In this Q&A with Russia Direct, Sergey Markedonov, member of the Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia, discusses the security challenges faced by Russia in preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics.


A policewoman stands in front of the Laura Biathlon & Ski Complex in Krasnaya Polyana. Photo: AP

Recent terrorist attacks in Volgograd have once again raised concerns about security threats in Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Given the unprecedented influx of foreign tourists, athletes and media for the Winter Olympic Games, these concerns are now a matter of global debate. Russia Direct recently interviewed Sergey Markedonov, one of the authors of our new RD Report (“Sochi: Going for the Olympic Gold”), to find out what impact the recent terrorist acts in Volgograd could have on the Sochi Winter Olympics and, more broadly, on post-Olympic Russia.

Russia Direct: Why do you think security matters when talking about the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi?

Sergey Markedonov: Unlike previous hosts of the Olympics - Vancouver, Beijing or London - Sochi is located close to a turbulent region, namely Russia’s Northern Caucasus. The region is marked by instability, high rates of unemployment, unpredictability and so on. This is why the security dimension is crucial in the process of the organization of the Olympics. But after the tragic events in 1972 in the Munich Olympic Games, the problem of providing security has been a priority for all Olympic hosts.

Video by Pavel Inzhelevsky

RD: How do you assess security in Russia’s South in light of recent terrorist attacks in Volgograd? What measures have been taken by the government?

S.M.: I think the terrorist attacks in Volgograd shocked rank-and-file Russians because many of them forgot that terrorist attacks might happen outside the North Caucasus. It’s habitual for many of them to pay attention to terrorist acts in Dagestan and Chechnya, for example, but the spreading of instability outside of those regions is a challenge for them. This is why the Volgograd events caused an effect of shock. We need to remember that in July 2013, Doku Umarov promised to carry out terrorist attacks outside of the North Caucasus. He promised to target the entire of Russia, which is why any activity of the terrorist underground in Russia will be viewed in the context of the Sochi Olympics.

RD: Do you think a double terrorist attack in Volgograd was a message addressed to Russian authorities or the international community?

S.M.: I believe the terrorist attacks in Volgograd carried a triple message. First, it was a message to Russian authorities aiming to show that terrorists still exist in Russia and they could violate the plans concerning the Olympics and pacification of the North Caucasus. Another message was addressed to local people in the North Caucasus who are loyal to the authorities. The message to the international community calls for them to respect terrorists as legitimate regional players.

RD: People who are planning on attending the Olympics in Sochi are concerned: Will security measures be sufficient?

S.M.: It’s impossible to say for sure if the security measures in Sochi are sufficient. You can’t put a policeman at every entrance of every venue in Sochi. But I think in the run up to the Olympics, the terrorist threat in and around Sochi has been completely eliminated. But any terrorist attack in Russia that happens until April 2014 will be interpreted in connection with the Sochi Olympics. 

RD: It’s obvious that during the Games security measures will be strict, but once the Games are over, will the authorities be able to sustain the same level of security in the region?

S.M.: The Olympics is a very short event. It’s important to understand that security is not limited to the Games only. It’s necessary to develop security measures to provide them on a sustainable level, but it’s impossible to limit the anti-terrorist strategy of the country to technical measures only. It’s important to provide better integration of the North Caucasus in all domestic processes including social processes and cultural processes. Take Dagestan, for example: Youth there compose 33% of the total population, but last year only 147 people were conscripted to the army in the region. It’s not enough.

RD: What role, do you think, radical Islam plays in political rhetoric in Russia today?

S.M.: I should say that Russia has seen a shift from ethno-nationalism in the 90s to political Islam today in Southern Russia. There are many reasons for this shift: Many people in the North Caucasus were disappointed in the nationalists in the 90s due to their struggle for power, while political Islam offered them social justice. We have a multi-faceted political Islam phenomenon in the Caucasus today. It’s not limited to Doku Umarov alone, but there is Ramzan Kadyrov, for example, who’s loyal to Vladimir Putin. But, at the same time, he exploits slogans of Islam and traditions of the Chechen people.

RD: The government today is making an emphasis on economic development of Russia’s South. Do you think it’s possible to achieve prosperity in the region without eliminating the terrorist threat?

S.M.: I’m absolutely convinced it’s impossible. The development of the North Caucasus is only possible when local business and local people are engaged in economy. The region has its own economic resources and it’s not feasible to build a successful economy in the region with just big federal investments, just like in the case of Sochi. It is also important to promote inter-republican economic activity in the North Caucasus, because now the local republics are very isolated economically and politically. Another problem is ethnic tensions and the problem of migration. It is necessary to prevent confrontation between two worlds, the Caucasus one and the ethnic Russian world.

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