With Sochi Olympics on the Horizon, Russia Bolsters Military Presence in Northwest Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 207

Planned Sochi Olympics 2014 site (Source: skyscrapercity.com)

On November 7, the European parliament in Brussels observed Circassian Day. The event focused on Circassian diaspora organizations, their problems and expectations in relation to the European parliament. In attendance were diaspora groups from European countries, but also substantial Circassian delegations from the United States and Israel. One of the main topics of discussion in Brussels was political activism within the Circassian diaspora. The Circassian issue garnered some public attention internationally because of the Winter Olympics in Sochi set to take place in 2014 (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, November 8).

The Circassians insist that the Olympics be moved to another location in order to avoid a conflict with the principles of the Olympics. Circassians occupied the lands around Sochi prior to the Russian empire’s brutal conquest of the region in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Circassians were forcibly deported to the Ottoman Empire and are now dispersed among many Middle Eastern and European countries, as well as the U.S. Only an estimated 10 percent of the prewar population was allowed to stay in the North Caucasus, but they were driven out of the areas along the Black Sea coast. Circassian activists claim their people’s destruction at the hands of the Russian empire constitutes a case of genocide. In May 2011, Georgia was the first country to recognize the Circassian genocide officially (see for details http://nosochi2014.com/).

Russia’s reaction to the increased awareness of the Circassian issue was mixed. Even though most pro-government media and Russian officials dismissed Circassian claims and some even mutedly threatened them, the government also made gestures of accommodation. For example, in Tuapse district of Krasnodar region, where Sochi is located, the local government plans to open Circassian museums. Two ethnic villages will strive to replicate the life of the Circassians prior to the Russian conquest of the nineteenth century (http://www.aheku.org/page-id-2652.html).

Moscow’s reaction, however, was not only about accommodating Circassian interests. The Russian military quietly has relocated the 33rd mountain infantry brigade from Botlikh, Dagestan, to Maikop, Adygea. On October 26, the commander of the unit, Aleksandr Zybkin, met the head of Adygea, Aslan Tkhakushinov. The mountain infantry brigade has a listed staff of 2,300 people but is actually manned by 75 percent of that number, or 1,725 persons. The 33rd brigade became a structural part of the newly formed 49th army in the North Caucasus, headquartered in the city of Stavropol. The mountain brigade from Dagestan replaced the 291st artillery brigade in Maikop, which has been relocated to a base inside Ingushetia. Various explanations were given as to why this brigade was removed from Botlikh – including, among others, the hostility of the local Dagestani population and the absence of an appropriate firing range and specialists (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, November 8). Yet another reason may have been the need to strengthen the Russian military presence in the northwestern Caucasus to protect the Sochi Olympic from possible attacks.

It is open to question, however, how effective the military would be against a terrorist attack. On October 22, an improvised explosive device went off near a gas station in Sochi. The device reportedly contained 2.5 kilograms of explosives (Interfax, October 26).

On November 2, the Russian military announced plans to build a military training facility in Terskol, near Mount Elbrus in Kabardino-Balkaria. A Russian defense ministry official, Aleksandr Ukraintsev, stated that the Russian mountain military units had the same skill sets as their counterparts in other countries, but lacked a proper training base. According to the president of the Russian Mountaineering Federation, Andrei Volkov, Russian law enforcement needs up to 35,000 servicemen with mountain combat skills. Volkov said that 1,222 servicemen had received the relevant training in the mountains and 221 of them were certified as instructors, including 117 instructors for the defense ministry (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, November 6).

On November 5, a counterterrorism operation regime in areas of Kabardino-Balkaria including the Elbrus and Baksan districts was lifted. Officials stated that the special regime had helped quell the insurgents’ influence and that the situation in the republic had stabilized. The counterterrorism operation regime was introduced in key areas of Kabardino-Balkaria on February 20, following the killing of three tourists from Moscow by suspect militants. The attack and the state’s reaction to it disrupted the local tourist business (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, November 5). Even though counterterrorism regime rules are no longer in effect, the scare after the murder of the tourists will probably persist for some time. It is also unclear how the insurgents will react to the resumption of tourism in Kabardino-Balkaria.

Meanwhile, on November 2, one of the most powerful Circassians in the Russian government, Nazir Khapsirokov, died in Moscow. Khapsirokov worked as an aide to the head of the Russian president’s administration head since 2001 and previously headed the administrative apparatus of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office. Khapsirokov came from the village of Khabez in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, where he was also buried (http://www.kchr.info, November 3). This loss for the Circassian community of the North Caucasus is important because it could severely impede the channels of communication between the Kremlin and the Circassian activists seeking concessions from Moscow over the 2014 Sochi Olympics.