Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Sochi Olympics Already Casting Shadows on the North Caucasus

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 19 -- Even though the Sochi Olympics are still nearly seven years in the future, these international games which many in Russia have celebrated as an indication of the world’s increasing deference to President Vladimir Putin and themselves, are already casting three dark shadows over the North Caucasus.
First of all, they apparently lie behind a new intensification of Moscow’s efforts to suppress groups fighting against the central authorities, a linkage that one Chechen official said this week means that pro-Moscow Chechen forces are now free to cross into the territory of neighboring republics (
Such actions by military units loyal primarily to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and known for their brutal treatment of civilians are likely to exacerbate conflicts in that already unstable region rather than to contribute to their resolution, thereby increasing the size of the problem the Kremlin apparently believes it is reducing in this way.
Second, the upcoming Olympics are already contributing to the destruction of a national park and other fragile areas. Indeed, according to the Rosbalt.South news agency today, many officials and businessmen in their rush to get the area ready for the games are riding roughshod over Russian law, Moscow’s international obligations, and expert opinion.
Many ecologists now say that “the Sochi National Park will not survive the Games,” even though the law requires that anyone building in or near it get the blessing of expert opinion. That is not being done, and the courts are backing the government and business interests (
But it is not just Russian legislation and good sense that is being violated, the ecologists argue. Moscow is violating “the requirements of the International Convention on the Preservation of objects of the World’s Natural and Cultural Inheritance set by UNESCO,” as well as a variety of other accords the Russian government has signed.
And the actions of officials and business interests to build up for the games threatens not only the flora of the region but may lead to the extinction of a variety of animal species found nowhere else in the world. Thus, the triumph of the games will be the destruction of the values such competitions are supposed to stand for.
And third -- and this is almost certain to be the most politically problematic development from Moscow’s point of view -- the development of Sochi is contributing to the unification of Circassian groups within the Russian Federation and of the five to seven million Circassians living in the Middle East, Europe and North America.
Because it was at Sochi that the ancestors of today’s Circassians were deported by the tsar to the Ottoman Empire 150 years ago and because that tragedy not only destroyed their traditional homeland but led to the death of more than a third of them, the Sochi games are leading many Circassians to think anew about themselves and their relations to Moscow.
Given that the Circassians inside Russia -- including the Adygei, Cherkess, Kabardinians, and Shapsugs -- are already unhappy with Moscow’s policies toward them and given that many of the Circassians in Turkey and Jordan occupy high positions in the militaries of those countries, such a political coming together could create problems domestic and international.
If these three trends continue -- and Moscow gives no sign that it is willing or able to reverse its current course -- then the Sochi Olympics almost certainly will be remembered not as a personal triumph for Putin but as one of his greatest and perhaps most irreversible mistakes.

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