After Boston’s Bombs, Russia’s World Class Sports Events Face Big Security Challenges

Posted April 30th, 2013 at 9:46 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

Alpha male athlete Vladimir Putin follows a strategy of promoting his new Russia through high profile, world class sporting events — from Winter Olympics to World Cup football to Grand Prix auto racing. Reuters: Alexei Druzhnin

Back in the sunny days before the Boston Marathon bombings, Vladimir Putin, an avid sportsman, decided that the best way to showcase his new Russia would be to host world class sporting events.

Now, his sports policy is about to bear fruit as the world media prepares to cover Russia’s five-year marathon of sporting events.

But after terrorists exploded bombs in front of TV cameras at the Boston Marathon, Russia’s sports calendar suddenly looks like a five-year obstacle course of security challenges.

In July, the Universiade, or university games, is to be held in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, Russia’s most populous – and most moderate — Muslim majority republic.

In August, Moscow is to host the World Athletic Championships, complete with a 42-kilometer marathon through the streets of Moscow.

Next February, Russia hosts the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, a city on the western edge of the Caucasus, an area wracked by separatist and Muslim extremist violence.

Further down the road is the 2014 Russian Formula One Grand Prix auto race in Sochi, then the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup, and finally the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

President Putin, a judo and karate expert, taught himself to skate in recent years to help promote the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Photo: Reuters/Alexksey Nikolskyi

Five years from now, most of the seven billion people on the planet will have seen images from a sporting event in Russia.

Terrorists don’t seem to care much for sports. But, as the bombs placed at the Boston Marathon finish line indicate, terrorists do love publicity.

The Boston bombers scored a home run for publicity. The message was fuzzy — some kind Muslim fundamentalist protest. But their images went viral worldwide.

For Russians, the horror of these images was compounded by the knowledge that the two lead suspects, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, are ethnic Chechens. One decade ago, they emigrated to the United States from Dagestan, a republic that borders Chechnya.

In recent years, Chechen separatists have chosen Russian targets with the maximum media impact – Moscow’s metro, Moscow fast train to St. Petersburg, and Moscow’s most modern international airport.

Russia’s hard-eyed security forces are not experts in mass communications theory. But they are experts in locking things down.

An Interior Ministry officer stands guard inside the Sochi’s newly completed international airport. Photo: Reuters/Alexander Demianchuk

For the August marathon through Moscow, spectators will have to go through metal detectors to approach the course. After the Boston bombings, Valentin Balakhnichyov, president of the Russian Athletics Federation, told Reuters that he was tripling the level of security protection.

“At the same time, we don’t want to make Moscow a ghost town,” said Balakhnichyov. Hmmm.

In a telephone call on April 29, President Putin and President Obama discussed improving security information cooperation. Yury Ushakov, a Putin aide, said that the two presidents “stressed the importance of joint work to guarantee the security of the Sochi Olympics.”

Indeed, the big challenge will be the Sochi Winter Olympics next February.

It will be held on the westernmost edge of the Caucasus mountains, an area where Islamic extremism, ethnic secessionism and widespread poverty cause a cocktail for political violence that has been taking one human life a day since the start of this year.

The violence is in the mountainous Caucasian republics to the east of Sochi.
A full 150 years after Czarist authorities “pacified” the area, Russian authorities have yet to build a road from the mountains to the sea. This highway segregation policy keeps violence-torn populations bottled up in the mountains, away from the Olympic towns of Sochi and Krasnaya Polana.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Russian Interior Ministry officers started to check the identity documents of passengers arriving at the rail station of Sochi, the host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Photo: Reuters/Alexander Demianchuk

But mountain peoples with a sense of history know that the final peace treaty with Czarist Russia was signed at Krasnaya Polana, and that the deportations of mountain Muslim populations to Turkey took place from the beaches of Sochi.

Immediately to the south of the Olympic venues, Russia has created a buffer state, Abkhazia, where Russian security services enjoy free rein. Last year, police uncovered a weapons cache that was apparently stored in preparation for the Olympics. Tied to Chechen rebels, the arsenal included surface-to-air missiles, grenade launchers, mines, and TNT.

In Sochi itself, the skating venues are inside a fenced off seaside compound where access will only be for ticket holders who have registered their passports.

The mountain skiing and snowboarding venues are more far flung and thus harder to protect. Connecting the two Olympic sites is a 48-kilometer high speed rail line that also will be vulnerable.

Given the conflicted neighborhood, Olympic planners implanted tight security from day one. Here fencing and gates surround around the construction site of the Olympic ski jumps. VOA Photo: Vera Undritz

During athletic events last winter, security was so tight that one contestant, a snowboarder from Alaska, complained that she carried her credentials to go brush her teeth.

Before VOA visited Krasnaya Polana in March, I spent a day filling out credential forms and scanning and emailing passports. But, after traveling 1,400 kilometers from Moscow, we were confined to the base lodge area and were not allowed to ride the brand new gondola up Rosa Khutor mountain.

And that was before security was tightened.

On the evening of April 27, Austin Malloy, video journalist for VOA’s Moscow bureau, was relaxing on a park bench in Sochi. Suddenly, police detained him, taking him to a police bus. Police told Austin that the curfew for foreign construction workers is 9 pm. After his brief detention, Austin emailed me that a Russian friend told him: “It was because I had a beard. He told me to shave.”

What is more suspicious — the beard? Or VOA’s Austin Malloy ‘talking’ on a pay phone in Abkhazia? VOA Photo: James Brooke

This kind of profiling that Russian police have long used informally may now become so standard that we may see audience apartheid at the Sochi Olympics. The Winter Olympics will be held in the Caucasus mountains. But, in the grandstands, there will be only a token handful of inhabitants from the Caucasus.

Here is a joke going around the Caucasus these days:
A Chechen, an Ingush and a Dagestani are traveling in a car.
Question: Who is driving?
Answer: The police!

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

One Response to “After Boston’s Bombs, Russia’s World Class Sports Events Face Big Security Challenges”

  1. Gennady says:

    1. The security concerns in the article are widely shared and agreed upon. The hysteria already observed in the area looks ridiculous, irritating and will hamper enjoyment for anybody willing to attend the Sochi Winter Olympics. In an open globalized world one should spend time and resources to copy heap of documents, filing them to authorities, nervously waiting for their decision, shaving one’s beard, carrying his ID everywhere, even to face the toilet basin. What will the “lucky one” do in a case of an urgent call of nature or lost/stolen ID? To miss the bathroom? It might be expected that in view of the hygienic concerns everybody will wear pampers of P & G all over the Olympics.
    2. The shaving of all males attending the Olympics doesn’t provide complete security for the Islamists won’t miss their chance at any cost to their appearance. The world security experts had already compared the Sochi Games to the idea having them in besieged Beirut at the peak of militancy. They didn’t exaggerate. In 13 years Russia’s South hadn’t got an inch nearer to safety and security by the stubborn unwillingness of the FSB regime to seek a political settlement with Northern Caucasian peoples while substituting it with the shower of billions $ for their elite. The sustaining of the security and monitoring all over the Olympics round the clock will need hundreds extra staff policemen from all corners of Russia leaving other top secret and sensitive objects unattended or vulnerable to any emergency. It will cost dearly to national economy sliding to economic recession.
    3. But the truth is that the draconian measures adopted can’t provide 100% success. The concerns in the article didn’t mention the fact that in 13 years the regime had worked hard to multiply numbers of people and social groups who oppose many facets of the rule and wait for their say and revenge. It looks attractive for them to use the Olympics and other world sporting events in Russia to attract the global attention to the problems? To mention just a few of them: permanently suspended basic human rights, gagged mass media, farcical courts of laws’ verdicts, dozens unsolved murders of outspoken journalists, blasts of apartment houses. Among them a) thousands of old Sochi’s inhabitants who were evicted of their property for the Olympics’ projects without their consent and proper compensation, b) environmentalists who disagreed with the environmental crimes perpetrated with the destruction of fragile nature of mountainous subtropical Caucasus while building the vanity Winter Olympics projects, c) hundreds immigrant builders who had been maimed and unpaid at work, d) thousands of people felt disgusted hearing how wasteful, expensive the preparation to the Olympics had become with the help of unaccountable government. At the time of global austerity measures the 60 billion $ Olympics looks unbelievably high with all the Russian Federation badly needed investments to repair thousands kilometers of broken roads, with no proper highways and speedy railroads, rickety bridges, falling apart hospitals and schools, blazing psychiatric institutions, primitive agriculture and industry, science, education and healthcare, demographics.
    4. One more threat for people attending the sporting events arises from the fact that Russia is among the most affected by HIV epidemics. Moscow Olympics in 1980 was famous fore huge growth of new cases of STDs. With the XX-th century state of Russia’s medicine participants of the Games won’t be able to receive contemporary medical help in case of need. Winter season is very vulnerable for wide spread of epidemic diseases, new strains of SARS, influenza including. With the backward medicine Russia won’t be able to effectively stop the epidemics, to provide medical help for those attending mass gatherings.

About

About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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