Russia Promotes Safe Olympics, Downplays Caucasus Link

Posted May 13th, 2013 at 6:22 pm (UTC+0)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron look out of the window during a helicopter flight over venues for the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi May 10, 2013. Photo: Reuters/Alexei Nikolsky

Why was British Prime Minister David Cameron helicoptering around the Caucasus Mountains recently with Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Ostensibly Putin, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, was repaying Cameron a favor. Last summer, when Putin was cheering on Russian judo athletes at the London Summer Olympics, the British leader and Olympics host, stopped by for a photo op.

But last Friday’s tour of Russian Olympic sites was part of Russia’s new drive to project the upcoming Winter Olympics as safe.

Russia is run by a generation of men who bear the psychological scars of the Western boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. In that Olympics, most Western nations refused to send athletes to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Now, the U.S. media spotlight unexpectedly burns bright on Russia’s Caucasus region, the ethnic homeland of the Boston Marathon bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers.

For these Olympics, Moscow dreads a backdoor boycott by bureaucrats.

For Sochi, the threats are government travel advisories. These anonymous, but powerful, warnings can turn on and off international tourist flows.

There is no strong, direct movement afoot to boycott Russia’s Winter Olympics.

On May 2, Georgia formally reversed an earlier boycott decision and decided to send its athletes to neighboring Sochi. Russia and Georgia broke off relations after the Russian invasion of August 2008.

The only serious boycott calls come from descendants of Circassian peoples who were deported from the area around Sochi 150 years ago. But whether the historical wrong was too long ago, or the people too little known today, the movement has not gained traction.

But on May 3, Britain’s Foreign Office re-issued a pretty standard travel advisory against much of the Caucasus.

Surprisingly, this drew a lengthy and blistering response came from the Russian Embassy in London.

The British travel advisory starts with Dagestan (where I am today), runs west through Chechnya and Ingushetia and stops about 150 kilometers east of where the Winter Olympics will take place next February. The current U.S. government travel advisory covers virtually the same ground. According to Russian government statistics, not cited in the advisories, the political and religious violence in this region has taken about one life a day since the start of this year.

Outside a Winter Olympics skating rink in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron during their visit to venues for the February 2014 Winter Olympics. Photo/Reuters: Alexei Nikolsky

But the Russian Embassy statement protested: “This warning by the Foreign Office to British citizens is bound to give rise to bewilderment. Is the British government better informed on the state of affairs concerning the threat of terrorism on Russian territory than the Russian government?”

Believing that the best defense is a good offense, the diplomatic statement continued: “Judging by information from British specialized services, there remains quite a high terrorist threat throughout Britain, including London and Northern Ireland, where the G8 is due to hold a summit in June.”

Travel advisories from big countries, like Britain and the United States, have a ripple effect as they are often studied by travelers and policy makers in smaller countries. American diplomats are saying that the tenor of the American travel advisory about the Winter Olympics could be affected by the quality of cooperation between Russian and American security forces.

Winning one battle in the war for public opinion, Russian officials quietly blocked the return to Russia of the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the lead Boston bomber. His mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, a Russian citizen, said she wanted her son, Tamerlan, a Russian citizen, to be buried here in Dagestan, Russia.

But Russia blocked the move. Their fear, of course, was that his burial here would, at the very least, provoke massive, unwanted Western media coverage, drawing a visual link between the Boston bombing and the Caucasus. Not the kind of PR that Kremlin wants as a time when foreign sports fans are starting to buy tickets and reserve hotel rooms for the Sochi Olympics.

Unwanted in Russia and unwanted in Massachusetts, Tsarnaev’s body was finally buried last Thursday in Doswell, Virginia, 841 kilometers south of his adopted home in Cambridge, Mass.

For comparison, had Tsarnaev been buried here in Makhachkhala, Dagestan, the gravesite would have been a 970 kilometer drive from Sochi.

That is because the two cities – one on the Caspian, the other on the Black Sea – are separated by the Greater Caucasus Mountains. This glorious natural barrier includes 18 peaks over 4,000 meters, starring Mount Elbrus, a 5,642 meter high mountain considered the tallest peak in Europe.

Makhachkala, where Tsarnaev spent six months last year, is so isolated that the capital’s airport has flights to only three other Russian cities. The only way to fly to Sochi from here is through Moscow.

Russian officials suspect that these geographic fine points are lost on Western audiences.
To counter the obscure geography and anonymous government travel advisories, what better than images of British Minister Cameron touring Olympic sites in shirt sleeves in the Sochi sunshine.

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.

3 responses to “Russia Promotes Safe Olympics, Downplays Caucasus Link”

  1. Gennady says:

    1. I wasn’t convinced in safety of the forthcoming 2014 Winter Olympics by the trip that has been carried out by British PM Cameron over Olympics’ sites.
    Once there was a wise saying at the General Staff of the Soviet Army: “We’ve been at war on paper maps but completely forgot about ravines and gorges all over the real place”. The same comes with the helicopter.
    a) The smooth gliding helicopter business happened unexpectedly under cover of high secrecy. It remained out of cameras how many fighter jets and other security forces had been involved in the top security helicopter tour. At the time of the world-advertised event there will be completely different picture of insecurity for thousands participants. In the latest bombings terrorists from neighboring sites of insurgency were appearing at any place they wanted provided they had planned their attacks well in advance. There aren’t any experts who doubt that they will try to use the venue in order to attract the world attention to stubbornly unresolved political issues of the Northern Caucasus.
    b) The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi won’t be geographically isolated and sealed off by the impassible (impenetrable) Greater Caucasus Mountains.
    Just pay attention to the map of the region.
    A few dozens of kilometers of old Military-Sukhum Road penetrate the Mountains from Muslim-inhabited Northern Caucasian Karachay-Cherkessia to closely neighboring area of Abkhazia on the Black Sea. Karachay-Cherkessia is populated by peoples that had suffered very much from the Kremlin ruled by late bloody J. Stalin and has got a long record of contract murders (at least with signs of them).
    2. Separately stands out the question of health safety in attending the 2014 Winter Olympics.
    a) One should keep in mind appalling state of healthcare in nowadays Russia stuck in 1950-s with the latest 6% budget cuts contrary to already falling apart hospitals, blazing psychiatric institutions and acute shortage of underpaid undereducated medical staff.
    Russia is among the most affected by HIV epidemics and tuberculosis.
    Moscow Olympics in 1980 had become famous for huge growth of new cases of STDs.
    Those attending 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, SARS and influenza including.
    Russian medics won’t be able to effectively stop the epidemics, to provide medical help in the mass gathering.
    b) Nowadays Russia has become the world’s largest consumer of heroin.
    An Associated Press-GfK poll released in 2012 shows that nearly nine in 10 Russians (87 percent) identify drug abuse as at least a “very serious” problem in Russia today, including 55 percent describing the problem as “extremely serious.”

  2. Andrii says:

    Everybody should remember how was killed Kadyrov the senior , the father of a current President of Chechnya. Explosive substance were embedded in the construction detail of the stadium. Who can guarantee that this method is not used while constructing Olympic infrastructure?



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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