Russia Watch: After Boston’s bombs, Russia’s world class sports events face big security challenges

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.

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.

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 Polyana.

But mountain peoples with a sense of history know that the final peace treaty with Czarist Russia was signed at Krasnaya Polyana, 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.

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 Polyana 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 9pm. 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.”

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!

(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)

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About the Author

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 last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.