Sochi 2014: Can Putin's Crackdown Keep the Winter Olympics Safe?


As Russia prepares to host the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi on February 7th 2014, the FSB security services are hard at work ensuring that the situation on the ground is safe for athletes and tourists. None can accuse their work of a lack of stringency. Their strategies, however, may cause further unrest in the region if sustainable solutions are not created to bring peace to the volatile area surrounding Sochi, a conflict-ridden place that has been ignored by both the mainstream media and the government for years.

Logically, the FSB has set its sights on the most violent republic of Russia Dagestan. The largest republic in the northern Caucasus, Dagestan is only a 15-hour drive from Sochi, making the Olympic city quite accessible to anyone with a car and the will to make the journey. Regrettably, it is also the home of an Islamic insurgency and an assortment of interethnic and religious tensions, as bureaucratic clans, criminal organizations, and religious groups vie for power. While the linguistic and ethnic diversity of the region may make it a desirable destination for ethnographers, it has been home to some of the bloodiest assassination attempts, suicide bombings, and political infighting of contemporary Russia, and residents complain of frequent gunfire and the occasional bombing.

In a bold move last week, Russian security forces swept into the republic and arrested the mayor of Dagestan's capital, Said Amirov, on charges of murder. They installed a Moscow-backed politician in his place. The arrest came as a shock to most spectators partly due to the fact that Moscow has maintained a hands-off policy in regards to Dagestani political life until now, but also because of the important role Amirov played in the life of the republic. Known as "the Immortal One," Amirov has survived 15 assassination attempts during his years in office, a fact that attests to the violent nature of the republic's political landscape. While Amirov is being charged with the murder of a police investigator over two years ago, many believe that he also has connections to criminal drug gangs throughout the Caucasus.

Amirov's arrest, along with that of 10 other top Dagestani officials, was meant to weaken the clans in power and demonstrate the power of Moscow's authority before the upcoming Olympic games. As a Caucasus expert at the Moscow Carnegie Centre told the International Business Times, the arrest was "a brilliant operation executed by the Kremlin to show that Moscow can put the situation in order if it wants to." Doubts remain, however, as to whether the arrest of top leaders in the Caucasus will help bring stability to the region in time for the Winter Olympics. While Amirov's arrest could help to destroy the clan system in Dagestan, any system so deeply entrenched in the history and politics of a region will obviously take a significant amount of time to dissipate completely. Meanwhile, the new leader of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov, has no close ties to Dagestan's complex web of ethnic groups, a fact that may make it difficult for him to garner support and rule effectively. In order to maintain the peace, Abdulatipov will have to rely heavily on federal security forces. Meanwhile, sustainable solutions to bring an end to the ongoing conflicts by fostering dialogue between different ethnic and religious groups remain conspicuously absent.

In the meantime, the FSB will also have its hands full ensuring that Sochi itself is safe, and it appears that the Kremlin is pulling out all of the stops. Drones, robotic vehicles for bomb detection, and high-speed patrol boats are just some of the tools utilized to ensure that the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi are "the safest Olympics in history," and special forces have been sent to patrol the forested mountains surrounding the city. However, despite all of the hard work and time invested in security measures, these will still be the first Olympic games held within the vicinity of an ongoing insurgency. Whether the games end successfully and without incident will have a big impact on Russia's reputation internationally, and could determine future policies towards Russia’s republics.