be moderate,” he said. “Security will be unnoticeable, not flashy, and will not interfere with the guests and participants. For comparison, take the most recent Olympics in London. There were anti-aircraft missiles and snipers on the rooftops. Despite lawsuits and protests by local residents, these measures were still put in place. The streets and public areas were crammed with surveillance cameras. We will not do that either” (http://ria.ru/sochi2014/20131002/967293668.html).

Despite these reassurances, some observers have already dubbed the Winter Olympics in Sochi the “Gulag Olympics” due to the harsh security measures that will be imposed on city dwellers and visitors. It is expected that 40,000 police officers will be deployed in Sochi to provide security in the city, which has 400,000 residents. In addition, an 80-mile restricted zone will set up around the city (http://www.vocativ.com/08-2013/putins-olympics-crackdown-rebels-say-hes-turning-sochi-into-a-gulag/). No protests will be allowed in Sochi during the Olympics, and only specially designated vehicles will be allowed to enter the city (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2310541).

In fact, there have already been restrictions on civil liberties connected to the Olympics. In September, photographer Rob Hornstra and writer/filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen were denied Russian visas—an action that the barred journalists said they thought was an attempt to prevent critical reporting ahead of the games (http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/dutch-journalist-says-denied-entry-for-sochi-reporting/486846.html#ixzz2gtxynX2z). Within the framework of the Sochi Project that Hornstra and Van Bruggen launched in 2009, they have published what they call “An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus” (http://www.aperture.org/shop/books/coming-soon-photography-books/the-sochi-project-rob-hornstra-books). Naturally, with the Olympics in Sochi just a few months away, the Kremlin is not happy about the atlas.

At the end of September, Turkish journalist Fehim Tashtekin was barred from entering Russia via Sochi airport. He remained in the airport for three days, after which the Russian authorities deported him back to Istanbul and officially barred him from entering Russia for the next five years. Tashtekin was on his way to neighboring Abkhazia, but even the intercession by Abkhazian government officials did not help him. Tashtekin reports on the North Caucasus and on the Circassians opposed to the Sochi Olympics for the Turkish newspaper Radikal (http://www.natpress.ru/index.php?newsid=8405).

The Russian government’s ban on public protests during the Olympics is mainly targeted against one category of protesters—the Circassians. In the 19th century, prior to the Russian conquest of the Caucasus, the area around Sochi and far beyond it belonged to the Circassians. The Russian empire destroyed the Circassian forces in a long and devastating war and then deported a majority of the Circassian population to the Ottoman Empire. The Circassians currently living in the North Caucasus and a large diaspora abroad are trying to make use of the Sochi Olympics to remind the world of their plight. The Russian government failed to recognize the 19th century Circassian “genocide” and made it extremely difficult for Circassians in the North Caucasus to establish contacts with the Circassian diaspora.

As a reflection of the complex interdependencies in the wider Caucasus region, Georgia turned toward the Circassians soon after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, and Georgia’s parliament officially recognized the Circassian “genocide” in 2011. In an impassioned speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2013, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said that “the Georgian parliament has recognized [in May 2011] the genocide of Circassian people—one of the most unknown and tragic pages of history of the world, when a whole nation was wiped out because their land was needed by the Russian Empire” (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26491). The Russian delegation at the UN staged a walkout during the Georgia president’s speech. Remarkably, even the leading Russian opposition-oriented TV channel Dozhd dropped the paragraph about the Circassians from the Russian translation of Saakashvili’s UN speech that it published on its website (http://www.aheku.org/news/society/4902).

The promises by Russian security officials to provide non-intrusive security during the Sochi Olympics are unlikely to materialize. In fact, it seems that the Russian government has already started filtering information from the region. This hyper-security regime is likely to cause at least a few scandals during the Olympics, while it is still far from clear that the Games will be effectively safeguarded.