One thousand days from now, television cameras from around the world will focus on Krasnaya Polana, Russia’s new ski resort complex on the western end of the Caucasus Mountains. The ski and snowboard events of the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held on slopes now under construction.
Last weekend, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, met at Krasnaya Polana to watch the European Alpine Ski Competitions.
But, simultaneously, several mountain peaks to the east, Russian security officials conducted anti-terrorist operations after the first known Islamist insurgent attack on Russia’s ski industry.
On Friday afternoon, masked men in a black car without license plates stopped a van shuttling Moscow skiers from a regional airport to Elbrus, the tallest mountain in the Caucasus chain. When one tourist asked their identities, the men opened fire, killing three and wounding two.
Later in the evening, after all skiers and snowboarders were off Elbrus, an explosion knocked down a pylon of a new Swiss-built gondola. Cables derailed, sending dozens of cabins crashing to the ground. Then, on Saturday, alert security officials detected and defused three bombs in a car parked outside a ski hotel near the base of Elbrus. The bombs contained a total 70 kilos of TNT.
Two winters ago, two friends and I drove up that access road, past that ski hotel, and skied Elbrus. The ethnic Russian driver who met us at the Mineralni Vodi airport became visibly uneasy when the road crossed into the majority Muslim area of Karbardino Balkaria. Going back, the Balkar driver was equally uneasy crossing into the ethnic Russian area around Mineralni Vodi, a Russian spa resort since the 1880s.
On the approaches to Elbrus, green flags of Islam flew over family compounds, and new Mosques gleamed in the winter sun. For local men, the main job options seemed to be herding sheep, taking care of skiers, or migrating to Moscow. Along the route, a massive Soviet era Tungsten mining settlement stood largely abandoned, looking like an end of the world film set. Last October, an insurgent group killed several policemen, and then escaped into the mine, never to be seen again.
Last weekend, Kavkazcenter, a website that speaks for the Islamic fundamentalist rebels, praised the attacks on the ski resort, saying: “Puppet sources reported that ‘tourist industry in the region is almost paralyzed.’ Tourists leave the province hastily, despite the fact that the invaders introduced an impressive armed protection for them.”
Then on Monday, the site said: “Local apostates and “interior ministry” gangs from other regions are now busy protecting Russian tourists, occupation sources report. Also reported is that many “Russian tourists” hastily left resorts on Saturday and early Sunday.
President Medvedev, in a show of confidence for Russia’s ski industry, skied a few runs in front of television cameras Monday at a future Olympic resort about 200 kilometers west of the attack sites. He told reporters: “Forces that would impede holding the Olympics must be identified and brought to justice, if we are talking about citizens of our country.”
Last month, President Medvedev traveled to the Swiss ski town of Davos and sought $15 billion in foreign investment for a chain of five ski areas across the Caucasus. Last weekend’s attacks at Elbrus are the insurgents’ response.
The Caucasus mountains are steep and relatively untouched. One day, they will make for wonderful skiing with breathtaking views.
But modern ski areas, with their chair lifts and gondolas, are essentially indefensible. Skiers will not regress 50 years to the era of rope tows and T-bars. Skiers also will not clamber into chair lifts and ride 10 meters over rocks and cliffs if they worry that a terrorist down below may be fastening a bomb to a lift tower.
The mountains and their ski slopes can wait.
First, the demands and needs of the people living around the Caucasus will have to be taken care of.
With the 1,000 day Olympic clock ticking, it is unclear how Russia will meet its security deadline.