For the Kremlin, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games are designed to demonstrate Russia’s status as a global power and the government’s ability to guarantee security in the country’s most vulnerable region. On the domestic front, the Sochi Games aim to boost the authorities’ popularity and bolster stability in the North Caucasus.

The event is Vladimir Putin’s baby, and it is telling that he was so directly involved in the battle to win the International Olympic Committee’s blessing to hold the games in Sochi. Putin is using the Olympics to maintain his influence in Russia and abroad. The Kremlin saw his success as a political victory, and the Olympic Games became a national project.

Alexey Malashenko
Malashenko is a former chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program.
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Almost no one, whether in the Russian establishment or in society in general, publicly contested the wisdom of holding the Olympics in Sochi.

But a host of problems with preparations for the games have since surfaced, and they are stirring debate in political circles and among the general population in Russia and abroad. Guaranteeing security at the games is the biggest concern. Authorities must also ensure that preparations for the Olympics do not threaten the region’s environment in any way and that the region’s environmental peculiarities do not threaten the games.

Moreover, the games have created many difficulties for local residents, including housing-related issues. The Russian establishment is tasked with lessening the burden on the locals and preventing violations of their rights. In addition, the economic impact of the games is unclear, with costs artificially inflated and uncertainty about whether sports facilities, hotels, and infrastructure built for the games will be put to effective use afterward.

The Russian government’s ability to resolve these problems and convince the national and foreign public that it is effectively preparing for the games will be a decisive factor in shaping its reputation at home and abroad.

Security Concerns

Sochi looks more vulnerable when it comes to security of Olympic participants and spectators than London (2012 Summer Olympics) or Beijing (2008 Summer Olympics). The city is very close to the North Caucasus region, with the republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia less than 100 kilometers away from Sochi and the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria less than 200 kilometers away. Over the last quarter century, this region has been shaken by ethnic conflicts and has experienced two Chechen wars. It is also the part of Russia over which Islamic radicals have the strongest hold.

Extremism in the North Caucasus

Terrorist attacks happen regularly in the North Caucasus, and there are armed clashes between rebels and security forces. Some parts of the region—above all Dagestan, the biggest North Caucasus republic and the primary hotbed of religious extremism in Russia—are essentially in a state of latent civil war.

According to the statistics, the situation in the North Caucasus improved slightly in 2012 compared to 2011. Throughout the region, fewer people were killed or injured in terrorist attacks. But a turnaround in the situation has yet to be achieved, and Kabardino-Balkaria in particular showed a slight increase in the level of tension in 2012.

Across the region over the first nine months of 2012, 574 people were killed, including rebels, law enforcement personnel, and civilians, in the almost-daily clashes. Army troops were sent to the region in the autumn of 2012 and fought against extremist groups, including Islamist radicals. Some reports said that the troops launched bomb and rocket attacks during the operations.

The authorities have attempted to control the situation. For instance, President Putin’s dismissal of the president of Dagestan, Magomedsalam Magomedov, in January 2013 was seen not just as a sign that the Kremlin was unhappy that Magomedov was unable to fundamentally improve the situation in Dagestan. It was also seen as an indirect measure to prepare for the Olympics. Magomedov’s interim successor, Ramazan Abdulatipov, is considered by Putin to be more decisive than his predecessor in fighting radicals and extremists.

Terrorist groups in the region are always finding new recruits, and the recruits are becoming younger. Since the beginning of the 1990s, the rebel groups in the region are now into their third generation, drawing local youth into their ranks in a never-ending process. The rebel groups also include several dozen shahids—men and women ready and willing to carry out terrorist attacks at the cost of their own lives. In addition, approximately a dozen ethnic Slavs from the Caucasus who have converted to Islam have already been involved in several major terrorist attacks, such as the Moscow–St. Petersburg Nevsky Express train bombings in 2007 and 2009, the bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in 2011, and the murder of Said Afandi al-Chirkawi, the main spiritual leader of Dagestan’s Sufi Muslims.

The Circassians

In its preparations for the Olympics, Moscow has already misstepped by offending one of the largest ethnic groups in the Caucasus, the Circassians, who include the Adyges, Kabardins, Shapsugs, and Ubykhs (the Circassians living in the western part of the Caucasus in direct proximity to Sochi).

The Circassians’ grievances go back to the 1860s, when the czarist authorities forced them out of the North Caucasus and into the Ottoman Empire. The number of descendants of these forced emigrants now scattered mostly across Turkey, Syria, and Jordan is estimated at anywhere from 200,000 to 1.5 million. The forced migration cost tens of thousands of lives, and one of the main routes through which these departures took place traversed today’s Sochi and its environs. The area has several Muslim cemeteries, the biggest of which are located on land now allocated for sports facilities. Some Circassians have reacted negatively to these plans, calling it an insult to hold the Sochi Olympics “on the bones of their ancestors.”

The debate over the cemeteries coincided with a general nationalist upsurge among Circassians in 2009–2012. Some were calling for a revision of the borders between the North Caucasus republics in order to create a separate Circassian entity within the Russian Federation. Radically minded nationalists spoke about uniting Circassians under the banner of “Great Cherkessia.” The anti-Olympics movement found support among the Circassian diaspora, especially the International Circassian Council in the United States. The head of the council, Iyad Yadgar, declared that the games would be taking place on “the land of genocide.”

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili also showed solidarity with the Circassian opponents of the Olympics. A symposium called the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the Georgian-Circassian Ecocultural Space took place at his initiative in Tbilisi in July 2012. A film screened at the symposium drew parallels between the Sochi Olympics and the Olympics in Moscow in 1980 and Berlin in 1936.

Circassian discontent could have been lessened if the Kremlin had paid more attention to the sensitivities involved and made up for their grievances in some way by using elements of Circassian culture in the organization and symbols of the games. A number of Circassian organizations made specific proposals, such as incorporating the Circassian folk epic Narty. But the Olympic organizing committee ignored these propositions.

Other Threats

The biggest threat for the Olympics would be if the Islamic extremists found a common language with Circassian extreme nationalists. Though the two groups are ideologically at odds with one another, they have made contact, most likely in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia.

The possibility also remains that terrorist activities in Sochi could take on an international dimension. Terrorists could carry out their preparations outside the North Caucasus. They could choose instead the Volga Region or other places where Islamic radicals have established ties with others who share their views and have not been—until recently at least—under constant watch by the security and law enforcement authorities.

And Muslim extremists operating beyond Russia’s borders—in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, and Afghanistan—are also a threat to the games. These groups established ties with North Caucasus rebels in the 1990s. Although those ties have weakened, they still exist.

The Russian security services have been stepping up their efforts to prevent terrorist acts. In spring 2012, in the separatist Georgian region of Abkhazia, local and Russian security forces discovered a cache of weapons and explosives that rebels under Chechen Islamist militant leader Doku Umarov were planning to use to carry out terrorist attacks in Sochi. The security forces are making active use of agents and eliminating the most dangerous field commanders. In order to prevent possible terrorist attacks, the security forces are willing to make contact with the radicals and conclude “temporary truces” with them or even pay them for not taking part in any terrorist acts.

Special rules for access to Sochi are also being put in place in order to beef up security. The government’s plan is to require people who have bought tickets to Olympic events to then obtain a special registration card using their passport and to be registered in the spectators’ registration system.

Tacit measures to remove people from Sochi whom the authorities consider a potential threat could also be taken. Somewhat similar measures were put in place during the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Of course, as is being stated almost openly now, Sochi will be flooded with plainclothes security and military personnel as well.

These measures are justified in terms of preventing terrorist attacks. But at the same time, for the duration of the Olympics, they will turn Sochi into a city under siege—and a more intimidating one than London during the 2012 Olympics.

The Environment

The Olympics could also have a negative impact on the environment of the Sochi region. Several of the facilities, including the alpine Olympic village, bobsled track, and biathlon facility, are being built on Sochi National Park territory. Most of the facilities are located in the Imereti Basin, which is home to the Kolkhid swamplands that are unique to Russia, and the combined road and railway built for the Olympics and stretching from Adler to Krasnaya Polyana has essentially devastated the Mzymta River’s ecosystem. Once destroyed, these landscapes cannot be restored.

Moreover, the world’s biggest thermal power station is under construction in one of Sochi’s districts, Kudepsta. It is being built to help power the games and will be equipped with twenty gas-piston generators, each of which will send 151 tons of nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere every year. These emissions are harmful to the environment and to people’s health. Viktor Pliss, chief specialist at the Sochi urban planning Municipal Institute of Genplan, said that the Kudepsta Power Station could make the Sochi Olympics “the most polluted in Olympic history.” A UN Environment Program mission to Sochi believes that the organizers have not taken into account the overall damage the Olympic project will cause to the area’s ecosystem and the local residents.

Meanwhile, peculiarities of the region could have an effect on the games as well. For one, many facilities are being built in seismically active areas. And the specific climate features in Sochi and the city’s surrounding areas could also cause problems. The city is located in a subtropical zone characterized by fluctuations in temperature that could have an impact on the sports events. Director of the Russian Meteorological Center Roman Vilfand said that even with the latest technology at hand, “if the temperature is this high . . . it will be near impossible to make artificial snow.”1 That of course has implications for competition events such as skiing and bobsledding.

Violations of Locals’ Rights

Sochi residents’ rights are threatened by the Olympic preparations as well. There have already been a number of cases in which locals have been improperly compensated for land on which Olympic facilities are being built. In some cases compensation has been insufficient, and in other cases payments have been delayed. In other instances, the homes of people who protested against forcible resettlement have been demolished by heavy machinery. The media brought to light the case of the Khlystov family’s home, for example. The house, located in the Olympic construction zone, was demolished while the owner was in the hospital.

Journalists who try to publicize these kinds of unlawful actions face retribution. The authorities attempt to restrict the publication of information critical of these kinds of rights violations.

Many Sochi residents have demonstrated against the methods being used in the preparations. The biggest demonstration was to protest the construction of the Kudepsta power station. A number of political parties, including the Russian democratic party Yabloko, took part in the protest. Some of the demonstrators were detained by the police.

There have also been many human rights violations related to migrant labor from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Serbia. Migrants’ working and living conditions at the Olympic construction sites do not adhere to Russian legal standards. They often work twelve hours a day despite the fact that Russian law stipulates a forty-hour work week. They are housed in crowded living quarters, which, especially in the case of Uzbek and Tajik migrant workers, often lack even the most basic conveniences. It has been reported that employers have at times refused to pay workers their wages, and sometimes the migrants have no idea of the terms of their employment contracts. The migrant workers have tried to protest in several cases but without result.

Human Rights Watch, which has been monitoring the Sochi Olympics situation since 2009, has noted many human rights violations and also authorities’ attempts to hinder the human rights activists’ work in any way they can. The authorities do this by applying general pressure on human rights organizations and NGOs, which, if they receive any funding from abroad, must register as “foreign agents.” International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge has promised that his organization is ready to cooperate with NGOs working in Sochi, but it is still difficult to say just how effective this kind of cooperation will be and whether it will help prevent human rights violations.

The Economics of the Olympics

The primary economic problem is the lack of transparency surrounding the costs of the preparations. According to one estimate, the total cost of the Sochi Olympics as of February 2013 was almost $60 billion, while other estimates put it at around $45 billion. The initial estimate was no more than $12 billion in total. That number was already several times higher than the Winter Olympics in Turin, Salt Lake City, or Vancouver, which cost from $1.5 billion to $3 billion. More has already been spent on the Sochi Olympics than was spent on the Beijing Summer Olympics.

The price tag is so high because companies taking part in the Olympic project deliberately raise construction-cost estimates, poorly plan their work, and accept kickbacks.2 In the summer of 2012, the first criminal cases were opened against construction companies accused of swindling a total of $260 million.

One of the authorities’ biggest arguments in favor of the Olympics is that the sports facilities and hotels constructed for the games will be used afterward by the Russian people. The facilities being built in Sochi do indeed surpass any of the country’s existing sports and leisure centers. But no one can say today just how much their future maintenance will cost and what price will be charged for their use.

This is all the more problematic because Sochi will have to compete with comparatively cheap resort centers elsewhere in Russia and in Turkey, Greece, Spain, and other countries that have become popular with Russian tourists. German Gref, the president of Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, admitted that “it is difficult at this point to forecast visitor levels at the resorts and real estate sales after the Olympics.”

Looking Ahead

Talk of a possible boycott of the Sochi Olympics began after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. Some human rights activists and representatives of Circassian organizations have voiced the idea. But so far, these proposals have not received any broad support. National Olympic committees and officials from countries prominent in the Winter Olympics are unlikely to support a boycott.

If a boycott actually were to happen, it would backfire. It would provide the Russian authorities additional support for the idea that Russia remains encircled by hostile forces and that Russian society must unite more around the country’s government. Any boycott would be met with a negative reaction from Russian society and would stoke further anti-Western sentiment while at the same time weakening the position of the ruling elite that supports dialogue with Western partners. It would also worsen the attitude toward NGOs receiving foreign support.

But Russian authorities’ influence and reputation are also at stake. If they fail to prevent terrorist attacks, no matter who the perpetrators might be, Putin’s policies would be dealt a blow not only in the North Caucasus but also in Russia as a whole because he has always made guaranteeing security his trump card.

A trouble-free Olympics would bolster Russia’s and Putin’s authority and demonstrate that the Russian authorities can carry out very ambitious projects and effectively guarantee security under difficult conditions. The Kremlin will thus remain sensitive about any attempts to downplay the Olympics’ importance or any actions that could threaten the success of the games.


1 Roman Vilfand, “Krasnaya Polyana Asks Moscow for Snow,” Svobodnoye vremya, supplement to Moskovskiye Novosti, no. 23, February 8, 2013.

2 Anastasia Bashkatova, “Corruption Sets an Olympic Record,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 7, 2010.