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Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Sochi Flytrap

Blogger Paul Goble explains how the Kremlin may have bitten off more than it can chew in winning the Sochi games, providing its enemies with a huge platform for attack. For instance, it's going to come out that Sochi isn't really a Russian city, certainly not a Slavic one, and that its giant population of 20,000 Muslims hasn't been able to get permission to build a Mosque. Goble points out how the Kremlin has outraged Muslims by opposing independence for Kosovo and, in classically paranoid neo-Soviet style, attempting to cut off their foreign aid.

The International Olympics Committee’s decision last week to name the Sochi as the venue for the 2014 winter games is being widely celebrated in Moscow as a triumph for Vladimir Putin and a recognition by the world community of Russia’s successful recovery. But regardless of how true either of those propositions may be, the Sochi games, even though they are still seven years in the future, are already having an impact on the calculations of various groups concerning three critical ethno-national issues in Southern Russia and the Northern Caucasus.

In an essay posted online last Friday, Sergei Markedonov, one of Moscow’s most thoughtful commentators on the Caucasus, argues that the games themselves and the attention they inevitably attract will affect the Circassians, the Abkhazians, and Georgian-Russian ties. First of all, Markedonov suggests, the games will highlight an issue to which the Circassian nationalities – the Adygei, the Kabardinians, the Cherkess, and the Shapsug – have long been seeking to attract attention: assigning responsibility for the expulsion of their forefathers from the Caucasus in the 19th century and securing redress for that act. In the 1860s and 1870s, the tsarist authorities expelled more than a million Circassians to the Ottoman Empire, an action that Circassians in Russia and abroad insist was a genocide but that Moscow has consistently denied was anything of the sort. Now, the Circassians will have a broader stage on which to make their case.

Although Sochi today lies in an ethnic Russian region, its name and its history are Circassians, facts that the nearby Adygeis and the Circassians abroad are certain to make much of. At the very least, their campaign is likely to tie Moscow’s hands as far as folding Adygeia into the Russian region surrounding it until after 2014.

Second, because Sochi is located so close to Abkhazia, that longstanding “frozen conflict” will become more difficult to address in the run up to the games. Indeed, Markedonov says, for many in Moscow, "when we write Sochi, we have Abkhazia on our minds." On the one hand, Moscow will be promoting the development of the broader Sochi area that includes Abkhazia, something that will do little to weaken secessionist sentiment there. And on the other hand, the Moscow analyst argues, the Russian government will be reluctant to take any steps, including unilateral recognition or the use of force, that could undermine the positive and upbeat message about itself that Russian propagandists are already insisting upon. Instead, Moscow will certainly want to project itself as a peacemaker, as a country interested in reducing tensions and solving problems rather than exacerbating them. But that may prove more difficult, Markedonov continues, than Moscow may currently assume.

And that leads to the third set of ethno-national issues that the Sochi Olympics are already affecting: relations between Moscow and Tbilisi. The Russian government can reasonably expect that the publicity around Sochi is likely to restrain the Georgian authorities from using force: After all, if Tbilisi did, the whole world would be watching. At the same time, however, Moscow, -- which would clearly benefit for purposes of the games in having more cooperative relations with Georgia -- may find its hands tied as well: It could seek improved ties by sacrificing Abkhazia and South Osetia – but leaders in both might then act in ways neither Moscow nor Tbilisi would like.

And any retreat from Moscow’s forward leaning policy in these two “unrecognized” states would generate anger among Russian nationalists and imperialists who already believe that Putin has made too many concessions to others for his personal needs rather than for the national interests of the country. But looming behind all of these ethnic situations is the deteriorating security situation across the entire northern Caucasus. As an article in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta” noted, Moscow is worried about the situation there because of rising crime and greater activism by rebel units. Nonetheless, Putin can count on Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov to stay on message: Over the weekend, Kadyrov claimed there is no war in his republic and invited people from around the world to visit “the Chechen Switzerland” – those cities and towns where the post-Soviet wars were earlier most intense.

But in other remarks at the same time, Kadyrov advanced some demands that suggest he too may be counting on Sochi to affect Moscow’s calculations: He suggested that Chechnya must be allowed to retain more of its petroleum earnings and be helped to build its own refining capability as a step toward energy independence.

UPDATE ON JULY 11. Ethnic communities affected by the Sochi Olympics are already weighing in. A press spokesman for the Abkhaz president said in a commentary posted online yesterday that the Abkhaz are pleased that the games will be held near their territory. But various social organizations in Adygeia have protested the decision, although government officials there say they support it.

UPDATE ON JULY 16. Ravza Ramazanova, the heaad of the Yasin Muslim Organization in Sochi has expresed the hope that media attention to her city will force the local officials to allow for the construction of a mosque for the city's 20,000 Muslims. She told today that her group has been seeking approval to build a mosque for 13 years without success.

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