Will Islamic Fundamentalists Threaten Russia’s Winter Olympics?

Posted February 22nd, 2011 at 10:39 pm (UTC+0)

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.

Ski gondola cabins litter slopes of Mt. Elbrus, the tallest mountain in Europe, after Islamic rebels blew up lift tower in attack on tourism industry in Caucasus. Photo: Reuters

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.

Russia TV shows downed gondola cabin from new lift built to attract skiers and snowboarders to the slopes of the Caucasus. Photo: AP

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.

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.

4 responses to “Will Islamic Fundamentalists Threaten Russia’s Winter Olympics?”

  1. Gennady says:

    I’m not sure that ‘the terrorists’ are Islamic fundamentalists. There never was such a thing as Islamic fanaticism among North-Caucasus nations.
    If the article hadn’t neglected 70 years of Karachay-Balkar history the title of the article might have been different. With the widespread morality of modern world, it is easy to overlook traditions and things having been kept sacred by tiny proud North-Caucasus nations. Blood-revenge for unjustice done is among them. No time-span will diminish unrepaid deaths when in 1944 on Stalin’s orders dozens thousands Karachay-Balkar people were deported to their deaths and thousand perished.
    Current Kremlin’s regime of Mr. Putin undoubtedly identified itself as following Stalin’s legacy. PM Putin poses himself to the world as a strongman. Is anybody hesitating on the subject who should refund for the 1944 blood spilt?
    Russian tourists and Domodedovo passengers look as just hostage in the repayment.

  2. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    Good point on the historic injustices that Moscow inflicted on the peoples of the Caucasuses 1800-1950 — and the poisonous legacy that we see today.
    However, the only certainty in life is change. The imposition of head scarves, the tolerance of polygamy and the total ban on alcohol in Chechnya seems to go beyond historic cultural practices. Ramzan Kadyrov is trying to out-Wahabi the Wahabis.
    If you live outside of Russia, you can access the Kavkaz Center website. Admittedly, they probably only chonicle and take credit for — but do not coordinate — the anti-government violence in the Caucasus. That said, their rhetoric is totally jihadist.
    Jim Brooke, Moscow

  3. Said Masoom says:

    Iam like origin from Afghanistan and graduated from forestry institute of Voronez city of Russian .Islamic fundamitalism is a cacer with sprading charcteristical and with unknown borders acrose the world .Resently they had kild (one hundred) innocent peopple in our city (Jalalabad) innocent people who wree gathered to recieve thier salary from that bank.They can do any violation which they want to do . My advise to the Russian authourities is to be carefull to this cancer as they can do .

    The aim of fundamentalism is to kill the innocent people and gain power.

  4. Pyotr says:

    We need change. Russia stuck in a political swamp. Now it is clear the present Russian government under Mr Medveput is inefficient to meet the demands of people and reality. It cannot guarantee us anything security, stability, healthcare, education. It takes gradually our freedoms, our wealth and health. We all must awake! The majority of people are poor with salaries less than 200 dollars per month while beauracrats are enjoing luxury lives on ski resorts and spas abroad. Herewith the sovietlike propaganda is reporting day by day the growing wealth of an “average” Russian citizen which is lie, most people in Russia’s provinces are poor and hardly make ends meet! No wonder national provinces blame Russians for their misery although Russians are in the same situation excluding perhaps populations of the biggest cities. Any entrepreneurship in Russia is like fighting windmills, inefficient and dangerous. The salary of a teacher in a Siberian town is 150 dollars per month while the local minister of education gets officially 10000 salary and god knows how many unofficially because nothing stops a beaurocrat in Russia from larceny. The system is corrupt and no Olimpics can save it from falling apart.



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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