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Sochi 2014 - Risks or Rights?

NoSochi2014 is a campaign by Circassians living outside Russia, who want to draw attention to the genocide perpetrated against their people 150 years ago. Sochi happens to be the capital of their former homeland, Circassia, so its choice as the location for the 2014 Winter Olympics is a source of further pain as no recognition is given to Circassia or to what occurred a century and a half ago. On the contrary the Sochi Olympics is seen as providing an opportunity for the Russian state to create a new reality and simply paint the Circassians out of history.

Russia is following a well worn path in using the Olympics in this way. As Time Magazine puts it ‘Russia desperately wants these Games to transform its brand.’ Presenting ‘a new Russia’, in the words of Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov has, of course, little to do with human rights for either Russia or the IOC. Beijing 2008 provided a similar opportunity for the Chinese Government. After some initial posturing on human rights before the Beijing Olympics the IOC reverted to type and washed its hands of the topic. When Sochi was put forward as one of the competing cities for the 2014 Olympics Circassians around the world wrote to the IOC to express their dismay. The IOC promised to investigate but, unsurprisingly, showed no further interest and awarded the Games to Russia. Far from advancing human rights and democracy the Olympics are accompanied by massive security operations and a clampdown on dissent with the encouragement of the IOC which requires no political demonstrations be allowed in or near Olympic stadiums or events and ‘other places’. This process is underway in Russia as Putin tightens his grip. The IOC has continued to demonstrate its lack of concern over human rights abuses in the country or evictions in Sochi.

However, in the world of strategy analysts even small campaigns like NoSochi2014 can be seen as threats and as part of a broader plan. At a Moscow conference ‘Eurasia, new challenges and threats’ an analyst from the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies considered the possibility that it could become a focus for anti-Russia propaganda by the West should 'contradictions' grow in East-West relations. While the researcher from the RISS, which has provided ‘ideas in service to our nation since 1955’, agreed that it has ‘quite limited’ resources he speculated on the possibility of “a massive propaganda campaign to discredit the Olympics in Sochi for the type, which was organized in 2008, during the Olympic Games in Beijing.” He went on to argue that NoSochi2014 has hopes of finding support in Eastern Europe and could recruit ‘larger players’ like the European Union and the United States. The European Parliament in particular to be anti-Russian with the researcher noting the influence of Caucasian activitists there.

The 'risks' posed by Cicassian activists to the Sochi Olympics have been discussed before and similar reference has been made to the protests around the Beijing Olympics. Back in March 2011 two meetings, one at the Carmegie Moscow Centre the other at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s training academy, considered the threat posed by Circassians. One speaker at the training academy conference placed an emphasis on whether Circassians in the diaspora could create problems saying: “if the [Circassians] abroad cannot do anything, then local activists will not be able to create serious problems.” In both cases strategists considered Circassian activists did not pose a serious threat to the Games although the second event did at least pass a declaration stating “Forgetting this tragedy is impermissible”. Activists took some comfort from this arguing that without their campaigns even this kind of comment at the training academy would never have happened.

It is hardly surprising that risk analysis should feature strongly in conferences about the Sochi Olympics. As Jules Boykoff points out the Caucasus is a ‘political tinderbox’ with Chechnya, North and South Ossetia, Abkhazia and a variety of other conflict zones within easy reach. Using the Olympics as a means to project a new image for Russia and the Caucasus region is a high risk strategy in itself. In this context Circassians in the diaspora may have their uses. If it all should go wrong one way to deflect criticism is to blame it on agitators outside Russia and their supposed Western backers.

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