Concerns Surrounding the Sochi Olympics
[This post was originally published in February 2014. Many thanks to Tamara Barsik and Vladimir Troyansky for their help in researching this post!]
As Russia prepares to host the 22nd Winter Olympics in February 2014, a number of concerns threaten to disrupt the joyful atmosphere of the games. Corruption, human rights violations, security, and the “Circassian question”—as well as the better publicized gay rights issue and the Snowden affair—lurk behind the pretty façade of a “Potemkin village” constructed by President Vladimir Putin.*
While it received relatively little attention in the Western media, within Russia corruption is the main Olympics-related concern. The construction of the Olympic infrastructure in and around Sochi cost some $50 billion, making these games the most expensive such event ever, by a wide margin. This price tag is $49 billion more than the cost of Salt Lake City Olympics and nearly five times that of Vancouver Olympics. According to statistics, the final price tag for an Olympics usually runs 2 to 2.5 times higher than the initial estimates, but the Sochi Olympics turned out to be five times more expensive than originally planned. While some of this difference can be ascribed to the potentially higher costs of running a Winter Olympics in a subtropical location, it appears that the main factor was corruption. Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny has recently launched a website to publish a wide range of data pointing to massive corruption in Sochi. According to him, “athletes are not the only people who compete in Sochi. Officials and businessmen also took part in the games and turned them into a source of income”. Allegations of corruption and racketeering schemes involving the highest echelons of power in Russia also came from Russian businessman Valery Morozov, who participated in some infrastructure construction projects in Sochi in 2007. According to a BBC report, Morozov was being forced into a scheme whereby millions of dollars of federal funds would be siphoned to government-backed subcontractors. Morozov ultimately quit the project and asked for political asylum in the UK in 2011. Despite such mounting evidence, President Vladimir Putin and Vice Premier Dmitry Kozak have vehemently denied such claims of corruption. Russian investigators do admit to some irregularities, but the full extent of the problem remains to be uncovered. For example, a 2012 report by the Russian Audit Chamber found about 15 billion rubles (about $500 million) in “unreasonable” cost overruns in the preparations for the Sochi Olympics. Auditors found that the work of some staff members at Olympstroi, the state company in charge of Sochi construction between 2008 and 2010, was “conducive to incurring unreasonable cost overruns.” At least three criminal investigations against Olympstroi employees have been opened, but none of them has reached court so far.
Whatever the cost overruns were actually spent on, it was not on expensive schemes to acquire the land needed for construction. According to allegations by Russian human rights organizations, reported by the BBC, some 2,000 former Sochi families lost their homes and land in a corrupt scheme. First, a home would be demolished in accordance with a falsified court decision, alleging building code violations, but without providing warning to the owners and doing so in their absence. Then, the owners were required to pay a disproportionate bill—in the order of $100,000—for the “removal of the debris”. As few people can produce such funds, their land would then be expropriated in lieu of payment. People whose land has thus been taken were neither resettled nor compensated. According to Angela Zilberg, a former homeowner forced out by this scheme, municipal authorities simply tell people in such circumstances “to go live some place else”.
According to the same BBC report, the rights of construction workers are violated as well. In order to build the Olympic infrastructure, some 80,000 workers were brought to Sochi from the “near abroad”, mostly Uzbekistan and elsewhere in Central Asia. Now that their services are no longer needed, many of the foreign workers are not simply deported, but are rather “cleansed” (a term used in official documents!) in raids conducted by the police with the help of voluntary Cossack regiments, some of which are paid from the regional government budget. Even foreign workers whose immigration papers are in order are subject to brutal treatment, and many are forced to hide in overcrowded apartments with little chance to get provisions or to report to work, reports BBC’s Anastasia Uspenskaya.
Another group that views the entire Olympic project as a violation of their human rights is the Circassians. Virtually unknown in the West today, Circassians were once famous for the beauty of their women and the military prowess of their men. They inhabited the area around Sochi until the 1860s when they were expelled by the Russian Empire, which had fought the Circassians for roughly a century. Some 80 to 90 percent of the Circassians were forced to leave the region; most found refuge in the Ottoman lands, but some 600,000 died in the process, giving the area around Sochi the nickname of the “Graveyard of the Russian Empire” and making the Circassians “one of the first stateless peoples in modern history” (Walter Richmond, The Circassian Genocide, p. 85).
Today the Circassian population in Russia has recovered to number some 900,000 though it has not yet reached the pre-expulsion figure. Yet, the majority of Circassians—roughly two to four million people—still reside in Turkey, and smaller Circassian communities are found in Jordan (approx. 150,000 Circassians), in the Galilee region of Israel, and in the USA (particularly in New Jersey). A once numerous Circassian community in Syria has mostly fled, with thousands now residing in refugee camps in Turkey, just as their ancestors did some 150 years ago.
As the Winter Olympics put a spotlight on their homeland, Circassian activists are now pushing Russia and the global community to recognize the events of the 1860s as constituting genocide. The No Sochi 2014 movement in Turkey has launched a project to create information packages for all athletes attending the games. More recently, they have rebranded the “No Sochi” campaign to “#kNOwsochi”: with only a few days left to the opening of the games, the activists realize that stopping the Olympics is out of the question, but informing people of the region’s history and current events is still possible. The No Sochi activists in the USA have created petitions for all the major nations that Circassians reside in— Jordan, Germany, USA, Turkey, and Israel— asking their leaders to boycott the Sochi Olympics for the Circassian issue. (Several world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, President of France Francois Hollande, European Union commissioner Viviane Reding, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have already cancelled their participation in the Olympics, due in large part to the gay rights issue, which so far has caused the most outcry in the international circles, and in part to the Snowden affair.) Every member of the US Congress was sent letters informing them of the Circassian situation. A major social media campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube is also underway. Weekly demonstrations take place at the Times Square in New York, and monthly protests are staged outside Russian consulates worldwide. As a result of this campaign, some Western pundits have come to recognize that conducting a major sporting event at the location of Circassian homeland is ludicrous; thus, Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation, has compared the Sochi Olympics to “having Olympics in Auschwitz”.
The response from the Russian government to the Circassian campaign, however, has been anything but understanding. Most Circassian refugees from Syria who have applied for the right to return to their historic homeland in the Caucasus were denied Russian visas. Fewer than a thousand Circassians were allowed to enter Russia; they were required to pay large amounts of money for processing and were given only 3-month-long visas at a time. In some cases, these short-term visas were not extended and the refugees were forced to try to find salvation in Turkey or Jordan, but in many cases they were sent back to Syria. At the same time, many of the Circassian activists in Caucasus have been detained ahead of the Olympics, along with journalists, environmental activists, and minority rights activists.
It must be stressed that the Circassian No Sochi movement maintains a strictly peaceful and non‑violent stance. Yet other groups have highjacked the Circassian issue and used it to promote their own, often more violent, agendas. As American journalist Matt Lauer pointed out, “there are a lot of groups that would like to use the Olympics to make a point”. The most credible threats have come from Chechen militants, whose leader Doku Umarov, known as “Russia’s Osama bin Laden”, has vowed to “derail” the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which he called a “satanic dance on the bones of our ancestors”. Yet the Chechens are not indigenous to the Sochi area and are not historically related to the Circassians. The two groups speak different language that belong to distinct language families. The gene pools of Chechens and Circassians are quite different as well (see map on the left).
Another crucial difference between the Circassians and the Chechens, highlighted by Brian Glyn Williams, Professor of Islamic Studies at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, is that the Circassians’ “recent conversion to Sufi mystical Islam was only skin deep”. Consequently, the Circassians never joined forces with the more extremist Muslim liberation movements in the Northeast Caucasus (Chechnya and Dagestan) such as the Caucasus Emirate, a pan-Caucasian organization aiming to liberate all of the northern Caucasus and rebuild the state of the 19th century jihad leader, Imam Shamil. It is the Caucasus Emirate, not the Circassians, who issued a proclamation in the fall of 2013 that read:
“We know that on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many Muslims who died and are buried on our territory along the Black Sea, today they plan to stage the Olympic Games. We, as the Mujahedeen, must not allow this to happen by any means possible.”
Such threats—and security concerns in general—loom large, particularly in the wake of the twin bombings in southern Russia in late December 2013 and an earlier one in October. These terrorist attacks targeted mass transportation in the city of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), known as the site of a major battle that changed the course of World War II. The two recent separate suicide bombings there claimed the lives of 34 people; to date, no individual or organization has claimed responsibility. The bombings are “clearly meant to show the Russians that the Chechen-Dagestani terrorists have reignited their terror jihad”, says Brian Glyn Williams. Other analysts likewise fear the attacks could have been a “test shot” by terrorists planning additional assaults on the Winter Olympics. After the bombings, the International Olympic Committee expressed sympathy for the victims and but maintained confidence that Russia’s security arrangements for the Olympic games would be adequate.
With his country in the global spotlight, Russian president Vladimir Putin has promised to “annihilate” the terrorists. In order to safeguard the sporting venues in Sochi, Russian authorities have introduced some of the most extensive security measures ever seen at an international sports event. The security zone created around Sochi stretches approximately 60 miles along the Black Sea coast and extends up to 25 miles inland. Russian forces in the area include special troops to patrol the forested mountains flanking the resort, drones to keep constant watch over the Olympic facilities, and speed boats to guard the coast. Anyone wanting to attend the games will have to buy a ticket online, which requires providing passport details and contacts, allowing the authorities to screen all visitors. The security plan includes a ban on cars from outside the zone a month before the games begin. Authorities will also be collecting data on the phone communications of anyone in the city. Nothing is left to chance in protecting what some pundits call “Putin’s pet project”.
Although meant to show the world “what Russia can do”, the Olympics also revealed many dark secrets—from corruption to human rights abuses and the deep-rooted xenophobia—that Putin does not want the world to know. And while looking for the next “national idea”—something all of Russia’s citizens can rally behind—one should remember that Russian Federation is a multi-national state, with many conflicting ethnic and regional narratives.
*The expression “Potemkin village”, commonly used in Russian, derives from the attempts by Prince Grigory Potemkin to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787 by erecting fake settlements with equally fake “happy villagers”. It is now used to describe any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that some situation is better than it really is.
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