Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Yet Another Genocide Olympics: 10 Political Causes Sure to Disrupt the Sochi Games

Circassian nationalists (see below) protesting the Sochi Olympics
What, in God’s name, was Russia thinking?  If you’re going to host the Winter Olympics, there are only a few things to consider.  One, snow.  Russia covers between 10 and 15% of the land surface of the world, much of it perpetually blanketed in snow and ice (you’ve heard of Siberia, right?).  So where does Moscow choose, in all that territory, to have the winter games?  In Sochi, a Black Sea resort more famous for its beaches—practically the southernmost point in Russia—where, as of today, February 5th, there is no snow on the ground.  It sounds like the beginning of a Polish joke—except Poles would never be this stupid.

There’s no snow on the ground, but that’s okay, we bought some rolls of this kind of tarp stuff.
After a few vodkas, no one will care.
But that’s the least of it.  Snow can be created with machines.  Another thing needed for the Olympics is stability and security.  There’s a reason that places like Somalia and Afghanistan don’t host the Olympics.  There’s also a reason why countries at war don’t host the Olympics.  Five different Olympiads were cancelled during the world wars.  There’s also a reason why countries at the center of huge, divisive conflicts—or countries which are despised or not recognized by much of the world—don’t host the Olympics.  Having the Games in Israel or Palestine would be a disaster; it would be an invitation for boycotts.  Likewise apartheid-era South Africa, or Burma, or Taiwan.

Putin lights the fuse—um, I mean flame.
Russia, sadly, is pretty high in these “not fit for the Olympics” categories as well.  Through a series of draconian laws cracking down on dissent and free speech, Russia is gradually making itself a global pariah.  And it is also in the midst of failing to suppress a radical Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus region, just a short drive from the Olympic village.  Not only that, but it chose, as the Olympic city, the site of a horrific Russian-engineered genocide of one of the ethnic groups involved in the insurgency, and this year is the 150th anniversary of those events.  What kind of rotgut moonshine vodka were Russian officials drinking when they stabbed their finger on a map and chose Sochi as an Olympic city?

Russia’s Olympic Organizing Committee at work
Here, then, is a rundown of the top ten political crises that are threatening to disrupt these Winter Olympics.  (See my similar article at the beginning of the Summer Olympics in London in 2012.)  There are others, but these are the top ten.  In reverse order, building up the biggie, the one that many experts are saying will—not might, but will—bring terrorism to the Olympics for the first time since Munich in 1972.

10. Syria
Your tax rubles at work in Syria
Russia has been doing so many things to infuriate the international community lately, that it’s hard to recall that for a while it was in the news mostly for being one of the very few nations to openly back the embattled dictator of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, who has been holding out against a massive popular revolution in the last two and a half years of civil war in the country.  And why does Russia cling to this?  Well, mostly because Iran is the other major country backing Assad, the Syrian regime being followers, like most Iranians, of the Shi’a branch of Islam.  Iran is trying to maintain regional influence through fellow Shiite government in places like Syria, Iraq, and southern Lebanon.  And Iran, dating back to the Cold War, has been a Russian ally mostly by virtue of its fierce antipathy, since the 1979 Islamic revolution, to the United States—and also because it such an alliance extends Russian influence to the Indian Ocean.  That is a key consideration for an oil-rich nation with few usable harbors to bring its commodities to market.  That was the whole rationale of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, after all, and the only reason the U.S. is so cosy with Pakistan.  Does that sound like a ridiculously convoluted reason for Putin to stand nearly alone against the world in backing a dictatorship that tortures thousands of dissidents and uses chemical weapons on its own citizens?  Yes, it is, and, even though Syria is not competing in these Olympics, those concerned for the country’s plight will be making their views known this year in Sochi.  Putin helped broker the deal last year by which Syria will destroy its chemical weapons, but in the minds of many that doesn’t erase the original sin of funding and backing the regime in the first place.

Vladimir Putin waiting for a presidential aide to bring a phone book to stand on
for a photo-op with fellow mass murderer Bashar al-Assad
9. Iran

An anti-Iran protest at the last Olympic games in Vancouver, in 2010
And speaking of Iran, which is sending five skiers to Sochi, this pariah nation is also likely to draw some attention this year.  Iran is an authoritarian theocracy, where women have few rights, dissidents are tossed into medieval prisons, and the legitimate aspirations of Kurdish, Azeri, Talysh, Turkmen, Baloch, and Khuzestani minorities, among others, are crushed mercilessly.  It is also a close ally of Russia’s, and Russia has a few of those minorities within its borders as well.  Expect some colorful protests.

All of Iran’s ethnic minorities are mistreated.
8. Kosovo

The head of Kosovo’s Olympic committee—
even though Kosovo is not in the Olympics
But Syria and Iran are not the only dastardly regimes that are allies of Russia.  We could also mention the Republic of Serbia, which, though it is rapidly liberalizing and angling for eventual European Union membership, was supported by the Kremlin through all the dark years of the 1990s when Serbs were waging a brutal, almost genocidal war against the captive nations trying to break free of the old Yugoslavia.  The last of these to secede, the Republic of Kosovo, is still claimed by Belgrade as Serbian territory, and Russia is one of the few nations in the world that actively sides with Serbia on this question.  The Security Council veto powers of Russia and the People’s Republic of China are the only remaining barriers to Kosovo’s membership in the United Nations General Assembly.  Kosovo is also not recognized as an Olympic nation; in London two years ago, the only Kosovar athlete competed under the flag of neighboring Albania.  (Kosovo is mostly ethnically Albanian.)  There is a lot of Kosovo hatred of the Kremlin.  Expect some protests when Serbia’s eight-person Olympic team shows up in Sochi.  Russia has recently outlawed public advocacy for “separatism” (as reported at the time in this blog), and Russian foreign policy classifies Kosovo’s right to exist under that rubric.  Putin has promised that no one will be arrested for exercising free speech at these Games.  We’ll see if he holds to that.

Kosovars wave Albanian flags at a protest
7. Palestine

Unlike these summer Olympics, Palestine won’t be sending athletes to Sochi,
but its cause will be heard there.
The Israeli–Palestinian conflict is one of the few foreign-policy questions on which Russia has been on the side consistent with human rights and self-determination.  But don’t think that that’s why Russia, as the Soviet Union did before it, supports the State of Palestine.  Mainly it was, and is, as a way of defying the United States and a way to counter U.S. influence in the Middle East via Israel.  In a sort of inversion of the situation with Kosovo (see above), it is mainly the U.S. that blocks membership in the U.N. General Assembly for Palestine, a nation which most of the world recognizes as sovereign.  If the Palestinian cause manifests itself at Sochi, the anger is more likely to be directed against the U.S. or the United Kingdom or Israel.  Palestinians are not sending a team to these Olympics, but they have rarely missed an opportunity to use the Olympic stage to make their views known.  Luckily, they are unlikely to do so in the way that they did in 1972, when Palestinian terrorists abducted and executed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich, West Germany.

The unofficial Olympic sharpshooting team sent by Palestine to the Munich games in 1972
6. Pussy Riot

Sometimes when an authoritarian regime tries to suppress a dissident movement, it actually feeds it, giving it a bigger stage and a bigger audience and turning up the volume on its message.  Never was this done so ham-handedly and stupidly than when Russia responded to a provocative 2012 performance by the obscure, unknown feminist punk band Pussy Riot.  The band staged a deliberately sacrilegious guerrilla musical event in a Moscow cathedral, protesting the Kremlin’s cosiness with the Orthodox church.  Five Pussy Riot members were arrested, charged with hooliganism and inciting religious hatred.  Two remain in prison.  This has made Pussy Riot a household name around the world and has galvanized even more people against the ludicrous intolerance of dissent in Putin’s Russia.  The band’s now millions of fans and supporters around the world include the Ukrainian nudist feminist protest collective Femen, which can be expected to at least attempt to champion the Pussy Riot cause with some of its anti-clerical, anti-patriarchal, anti-Moscow publicity stunts.

We haven’t seen the last of Femen.
5. Abkhazia and South Ossetia

One of the more high-profile Olympic boycott movements has been by those in the Republic of Georgia who want to stay out of the Sochi games in anger over two rogue territories within Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia set up as “independent” puppet states after Georgia tried to reclaim the rebel regions in a 2008 war.  Only Russia and a handful of inconsequential small nations recognize the two republics as independent, so there was never really a question of whether they would compete themselves.  The International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) shut down that idea quickly last year, and Moscow is not pushing the point (as I wrote about last year in this blog).  (Nearly all residents there are also, or only, Russian citizens, so Abkhazian and South Ossetian participation will be under the Russian flag.)  But Georgia is incensed at the Games being held so close to the conflict zone: the Abkhaz–Russian border is a mere 3 miles from Sochi.  And Russia recently upped the ante by declaring a “security zone” around Sochi which extends deep into Abkhazian—i.e., Georgian—territory.  Georgia said this week, with days to go, that it is keeping open the option to boycott the games.  That would hurt Georgia’s three slalom-racers, who are already in Sochi, more than anyone.  But Georgia is desperate to raise international awareness of what Russia did to their small country in 2008, so they may just play the boycott card.  Even if they don’t, there will be protests.  (Related recent article from this blog: “Is Ossetian Reunification Just Russian Irredentism by Another Name?”)

An anti-Russian protestor with a Georgian flag
4. Ukraine

Ukrainian protestor demolishing a Lenin statue recently
(but why was it still standing in the first place?)
The timing of the ongoing uprising in Ukraine could not be worse for Russia’s public image.  Since November, the streets of Ukraine’s cities have been filled with protestors, clogged with police barricades, shrouded in tear gas, and, occasionally, running with blood.  Ordinary Ukrainians have been rising up in the hundreds of thousands to protest President Viktor Yanukovych’s collusion with Vladimir Putin to place Ukraine into a neo-Soviet customs union with Moscow in lieu of, as most Ukrainians want, closer ties with the European Union (E.U.).  About 30% of Ukraine’s citizens are ethnically and linguistically Russian, especially in the east and south, so this has deeply divided this country, in what has turned into the most serious civil unrest in the European part of the former Soviet Union since that empire imploded in 1991.  As the protests drag on, opposing sides’ positions are hardening.  More and more of the red and black flags of Ukraine’s far-right nationalists are appearing at protests, while Russian-speakers are speaking now of partitioning the country by splitting off an independent Crimea (where Russians dominate) (as discussed recently in this blog) or creating a separate nation called Malorossiya (“Little Russia”—ouch, right?) in the east (see my recent article from this blog on that proposal, as well as my article listing Ukrainian partition as one of “10 Separatist Movements to Watch in 2014”).  Sochi is only about 150 miles from the Ukrainian (specifically, Crimean) border—in the other direction from the volatile Caucasus (see below), which means Sochi is squeezed directly between, essentially, two civil-war zones (see above in re: Russian Olympic planning committee, moonshine vodka, etc.).  Russian nationalists hate the Ukrainian protestors almost as much as Ukrainians hate Tymoshenko and Putin.  This will make things awkward for Ukraine’s 43 skiers, snowboarders, speed skaters, lugers, and figure skaters.  There will be demonstrations, believe me.

Members of the political collective Femen expressing their opinion of Ukraine’s President Yanukovych
3. Gay rights

Perhaps the cause of the most public vilification of Russia in the eyes of the world lately has been a result of recent legislation against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people—and lots else too.  The law criminalizes “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” and is worded so that essentially publicly admitting that you are gay can put you right in prison.  This kind of bigotry is hugely popular in ultra-patriarchal Russian culture and is being used by the Kremlin as an issue to whip up resentment of the West, where gay rights have made gigantic strides just in the past decade.  In addition to boycotts of Russian products like vodka, the cause has created a giant worldwide movement to boycott the Sochi games.  (No country has quite taken that step—though the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands is notoriously absent from the list of participating nations.)  Putin has said that no guests or athletes at the games will be prosecuted under this law, and that might open the door to all sorts of visible protests.

Activists in London in 2012 protesting Russia’s hosting of the 2014 games
There are lots of gay athletes (including biathletes—get it? biathlon? bi athletes?), and some of them, and their many allies and supporters, may unfurl gay-pride flags at key moments.  The LGBT movement is famous for wildly inventive and creative protests, so this could be good television—as long as Russian police can resist the temptation to crack some heads anyway (which is not out of the question, unfortunately).

2. The Circassians

This is how Russians treated Circassians in 1864,
and Circassians never forget.
Of all of the peoples and cultures shafted by Russian imperialism over the centuries, none has an emotional and symbolic stake in the Sochi Olympics quite like that of the Circassian people.  A predominantly-Muslim population speaking a language unrelated to any Slavic, Persian, or Turkic language of the region, the Circassians traditionally inhabited the plains along the Black Sea between the Crimea and the Caucasus.  These fiercely independent, warlike nation was more within the penumbra of the Ottoman Empire than under its actual thumb, but in the mid 19th century the Russian Empire pushed south to bring this region under its control, resulting in the mass extermination and expulsion of the entire Circassian population.  Many fled to places like Anatolia (Turkey) and the Levant (Syria), many were killed, and all were at least uprooted.  Some branches of the Circassian nation, like the Ubykh culture right around modern Sochi, were erased from the map.  The last speaker of the Ubykh language died in exile in Turkey in 1992.  The decisive massacre that sealed the fate of the Ubykh people occurred very near Sochi exactly 150 years ago.

For Circassians, this is no accident. It is the neo-Czarist Putin dancing like a Cossack on the mass grave of Circassian men, women, and children.  To them, this is like holding a celebration at Auschwitz.  There are just under a million Circassians (also called Adyghe people) remaining in Russia (compared to possibly as many as 3 million in Turkey), but unlike even many less numerous nationalities in the Russian Federation they do not rule their own republic.  They are divided among the Adyghe Republic just north of Sochi, where they are outnumbered by ethnic Russians three to one, and in two republics where branches of the Circassian nation share power with Turkic-speaking peoples: the Karachay-Cherkess Republic, which is only 11% Cherkess (Circassian), and the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, where Kabardins, who are Circassian, are 57% of the population.  (Some also classify the Abkhaz (see above) as Circassian.)  Circassian grievances are numerous: they want exiles to be allowed to return home, they want the international community to recognize what happened to them as a genocide, and they want a single autonmous republic that they can run themselves.  Some even want independence.  And these Olympics have set their tempers aflame.  There voices will be heard this month in Sochi.
Circassians marking the 1864 genocide (see also photo at top of article)
1. The Caucasus Emirate

The Circassians (see above) are traditionally warlike but for the most part have not used violent means to advance their goals in modern Russia.  That cannot be said of a network of terrorists mostly from other Caucasus ethnic groups, even some foreign ones, that have used Circassian and other grievances to mount a violent Islamist insurgency in Russia’s Caucasus mountains.  This group, known as the Caucasus Emirate movement, names itself for an imaginary Islamic state which they assert is the rightful government of the North Caucasus region, including the three Circassian and part-Circassian republics (see above), Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia (even though it is majority Christian), Dagestan, and even all of the nearby ethnic-Russian (i.e. Orthodox Christian) dominated regions, including Sochi itself in Krasnodar Krai.  The North Caucasus has been Muslim for centuries, but traditionally it is home to mystical strains of Sufism and other beliefs that were quite at odds with severer, harsher forms of Islam practiced farther south in places like the Arabian Peninsula and Iran—and were also liberally mixed with millennia-old indigenous traditions from these ethnically diverse mountains.  The picture changed drastically when the Soviet Union ended and Chechnya waged a war for independence.  To an extent, the Chechens won, and for a while in the 1990s Chechnya became de facto independent until Putin reabsorbed the republic in a Second Chechen War that was even more brutal than the first.  (See an article from this blog listing the Chechen exile government’s President Akhmed Zakayev as one of “The World’s 21 Sexiest Separatists.”)  Tens of thousands of Chechen civilians were killed as the capital city, Grozny, was reduced to rubble in what remains the worst violence of any kind in Europe since the Second World War.

Two Caucasus Emirate mujahideen with their flag
By this time the North Caucasus had become a magnet for jihadists fighters from all over—from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kashmir, the Philippines, everywhere, and soon the region came under the cloud of Wahhabism, a radical, puritanical strain of Sunni Islam that bans all music and art, approves the killing of infidels, and treats women like livestock.  Just a short drive east of the Olympic village in Sochi is a rugged mountain region ruled by traditional warlords, where Russian Interior Ministry troops can barely contain a violent insurgency that on an almost daily basis ambushes police patrols, levels government buildings with suicide bombs, and assassinates any moderate Muslim clerics that question the Wahhabist laws.  Alongside Afghanistan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the North Caucasus is among the most dangerous parts of the world.  Chechnya is more or less pacified now, but Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, and Dagestan in particular are veritable war zones.  Not only that, but Islamist insurgents are intertwined not only with local politicians and mullahs but with lawless drug and weapons smuggling cartels who together run the region with impunity.  It is barely Russia at all.

Volgograd after a visit from the Caucasus Emirate movement
The world was reminded of this late last year when two suicide bombings of buses in Volgograd, the largest Russian metropolis near the Caucasus region, killed more than 40 people and injured dozens.  Credit for the crimes was claimed by Vilayat Dagestan, the branch or “province” (vilayat, in Ottoman administrative terminology) of the Caucasus Emirate movement for the mostly lawless Republic of Dagestan (see map above, where you will also see Sochi included in the Emirate’s “Vilayat Cherkessia”).  Though the Emirate’s leader, Dokka Umarov, is quite reliably rumored to be dead, the Vilayat Dagestan’s claim of responsibility makes clear that the organization’s cells are quite capable of dealing out deadly violence.  They have promised to deliver “a large present” to the Sochi Olympics.  But don’t worry.  In case that makes athletes and spectators feel unsafe, be reassured that Putin has sent 400 Cossacks—yes, actual Cossacks—to Sochi to provide security.  They will, in the words of one local governor, “do things to preserve order that the police can’t.”  Of course, the Cossacks were the ones who committed all that genocide right around Sochi in the first place.  Something tells me their presence won’t exactly calm things down.

Cossacks arriving in Sochi last week
These Olympics are going to be a wild ride.  Fasten your seat belts—and keep watching this blog for regular updates on political stories and entanglements about these and other causes and movements during the Games.

Related articles from this blog:
“10 Ethnonationalist Causes That Might Disrupt the [London 2012] Olympics” (July 2012)
“Celts, Cypriots, Aborigines Raise Stink at Olympics: Ethnonationalist Protest Update” (July 2012)
“Olympic Update: Femen Protest, Bigoted Judokas, Sudanese Defectors” (August 2012)
“Somaliland’s Own Mo Farah Clinches Olympic Immortality” (August 2012)
“Separatist Football Update: Carnage at a Dagestan–Netherlands Match, Alderney vs. Sealand, Barotseland’s National Team” (August 2012)
“Abkhazia & South Ossetia Won’t Compete in Sochi Olympics, I.O.C. Declares” (October 2013)
“‘Separatism’ Added to List of Things Russians Aren’t Allowed to Talk about” (November 2013)
“10 Separatist Movements to Watch in 2014” (December 2013)
“Games Begin! Ukrainian Hijacking, Putin Rounds Up Dissidents” (Feb. 8, 2014)

[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  The book, which contains dozens of maps and over 500 flags, is now in the layout phase and should be on shelves, and available on Amazon, by early fall 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even though you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook.]

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