By Rebecca Flannery
The winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia has been creating a lot of buzz lately – seemingly about anything but the Olympic events. From terrorist threats and government spending to the Sochi Problems Twitter account, the amount of media coverage on the Olympics can be confusing. Assistant professor for the political science department in the school of arts and sciences, Dr. Sergiy Kudelia teaches a class on terrorism and will teach a government and politics of Russia class in the fall. He has spoken about these topics with national media prior to this interview. Dr. Kudelia’s commentaries in the following paragraphs reflect his knowledge of the situations occurring in and around the Sochi winter Olympics.
Do you believe the Volgograd blasts, which occurred in late December 2013, are linked to terrorist attacks proposed to take place in Sochi?
The Volgograd blasts were not the first terrorist acts that happened in Russia over the last several years. Actually, we’ve seen a series of terrorist acts that have been on the rise since 2009. What we have been seeing is a diffusion of terrorist activity from Chechnya into the republics that are neighboring Chechnya – a region that is neighboring Georgia to the south and is very close to where the Sochi Olympics are taking place.
There are different estimates of the number of terrorists who are a part of the local groups, but the most conservative estimates are about 1,000 people. In addition to that you have a constant flow of civilian recruits who are joining these terrorist groups, either as volunteers to participate in suicide bombing operations, or as people to provide information back to terrorists about the situation on the ground.
But one of the most troubling developments that the Volgograd bombing exposed is the increasing involvement of ethnic Russians in the conduct of suicide bombing operations. The two individuals who participated in organizing the suicide bombings in Volgograd were ethnic Russians who converted into Islam and had civilian jobs. They were not people who identified as sympathetic to Islamist cause. And that makes the likelihood of some kind of a terrorist act either in Sochi or around Sochi even grater.
I think there is a general consensus within the expert community in the U.S. who are following the Islamist terrorists in the North Caucasus that there will be at least an attempt to conduct a terrorist attack somewhere. Not necessarily in Sochi, but somewhere in the Russian federation. And we’re seeing a constant appeal on Jihadist websites that are controlled by the organizations working in North Caucasus – appeals for the people who are sympathetic, or members of these organizations to engage in acts of terror and acts of revenge to Russia during the period of the Olympics.
Do you believe security for the Olympics is sufficient considering the threats at hand?
The Russian authorities have been dealing with the terrorist threat for 20 years now – since the mid 1990s. They have developed pretty elaborate counterterrorism strategies. They know they have been infiltrating the terrorist groups, they know how these groups operate. They know a lot of individuals inside these groups, and because of that I think in general the Russian intelligence services have a good understanding of where these threats are coming from. For that reason I think Sochi may be relatively safe.
Sochi, in the last several months, has turned into a closed off area where only ethnic Russians or foreigners with special permits from the security services (FSB) could be allowed inside. Russian authorities also sent about 50 thousand policemen to patrol the streets of Sochi – which for the town of 300,000 equates to one policeman per six residents of the city. In addition to the 50,000 policemen, you have troops deployed on the border with Georgia in the areas where there are the secessionist regions of Abkhazia… The navy has also been deployed in the area on the Black Sea so that there will be control from the sea. Actually, the American navy ship is there as well in case the American athletes need to be evacuated. So, there have been major security precautions that have been taken by the Russian authorities to ensure that this is a safe Olympics.
Now, the downturn of that of course is the general environment of the Olympics. The Olympics has not been as easy-going as the Olympic events should be. At the same time, apart from Sochi itself, there are numerous soft targets around Russia that could potentially be targeted by the terrorists. That being said, while the authorities may be able to control what is happening in Sochi, they may not be able to control what is happening around it.
Another scenario that some have been speculating about is that since Russians have been relying on foreign migrant workers to build the Olympic venues, there have been numerous concerns expressed about the possibilities of Islamist groups infiltrating these migrant worker networks and planting either suicide bombers in the networks or having a bomb installed while the construction goes on. Hopefully these scenarios will not pan out, but this is a possibility people have been discussing.
Because the Olympics is an international event including almost every nation in the world, do you believe this possible terrorist attack is meant to harm the nations involved, or solely Russia?
The terrorist group is a quasi-Islamist state that had been declared in the North Caucasus in 2007. The leader of that state, Doku Umorov, has a $5 million award over his head offered by the state department. He is recognized as an international terrorist, he has international credentials. So yes, in a way that terrorist group is a part of the larger international Jihadist front. That is the reason why the Caucasus Emirate has been declared in the first place – to demonstrate that they are part of the Islamist movement to establish Islamist states with Sharia law in different parts of the world. That gives them a lot of financial support from different countries and organizations that bring in new recruits not only from the region but also from abroad. There have also been reports of people going back to North Caucasus during the Syrian conflict – so there a number of people from the Middle Eastern region who get training while operating in ISIS (Islamist State of Iraq and Syria), an Al-Qaida affiliate group – and returning to North Caucasus to use their training for the purpose of fighting the Russian authorities. For that reason, there may be an attempt to demonstrate to the other groups their power. We have to understand that these terrorist groups are not only fighting for their own cause but part of the strategy is to show to other groups that they are credible, that they are strong enough and that they can commit acts that follow the logic of the entire Islamic movement. So for that reason, everyone is unsafe who is facing that Islamist threat. All the countries of the west in particular could be targeted.
But I still believe that the main attempt would be done to unravel the Olympics tied to Russia. The games have been personalized. Both by the Russian media, propaganda, and just in general the way it was organized. It was personalized with Putin in mind. It is viewed as a personal project of Vladimir Putin that has a crucial significance for his legacy as the president of Russia. It is meant to show that Russia is back, that Russia is acquiring again its status of The Great Power, that it is capable of organizing a major sporting event. And in addition to that we know that this event has cost Russia more than all the winter Olympics combined – over $50 billion. This shows that Russia has sufficient financial resources to spend on these kinds of sporting events. For that reason, it is an opportunity for terrorists groups to hit not just Russian citizens but hit the reputation of their main nemesis, Vladimir Putin, who rose to power in 1999 as a person who would be fighting the Chenchen terrorists and eliminating them throughout Russia. Putin has been fighting the Chenchen terrorists since 1999 when he became Prime Minister. For them, it’s basically an attempt to have revenge against Vladimir Putin personally, to take down his reputation, to harm him personally. And that makes the risks even more acute as far as the terrorist threat is concerned.
Knowing that the Russian government has spent billions of dollars over budget, how will the Russian economy recover after the games leave Sochi?
I will give you some statistics to put things in perspective.
The previous winter Olympic games were in Vancouver, Canada. The annual GDP per capita in Canada is three times than the annual GPD per capita of Russia. The cost of building one road (30 miles) that stretches from Sochi into the mountains cost to Russia as much as the entire winter Olympics in Vancouver. The winter Olympics in Vancouver cost about eight to ten billion dollars.
Another example: Salt Lake City in 2002. It cost the United States 10 times less to build the arena for the opening and closing ceremonies than it did for Russia to build their own Olympic venue. In Salt Lake City the venue cost about $17 million and for the Russians, it cost about $17 hundred million. These are tremendous costs.
One last example: the United States government spent in federal subsidies $1.2 billion dollars to fund Salt Lake City winter Olympics. That same amount of money the Russian government spent on building one huge media center used specifically for the purposes of the foreign and domestic press.
One question is, why is it so expensive to organize the Olympics in Russia? The simple answer to that question is that most of the Olympic venues that have been built over the last seven years have been built by Putin’s friends. This was a massive money-laundering operation used to transfer billions of dollars from the Russian budget into the pockets of the oligarchs, the friends of Mr. Putin – who many say control the personal finances of Mr. Putin. So, in a way this has been a self-enrichment scheme for Putin as far as his own personal future is concerned.
Out of the $50 billion price tag of the winter Olympics that everyone mentions, the actual money that came from the Russian budget is about $25 to 30 billion. That includes direct payments for a series of sporting facilities, and it includes loans that have been given by Russian state-owned banks to oligarchs for building other venues – like the main alpine skiing venue in the mountains. The reports that have appeared in the press over the last several months indicate that the oligarchs don’t know how to return this money because the facilities themselves are not going to bring in revenue, they’re not going to be profitable for very long. So, the most likely scenario is that they will default on these loans, and the Russian state will bail them out for the loans. In essence, Russian taxpayers will have to pay at least $30 billion altogether for the Russian budget. The source for all that funding is mostly the rents that have accumulated from the sale of oil and gas. These are energy rents that Russia has a lot of, and Putin was using some of the funds that have accumulated over the years to pay for the winter Olympics. So, it’s not a tremendous harm to the Russian budget because the money was there anyway.
But, the big question that everyone is discussing is what will happen to these venues once everyone is gone? Sochi did not establish itself as a center for winter sports. It is not famous in Russia for winter sports. As a result, there is a big risk as far as the future of these investments are concerned. Whether people actually return to Sochi, whether they will actually start using the facilities there, and so on. There are a lot of uncertainties as far as these investments are concerned.
In addition to that, there is the Olympic village that has been built in Sochi. They plan to turn it into large apartment complexes and they plan to sell these apartments that are now being used by Olympic athletes. Now, because of the excessive costs that have been associated with building that Olympic village, the price of these apartments will cost, by different estimates, as much as apartments in downtown Moscow. So, it will be extremely expensive for anyone who wants to move to Sochi who wants to buy these apartments. Which means, once again, that because of the inefficiencies involved in organizing the winter Olympics, it will be very hard to return the money that has been invested. Most likely, these losses will remain a burden on the Russian taxpayers and will be a symbol of the major social waste that an authoritarian state like Russia is willing to go through in order to organize a spectacular event like the winter Olympics.
As for the prisoners Putin placed in prison years ago, why did he choose to release them now prior to the Olympics?
The reason was to minimize or address some of the criticisms that have been expressed by the western leaders about the violation of human rights in Russia. That’s the way many are interpreting it and that’s the right way, I think, of interpreting it. That was his response to these criticisms; to make sure that there is a more positive image of Russia appearing in the west.
Anything to add?
One thing I wanted to add: It’s interesting the way the Olympics is covered in the western press. From what I’m reading in social media and Russian media coverage; I have a feeling that this is not fair coverage. The western press tends to focus on all kinds of inefficiencies, infrastructural problems that emerge. They show the bad water conditions, the lack of showers, the incomplete construction of many hotel rooms, the fact that many people were dislocated – a lot of poor people in Sochi – and so on. For Russians, it seems like these criticisms are unfair because the west, again, is using the winter Olympics in order to demonstrate the inferiority of Russia. By contrast, the Russian media is trying to show off the Russian strength, Russian greatness, Russian power, etc. So, there is this disconnect. Whether it’s going to change or not, we’ll see. In general, I think if the Olympics go well without major problems, the coverage will improve by the end.