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Professor’s Take: Tensions abound in pre-Olympics Russia

Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES) in the Elliott School of International Affairs. Sufian Zhemukhov is a visiting fellow at IERES.

Organizing the Olympics is like walking a thin line. If there is too much focus on security concerns, sports fans will be afraid to attend the events. However, if there are not adequate security arrangements in place, the games would be vulnerable to attack.

How big is the risk for spectators and participants at the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics?  So far, the debate has been inconclusive.

Congressman Michael McCaul recently observed that the security arrangements were the “most impressive” in the history of the games. However, Senator Angus King stated that there was no way that he would attend the Olympics because he did not think it was safe.

To answer this question, it’s important to look at Russia’s current affairs as well as its history in the Olympics.

The persistent violence in the North Caucasus, including the three suicide bombings in Volgograd, means that Russia has lost control of the narrative surrounding the upcoming Olympics. The post-soviet Russian state’s inability to quell the insurgency means that the violence will weigh heavily in the thinking of people considering a trip to Sochi.

When the Russians applied to host the Olympics in 2007, they thought that they had pacified Chechnya and the Caucasus, and they sought to present Russia as an economically dynamic, emerging power that had risen from the ashes of the Soviet Union. The goal was to repeat the glory of the 1980 Soviet Olympics in Moscow.

However, it turned out that Russia had not won a decisive victory over its insurgency, but was deceived by a short pause while the terrorists were regrouping and launching a new and even bigger terrorist network, the Caucasus Emirate. Terrified by that development but determined to proceed anyway, the organizers made security one of the central priorities for the games.

While we were working on a book about the Sochi Olympics, we discovered that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had cold feet about holding the 1980 Olympics in Moscow because of the high cost. We don’t know if Vladimir Putin is also having second thoughts, but he has even more reason to worry about the security situation than Brezhnev did about the Soviet economy, which collapsed 10 years later.

Indeed, force is the main instrument of the current regime. Since coming to power in 2000, the regime has cracked down on the political opposition, independent civil society, minorities and the media.

The political situation in Russia today is brittle, but stable. Hopefully it will be sufficient to assure security in Sochi as well.

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