The Black Sea resort of Sochi, with its breathtaking views of the nearby Caucasus Mountains, was once a favorite holiday destination of Communist Party bosses in the Soviet era. Now reincarnated in gleaming glass, steel and concrete, Sochi is getting ready to welcome the 2014 Winter Olympics, opening on Feb. 7.
When, in 2007, President Vladimir V. Putin argued on behalf of Russia’s bid to hold the 2014 Games, he assured the International Olympic Committee that it would be a “safe, enjoyable and memorable experience.” The Sochi Games are his personal project and a very ambitious one — not least because the Games will take place in the immediate neighborhood of the North Caucasus, site of Europe’s deadliest ongoing conflict. For Mr. Putin, hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi will demonstrate to the world that Russia has solved its problems in these restive republics and is back as a strong and united superpower.
The reality behind the public relations is far different. In August, Mr. Putin decreed a virtual state of emergency in the city. Some 40,000 police officers have been deployed, together with army units, because of concerns about a possible terrorist attack by separatists or jihadis.
Integrating the North Caucasus, a region of unique ethnic and religious diversity, has always been a challenge for Russia. During the Caucasian War (1817-64), the Russian military used extreme violence, razing villages and deporting entire communities. Krasnaya Polyana, in the mountains less than 50 kilometers from Sochi, was the site of the war’s final bloody battle, marking Russia’s subjugation of Circassia, the westernmost country of the Caucasus. In February, Krasnaya Polyana will be a center for snowboarding and skiing events.
Some Circassian activist groups today argue that Russia’s actions in the 19th century should be recognized as genocide; they plan to publicize their cause at the Olympics. But the greatest mobilization has come from a more menacing source: Islamist fighters. In July 2013, the leader of the North Caucasus insurgency, the Chechen separatist Doku Umarov, threatened to disrupt the Olympics, urging his fighters to attack Russia by any means.
On Oct. 21, a suicide bomber from Dagestan blew herself up on a bus in Volgograd, in southern Russia, killing six passengers (a seventh died later) and wounding 33 — an attack many have linked to Mr. Umarov’s threats. According to the independent news site the Caucasian Knot, there have been 31 terrorist acts in the region this year.
The North Caucasus has been turbulent since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Chechnya, farther to the east, saw the worst of the violence, suffering two full-scale wars in which an estimated 80,000 Chechens, mostly civilians, died. At the start, it was a separatist struggle for independence, but as the conflict wore on, the nationalist cause was gradually subsumed into an Islamist one.
Insurgents frequently resorted to terrorism, and the state responded with massive, indiscriminate force. Official counterterrorist operations in Chechnya ended in 2009, but by that time the conflict had spread across the North Caucasus. Today, the regionwide Umarov-led insurgency is united under the banner of the “Caucasus Emirate,” which seeks an independent political entity founded on Shariah law.
At the eastern end of the Caucasus, a deep sectarian divide between Sufi and Salafi Muslims — exacerbated by state repression of the latter — has made Dagestan an epicenter of violence and the main exporter of terrorism. It was here that one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, visited in 2012, reportedly to make contact with jihadist groups.
Beginning in 2010, the Dagestan authorities made small but promising steps toward a political solution. The regime against nonviolent Salafis was relaxed, a commission to rehabilitate former fighters was established, and dialogue between Sufis and Salafis was promoted. All this proved effective: In 2012, the number of victims of the conflict fell 15 percent from the previous year, and youth recruitment to the insurgency shrank.
In the lead-up to Sochi, the new Dagestan government has reversed the trend. The commission was abolished. A wave of repression has taken place, including detentions and summary executions of suspected militants and their associates. The authorities have also adopted collective punishment tactics, blowing up the houses of relatives of insurgents. Salafi civic activity has been driven underground; many moderate leaders have fled, their projects closed down. This in turn has resulted in a new round of radicalization.
Dagestan’s hard-line turn has been aped by other republics, closer to Sochi. In September, the head of the republic of Ingushetia, Chechnya’s western neighbor, announced that the homes of insurgents’ families would be demolished and their land seized. Mr. Putin followed suit by putting forward legislation in the Russian Duma that makes terrorists’ families liable for damages to victims of attacks; the proposal became law in November.
As tension has escalated in Sochi, the Federal Security Service has implemented a huge surveillance program, including sophisticated cyberspying measures. “Nobody can rule out the terrorist threat here,” Sergey Domorat, a Sochi city official, told me. The Kremlin certainly doesn’t.
The security around Sochi may ensure a peaceful Olympics. But beyond the Games, the repression in the Caucasus will inflict irreparable damage. After Sochi, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to rebuild trust and continue the rehabilitation of insurgents — even assuming there is the political will to do so.
Ekaterina Sokirianskaia is the North Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group.