Will Moscow’s Unyielding Stance on Circassian and North Caucasian Political Issues Endanger the 2014 Sochi Olympics?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 55

On March 3, a conference titled “The Circassian Question and the Olympics in Sochi” was held at the Moscow center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Many of the participants expressed disappointment with the Kremlin’s reluctance to discuss the issue of the Circassian “genocide” openly and engage in a dialogue with the concerned groups. The Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website reported that a majority of the experts did not consider the Circassian question an obstacle to holding the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014, but feared its importance may grow over the next several years in the run-up to 2014 (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 17).

The head of the Russian regions’ research center, Denis Sokolov, told Kavkazsky Uzel that people in the North Caucasus are waiting for Russia’s top political leadership to say something about the issue. “Russia behaves not very adequately in the public space,” he said, adding “Nobody says that we should recognize the [Circassian] genocide, but we can publically justify our historiography. Especially as the situation in the [North] Caucasus is rather dire even without this senseless suppression of obvious facts.” According to Sokolov, the real danger for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi comes from the conflict between elites in Moscow and the North Caucasus over the distribution of budget money (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 17).

The Russian ministry for regional development’s official estimate of Moscow’s expenditure on the Olympics in Sochi is $30 billion. Unofficial estimates of the Olympics’ costs are even higher – up to $50 billion. Much of the allotted resources are to be spent on overhauling Sochi’s infrastructure to prepare it for hosting the Olympics. These infrastructural costs are often hidden in other budget entries instead of being listed as part of preparations for the Olympics (http://www.newsland.ru/news/detail/id/342936/cat/86/).

Government money is being spent on Sochi in large quantities at the same time as the budgets of the North Caucasus republics undergo deep cuts. In 2010 all republican budgets, even in Chechnya, significantly shrank due to the ailing local economies and the rollback of financial aid from Moscow. While the North Caucasus population and elites had grown accustomed to the astonishing prosperity of Moscow in comparison to their own territories, the sudden influx of government money into the Sochi region may be viewed with resentment in the surrounding regions.

The keynote speaker at the Carnegie conference, Naima Neflyasheva, emphasized the importance of the Sochi area in the Circassian narrative. It is the native land of the Abkhaz and Circassian people, and the Russian empire expelled them from the region into exile after their final defeat in 1864. Many Circassian activists are now demanding that the Sochi Olympics be moved to another territory and that Russia should recognize and alleviate the consequences of what they regard as the “Circassian genocide.” Ironically, Krasnaya Polyana [Beautiful Meadow], where a majority of the Sochi Olympics sport events are to be held, is the same place where the Russian army commemorated its victory over the Circassians exactly 150 years before the Sochi Winter Olympics are to be held.

In March and November 2010, the Jamestown Foundation held two highly acclaimed international conferences under the title “Hidden Nations, Enduring Crimes: The Circassians and the Peoples of the North Caucasus Between Past and Future.” Both conferences were held in Tbilisi, Georgia and were received with great enthusiasm both in Georgia and among Circassians in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in the diasporas. The Georgian parliament has struggled since March 2010 to hold a vote on recognizing the “Circassian genocide.” But Georgia has also significantly expanded its interaction with the North Caucasus, and in October 2010 lifted the visa requirement for people traveling from this troubled region.

The Carnegie Moscow Center’s expert on the North Caucasus and Islam, Aleksei Malashenko, warned that the Russian government should be concerned not only about the Circassian question, but also about the general instability in the North Caucasus. As Moscow’s envoy to the region, Aleksandr Khloponin, himself admitted, 2010 was “disastrous” for the Russian government in the North Caucasus (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 17). Kabardino-Balkaria, where the majority of the Circassians live, became one of the centers of the insurgency in the North Caucasus in 2010.

On March 19, a suspected militant, Marat Zokaev, was killed in the Cherek district of Kabardino-Balkaria in a shootout with the government forces (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 19). On March 16, the security services killed Aslan Yemkuzhev, a suspected rebel, in the center of the republican capital Nalchik. Surprisingly quickly, on the same day he was killed, the authorities announced that Yemkuzhev had received military training in Lebanon and fought in the ranks of the Fatah al-Islam radical organization (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 16). On March 20, an explosion took place at a local market in the city of Prokhladny in Kabardino-Balkaria. One person was injured in the attack (RIA Novosti, March 20).

There are also vibrant Circassian communities in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygea, to the west of Kabardino-Balkaria and in close proximity to the future Olympic sites in Sochi. So it is hardly surprising that during the period from February 23 to March 7, large-scale military exercises were held in Adygea and the Krasnodar region, of which Sochi is a part. Six thousand servicemen, including those of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and its flagship Alfa counterterrorist unit, the Interior Ministry and the Ministry for Emergency Situations (MChS) participated in the exercises. In one of the scenarios played out during the exercises, 20 terrorists captured and held hostages at an administrative building in the area (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 8).

The North Caucasus insurgents claimed responsibility for the attack on the Moscow metro in March 2010 and the attack Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in January 2011. Given the proximity of the Sochi Olympics’ sites to the centers of the insurgency and the poor recent record of the Russian security services, it is extremely questionable whether Moscow will be able to guarantee security for the Olympic visitors in 2014.