News / Europe

In Boston's Wake, Sochi Eyes Olympics, Chechens

The Olympic rings are seen in front of the airport of Sochi, the host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics, April 22, 2013.
The Olympic rings are seen in front of the airport of Sochi, the host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics, April 22, 2013.
Reuters
Pass the metal scanner on arrival at Sochi station or watch Cossacks patrol the streets of the 2014 Winter Olympics venue and you know it did not take the Boston Marathon bombs to alert Russian organizers to two facts.

One, that a major sporting event makes a prime target for terrorism; and, two, that Chechens and other Muslim peoples of Moscow's restive Caucasus mountain provinces around Sochi nurse deep historic grievances that pose a constant risk of violence.

The oval-shaped “Bolshoy” Ice Dome will host hockey matches in Sochi, March 15, 2013. (VOA/V. Undritz)The oval-shaped “Bolshoy” Ice Dome will host hockey matches in Sochi, March 15, 2013. (VOA/V. Undritz)
x
The oval-shaped “Bolshoy” Ice Dome will host hockey matches in Sochi, March 15, 2013. (VOA/V. Undritz)
The oval-shaped “Bolshoy” Ice Dome will host hockey matches in Sochi, March 15, 2013. (VOA/V. Undritz)
In the six years since it won the right to host the Games next February, Russia has shown as much determination to protect athletes, spectators - and its own international image - from any form of attack, as it has in building the grand ski and ice venues now being completed in the hills above President Vladimir Putin's favored vacation spot on the palm-fringed Black Sea.

But bringing the Games to the Caucasus, whose ancient ethnic and religious resentments helped mold the Chechen Tsarnaev brothers accused of wreaking havoc on their adopted city last week, has given the enterprise an added dimension of danger.

As Yegor Engelhard, an independent Moscow security analyst, put it: “It's almost like having the Olympics in Beirut.”

In an area where much blood has been shed over identity and history since Soviet communism collapsed, it has not escaped local notice that a key venue is Krasnaya Polyana. That is where the tsar's armies claimed final victory after a half-century of war to conquer the Muslim Caucasus, 150 years ago next year.

Since Palestinians took Israeli athletes hostage at the 1972 Munich Olympics, hosts have devoted vast resources to security; in general, the remote venues of the winter editions pose fewer headaches than for the likes of last summer's games in London, an open metropolis which was subjected to intense surveillance and saw anti-aircraft missiles deployed on apartment blocks.

But Moscow is taking no half measures around Sochi and officials believe they had done enough to keep the Games safe, well before Boston provided a timely reminder of the risks.

“We aren't taking any special measures because of what happened in Boston, but we are looking at a whole set of potential threats,” said Andrei Pilipchuk, a spokesman for the Russian Interior Ministry. “We've been carrying out tests all year to improve the way we counter them.”

Murad Batal al-Shishani, a London-based independent expert on the insurgency in the North Caucasus, said Russian agencies, which have not always coordinated well in recent times, should by now be well prepared for the threats they may face.

“Russian authorities [had] enough time to take security measures, therefore it will be a challenge ... to attack,” he said.

Scanners and Cossacks

Heavy security is nothing new in Sochi: a resort city straggling along the coast with health spas built for Soviet workers, Putin's motorcades, holding up traffic, are a familiar sight. More novel are the metal scanners checking all passengers at the main rail station, and, especially, the Cossack patrols.

FILE - Russian cossacks patrol near a train station in central Moscow, November 27, 2012.FILE - Russian cossacks patrol near a train station in central Moscow, November 27, 2012.
x
FILE - Russian cossacks patrol near a train station in central Moscow, November 27, 2012.
FILE - Russian cossacks patrol near a train station in central Moscow, November 27, 2012.
Heirs to tsarist-era frontiersmen, self-styled Cossacks in trademark lambskin hats and military epaulettes have been roaming Sochi for weeks at the behest of local officials, though it is unclear whether the role of such groups, viewed by some as racist vigilantes, extends beyond assuaging public anxiety.

From June 1, more than eight months before the Games begin, the entire area will be subjected to even tighter - though publicly unspecified - controls to protect venues from militants who have made world headlines for two decades with spectacular, and usually bloody, mass hostage-takings and bombings in Russia.

While the Kremlin may not emulate its Soviet predecessors who simply rounded up and expelled “undesirables” from Moscow when they held the 1980 summer Olympics there, its forces are used to a free, and fairly heavy, hand in monitoring movement.

There is resentment among locals with a massive construction project they believe benefits only a well-connected few; but, especially after Boston, many in Sochi, whose 340,000 people are overwhelmingly non-Muslim ethnic Russians, do welcome whatever security the government provides.

“I've seen more police patrols since the attacks in the USA. We have to learn from what happened to them,” said Alexander Feoktistov, 59, as he worked at his souvenir stand in Sochi, already selling stuffed animals bearing the Games logos.

“The militants could pose a direct threat to the Olympics if they wanted to," he said. "They would only have to cross those mountains.”

In fact, crossing the virtually trackless Caucasus range, whose peaks rise above 5,000 meters (16,000 feet), in winter, is no mean feat; more vulnerable may be approaches to the coastal strip from the lawless, breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, just a few miles from the main access road to the ski venues.

Since Putin crushed Chechen separatists' hold on Grozny over a decade ago, conflicts continue to simmer across the Caucasus, from Dagestan in the east, where Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent time last year, to western areas near Sochi that are home to several ethnic and linguistic groups historically known as Circassians.

Nationalist claims to independence that dominated the 1990s as other Soviet republics broke away have given way to calls for a pan-Caucasus Islamic state, some from those who have fought with Arabs or Afghans under the banner of al-Qaida, others from Muslims who simply view Russian rule as corrupt and oppressive.

So far this year, at least 124 people have died in violence in the region, the authoritative Caucasian Knot website says.

Caucasus Emirate

While some militants have this month distanced themselves from any anti-American or anti-Western motive the Tsarnaevs may have had, the risk remains real of an attack on foreign visitors to the Olympics, if only to humiliate the arch-enemy, Moscow.

In a screen shot taken in Moscow, a computer screen shows an undated photo of a man identified as Chechen separatist leader Doku Umarov posted on the Kavkazcenter.com site.In a screen shot taken in Moscow, a computer screen shows an undated photo of a man identified as Chechen separatist leader Doku Umarov posted on the Kavkazcenter.com site.
x
In a screen shot taken in Moscow, a computer screen shows an undated photo of a man identified as Chechen separatist leader Doku Umarov posted on the Kavkazcenter.com site.
In a screen shot taken in Moscow, a computer screen shows an undated photo of a man identified as Chechen separatist leader Doku Umarov posted on the Kavkazcenter.com site.
Russia's most wanted man, the Chechen Doku Umarov who also features on a U.N. list of al-Qaida associates, has declared the Games a target for his Caucasus Emirate. Among previous attacks, he has claimed the derailing of a Moscow-St. Petersburg express train in 2009 and suicide bombings of the Russian capital's metro in 2010 and busiest airport in 2011 that killed dozens.

Chechens took large groups hostage in the 1990s, at a Moscow theater in 2002 and a Caucasus school in 2004; North Africans used the tactic just this year, at an Algerian gas plant, and security analyst Engelhard said the Olympics could be a target.

“I wouldn't be surprised,” he said. “The Caucasus Emirate has the motivation to use the grievances of the region to draw attention to their cause and exploit the opportunities the Olympics provide.”

Putin, who spoke last week to U.S. President Barack Obama on counterterrorism issues in the wake of the Boston bombing, has long cited the violence of the likes of Umarov to counter the sympathy Westerners have shown at times toward Caucasus rebels.

For that reason, some militants may remain wary of attacking foreigners, just as they disowned the Boston bombings. Their repeated failure to sway the Kremlin even with the deaths of hundreds of Russian civilians may also discourage some of them.

“People are afraid of that kind of violence in Europe or America,” said one local man as he whisked his bag off the new scanner at Sochi station.

Voicing a Russian machismo toward bomb threats, Roman Komaryov added: “Here, we're not afraid.”

Whether at the Olympics or elsewhere, however, Russians are well aware that the risk can never be entirely eliminated.

Also at the station, heading home to Moscow after a spa vacation at a sanatorium on the Black Sea, railway man Vladimir Shviginov, 46, recalled that four years ago he had worked on repairing the track after the bombing that derailed the St. Petersburg-bound Nevsky Express, killing 26 people.

“You can try to be as careful as you can,” he said. “But you can never be protected against everyone all the time.”

You May Like

Video Analysts: Beijing Parade a 'Bazaar' of Stolen Technology

Show commemorating victory over Japan in World War II involved long, medium and short range missiles, a range of tanks and 200 fighter aircraft More

Bernie Sanders Surge Reflects US Shift on Socialism

Although most analysts say it is unlikely he will get the Democratic nomination, Sanders' campaign opens up questions and issues that are otherwise marginalized More

Video On IS Frontline, Kurdish Fighters Ready for Offensive

Peshmerga soldiers say although they need more heavy artillery, they are poised to take the fight to the Islamic State extremists on their turf More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Drowned Migrant Toddler Photo Triggers European Outragei
X
Henry Ridgwell
September 04, 2015 11:36 AM
The harrowing picture of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach appears to have galvanized Europe’s leaders into doing more to address the refugee crisis. France, Germany and Italy issued a joint call Thursday for compulsory quotas of refugees for all EU states. But there were chaotic scenes in Hungary as police tried to force migrants off a train heading for Austria. Henry Ridgwell has more. And a caution, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.
Video

Video Drowned Migrant Toddler Photo Triggers European Outrage

The harrowing picture of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach appears to have galvanized Europe’s leaders into doing more to address the refugee crisis. France, Germany and Italy issued a joint call Thursday for compulsory quotas of refugees for all EU states. But there were chaotic scenes in Hungary as police tried to force migrants off a train heading for Austria. Henry Ridgwell has more. And a caution, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.
Video

Video Russians Observe 11th Anniversary of Beslan School Attack

This week, Russians have been observing the 11th anniversary of the attack by Islamic militants on a school in Russia's North Caucasus region that killed more than 330 hostages, including 186 children. The three-day siege and massacre that started on September 1, 2004 took place in Beslan, a town in the republic of North Ossetia, and is one of the bloodiest terrorist acts ever in Russia. VOA's Mike Richman reports.
Video

Video Native Americans Debate: Father Serra, Saint or Sinner?

Pope Francis will canonize an 18th century missionary to Spanish California during a papal visit to the United States this month.  But some Native Americans have criticized the elevation to sainthood of the missionary priest, Junipero Serra. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan has more from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Kurdish Fighters on IS Frontline Ready for Offensive

Finger on the trigger, the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier stared across the dust at a village taken over by Islamic State extremists. The Kurdistan’s Khazir frontline, just 45 minutes from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. And at this point, the militants were less than two kilometers away. VOA's Sharon Behn reports.
Video

Video China Announces Troop Cuts at WWII Parade

Chinese President Xi Jinping Thursday announced plans to cut the world’s largest military force by 300,000 troops. The announcement was made during a massive military parade to commemorate victory over Japan in World War II. The event was shunned by most Western leaders and for some is raising fresh concerns about China’s military ambitions. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video Russia-Japan Relations Cool as Putin Visits China for WWII Anniversary

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing for commemorations of the 70th anniversary of China's WWII victory over Japan. Putin is expected to visit Japan later this year, but tensions between Tokyo and Moscow over islands disputed since the war, and sanctions over Ukraine, could pour cold water on the plan. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Yemen ‘on Brink of Disaster’ as Medical Shortages Soar

Aid agencies warn Yemen is on the brink of humanitarian disaster – with up to half a million children facing severe malnutrition, and hospitals running out of basic medicines. There are fears Yemen's civil war could escalate as the coalition led by Saudi Arabia tries to drive back Houthi rebels, who seized control of much of the country earlier this year. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Apps Helping Kenyan Businesses Stay Ahead of Counterfeiters

Counterfeit goods in Kenya cost the government as much as $1 billion each year in lost tax revenues. The fake goods also hurt entrepreneurs who find it hard to carve out a niche in the market and retain customers. But as Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi, information technology is being used to try to beat the problem.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.

VOA Blogs