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.
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.
(David Cameron, middle, and Vladimir Putin, right, look at a model of the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi. Photo: kremlin.ru)
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