National Security

The Looming Sochi Disaster

Feature: Russian Crackdown Seeds Fear as Sochi Prepares for Winter Olympics

Russian police officers in Sochi, Russia / AP

He threw a brick at the man who followed him out of a bar in Sochi, Russia, because the man was wielding a knife, Idris told local police. Then, while he was giving his side of the story to a uniformed police officer, the man who Idris said had the knife—now revealed to be an off-duty policeman—punched him in the back of the head.

Idris’ name has been changed to protect his identity. He says he was taken to a police station for processing. It was only when he revealed his American passport that the increasingly belligerent attitude of Sochi authorities changed.

"Is this how you’re going to treat Americans and others coming here for the Olympics?" Idris demanded of a police lieutenant.

An ethnic Chechen, Idris was facing a dangerous but not uncommon situation in southern Russia. Given the Putin regime’s desire to crack down on dissent and the threat of Islamic terrorism in a war-torn and volatile region, ethnic profiling is likely to increase in the run up to the February 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

There has been a marked uptick in what Russian authorities call "prophylactic," or pre-emptive, arrests across the republics of the North Caucasus that border Sochi, human rights activists and regional experts say.

In the North Caucasus, the Chechens—who have received additional scrutiny in the West following the Boston Marathon bombing—are just one of 50 ethnicities that make up the diverse, mountainous terrain spanning from the Black Sea to the Caspian. The intense pressure to persuade the world community that the Olympics will be hosted in Sochi without major security incidents is now being felt by many of these groups.

Moscow led brutal campaigns against the Chechens in the early and late 1990s following the breakup of the Soviet Union, resulting in what today most human rights advocates call a police state in Chechnya ruled by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal friend and protégé Ramzan Kadyrov.

Insurgency against Russia has since spread to neighboring republics, from Ingushetia to Dagestan.

According to the independent website Caucasian Knot, nearly 300 civilians in the North Caucuses region have been victims of violence in the second quarter of 2013 alone. Earlier this month, the self-proclaimed "emir of the Caucasian caliphate" Doku Umarov called for "maximum force" in attacks against the Sochi games in a videotaped statement reminiscent of Osama bin Laden. The state security services of Russia, surrounding countries, and major participants in the Olympic games are taking note.

"The state is providing outstanding efforts to guarantee that (the Olympics) will be safe and quiet," Sochi organizing committee chairman Dmitri Chernyshenko told a press briefing in May. According to Russian Minister of Interior Vladimir Kolokoltsev, an additional 37,000 police are being deployed to protect the Sochi Olympics.

Russian security forces are also making their presence felt in places like Makhachkala, Dagestan, whose mayor was replaced last month.

"Due to the ongoing security concerns, U.S. Government travel to the region is very limited. U.S. citizens residing in these areas should depart immediately," the U.S. Embassy in Moscow warns of the North Caucasus region in a recent travel advisory.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) has floated the idea of boycotting the Sochi Olympics in response to Russia’s refusal to turn over former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, prompting others in Washington to suggest the Olympics could be used to force a dialogue with Russia over its human rights record.

That record is atrocious. Last year, Congress passed the "Justice for Sergei Magnitsky Act" sanctioning specific Russian government officials in connection with the death of a lawyer in pre-trial custody. Moscow-based anti-corruption blogger, Aleksei Navalny, was recently sentenced to five years in prison on charges human rights outfits called spurious. Russian lawmaker Vitaly Milonov recently introduced a "non-traditional relationships bill" that would allow authorities to detain gay athletes or spectators who attend the Olympics, a move that has concerned the U.S. Olympic Committee.

"The crackdown on ordinary Russian citizens exercising their basic rights is now at its worst point since the end of Soviet Union," says a congressional staffer who closely monitors human rights.

In the Russian region of Krasnodar Krai, where Sochi is located, and in the next-door Stavropol region, there have been numerous reports of a campaign to arm Cossacks. In Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s time, the Cossacks were considered guardians of the gate between Russia and the Caucasus; the military use of Cossacks was common on the Russian side both in the more recent Chechen wars and the 1991-92 war in Abkhazia, a region of Georgia that is currently occupied illegally by Russia and borders areas outside Sochi where Olympic events will be held.

Otherwise tranquil areas—at least by the standards of the Russian Federation—are also feeling the effects of increased tensions. One particularly shocking account reported by the independent organization Sochi Watch on July 25 tells of a 38 year-old Armenian, Martiros Demerchyan, who claims he was first beaten by police and subsequently sodomized with a fire ax after demanding that back wages of $600 for work on an Olympic-related site be paid.

Additionally, two Russian journalists who have been investigating Sochi preparations have been charged in cases that press freedom groups have called retributive.

As the world counts down to the opening ceremonies early next year, the world’s focus on the Sochi Olympics is sure to intensify. Russia does not seem prepared for the scrutiny. Which is why Idris worries things may only get worse.