Circassian Association of California
Adyghe Khasa


University of Toronto Professor Matthew Light and the challenges and opportunities for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

Source: The Agenda - Interview with Matthew Light

Sochi and Northwest Caucasus – I

WEB EXCLUSIVES | April 1, 2010     

In 2007, the International Olympic Committee announced that the 2014 winter Olympics would be awarded to Russia. The games are to be held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where the Caucasus Mountains rise abruptly out of a subtropical coastline. The IOC’s decision brought international attention to an area that is often ignored by outside observers: Russia’s Northwest Caucasus. As a glance at the map will show, Sochi itself is not far from the troubled provinces of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan, leading many to wonder why the Kremlin would want to host the Olympics in an apparently tense region. Such questions will doubtless be raised more vigorously following the recent terrorist attacks against the Moscow subway system, which have reminded Russians, and the rest of the world, that the multiple conflicts that plague the Caucasus have not been resolved.

Despite the lack of attention to it in the Western press, the Northwest Caucasus is of major importance to Russia. It contains the country’s leading resort areas, including Sochi, as well as the country’s major remaining Black Sea port – possibly the future home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. And, of course, the Northwest Caucasus also borders Russia’s estranged neighbour, the Republic of Georgia. The Northwest Caucasus thus holds strategic significance for Russia as a relatively calm and reliable outpost in a turbulent frontier region, and indeed, the region is now assuming greater importance for the Kremlin than at any time in the recent past.

The Kremlin has been moving to assert greater central control over the three provinces of the Northwest Caucasus. As a result, the region may be entering a period both of greater salience on the national and international political scene, and also of greater instability. In this first of two web exclusives, we discuss the three provinces of the Northwest Caucasus and briefly discuss their political leadership. In next week’s article, the survey will continue with an exploration of the reasons for the Sochi Olympics, the place of the games in the Kremlin’s plans for the region, and the preparations for the 2014 Olympiad.

In Russian political parlance, the Northwest Caucasus consists of three provinces: Krasnodar, on the Black Sea coast; Adygeia, a small enclave surrounded by Krasnodar; and Stavropol, inland in the foothills of the Caucasus. All were incorporated relatively late into the Russian state – from the 18th to the 19th centuries – following years of war between the forces of the Russian Empire (often assisted by Cossacks, a partially autonomous military caste) and indigenous peoples. The conquest included a component of massacre and expulsion abroad of the native inhabitants – notably the Circassians, an ethnic group who formerly inhabited much of what is now Russia’s Black Sea coastline, as well as some inland areas. Over the next century, settlers from central Russia and Ukraine flooded into the region, resulting in a population that is now predominantly ethnically Slavic. Today, Stavropol and Krasnodar are each around 85 percent ethnically Russian, and even Adygeia – ostensibly an autonomous region set aside for the remaining Circassian population – has an ethnically Slavic majority. It is this Slavic preponderance that sets the Northwest Caucasus apart from both the Northeastern Caucasus, with its non-Russian autonomous republics, and the South (or Trans-) Caucasus – today the independent states of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.

Indeed, the political chasm between the eastern and western provinces of Russia’s North Caucasus has only grown more marked in the post-Soviet period. In the western provinces, the Russian state’s authority is relatively intact, albeit threatened. The eastern autonomous republics, in contrast, have become a zone of low-intensity conflict marked by serious political violence. Stavropol occupies an ambiguous position in this dichotomy. It is the easternmost of the western ‘Russian’ provinces, and borders Chechnya and other unstable provinces. Thus, to one degree or another, all three provinces can be viewed as an outpost of Russia in the Caucasus.

Yet, although calmer than neighbouring regions, the Northwest Caucasus has been affected by the refugee flows generated by ethnic conflict elsewhere in the Caucasus. Both Stavropol and Krasnodar were major destinations for internally displaced persons (predominantly ethnic Russians, but also including many other ethnic groups, notably Armenians) who left other regions of the Caucasus (in particular Chechnya) or other former Soviet republics for political reasons during the 1990s and early 2000s. According to different estimates, Stavropol alone holds between 200,000 to 700,000 such persons out of a total population of 2.7 million. While Russian holiday-makers sun themselves on the beaches of the Black Sea, the presence of these internally displaces persons is a reminder that the violent politics of the eastern Caucasus are not really remote.

Despite these commonalities, there are significant differences between the three provinces. Krasnodar is the largest and richest, with a population of over five million and a booming economy based on highly productive agriculture and tourism. Stavropol, with a population of around 2.7 million, is less prosperous, and has suffered more from its proximity to Chechnya: there were several major terrorist incidents in the province during the 1990s. Finally, tiny Adgyeia, with approximately 450,000 inhabitants, holds the official status of ‘republic’ in the post-Soviet period. This status is supposed to offer substantial autonomy to the indigenous Circassian (in their own language, Adyg) ethnic group, although the latter actually represent only 20 to 25 percent of the total population. Adygeia is also the most economically depressed of the three provinces, with an unemployment rate of around 50 percent.

The post-Soviet political life of the three provinces also displays a common trajectory. In the 1990s and early 2000s, all three pursued a relatively independent line, and clashed frequently with the Russian federal government. Yet today, all three regions have been effectively brought into line with the Kremlin’s plans for the region.

Here is a quick overview of the evolving political leadership in each province:

Krasnodar’s governor since 2000 has been Aleksandr Tkachev – once a leading politician in Russia’s Communist Party. His relationship with Putin has been fraught. While he received Putin’s nomination to serve a third term, and was confirmed by the Krasnodar legislature in April 2007, Tkachev’s abuse of local minorities (notably the Armenian community) embarrassed the Kremlin and brought a rebuke from Putin. Later, Tkachev mended fences with Putin and, under pressure, joined the United Russia Party, the so-called ‘party of power’ created by Putin.

While Stavropol was also Communist-dominated in the 1990s, the leadership of this smaller and poorer province never sought out confrontation with the Kremlin. Alexander Chernogorov was the governor of Stavropol from 1996 to 2008. Unlike Tkachev, he maintained more correct relations with the Kremlin, and also eventually left the Communists for United Russia. However, in the 2007 elections to the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian federal parliament), Chernogorov failed to deliver a majority of his province’s votes to United Russia. In 2008, he resigned under pressure from Putin, and was replaced by Valeriy Gayevskiy, a former federal official.

Adygeia’s chief executive holds the formal title of ‘President’ because of Adygeia’s ‘autonomous republic’ status. The first two post-Soviet Presidents were Adyg nationalists, including Khazret Sovmen, who was elected in 2002. Sovmen had spent most of his career outside Adygeia, and was better known as a mining magnate than as a politician. He was elected partially on the strength of hopes that he could revitalize Adygeia’s flagging economy, but was eventually brought down by the province’s complex ethnic relations. In 2006, the Kremlin began floating rumours that Adygeia would be merged with neighbouring Krasnodar. Following vigorous protests by the Adyg political leadership, and Sovmen’s public opposition to the merger, these plans were shelved. But Sovmen’s independence brought to an end his political career: in 2007 he resigned, and was replaced by the former academic Aslan Tkhakushinov. Moreover, while the republic remains formerly separate from Krasnodar, important ministries have now been transferred to the control of Tkachev.

Thus, in all three provinces, the Kremlin has recently been playing an increasingly active role in supervising local politics, replacing the chief executives of Stavropol and Adygeia, and converting Krasnodar’s governor from an obstreperous opponent into a relatively tame partner. As the next installment for GB will explain, the 2014 Sochi Olympics must be understood against the political backdrop of the Russian government’s determination to assert control over the Northwest Caucasus region.

Matthew Light is Assistant Professor at the Centre of Criminology and Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (CERES), University of Toronto.

Sochi and Northwest Caucasus – II

WEB EXCLUSIVES | April 12, 2010     

Last week, we introduced the Northwest Caucasus, a strategically important region of Russia, and surveyed its three provinces – Stavropol, Krasnodar, and the ‘autonomous republic’ of Adygeia, homeland of the region’s indigenous Circassian people. This time, we consider the politics surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics, which are to be held in Krasnodar’s premier Black Sea beach resort, Sochi. The Games are intended to cement Russia’s links to the Northwest Caucasus. Yet, paradoxically, preparations for Sochi 2014 are only highlighting the problems that Russia faces in the region.

The International Olympic Committee’s announcement in July 2007 that it was awarding the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi – over rival bids from Austria and South Korea – came as something of a surprise. True, the city’s surroundings magnificently unite a subtropical shoreline with snowy mountains only kilometres away. However, as a resort, Sochi leaves something to be desired. Its physical infrastructure and tourism facilities were developed for Soviet citizens, who flocked there on cheap package vacations, and amenities are not at international standards. How did Russia secure the Olympics for this somewhat down-at-heel beach town?

Sochi’s win owes much to the determination of one man: Vladimir Putin, then President, and now Prime Minister of Russia. To bolster Sochi’s case, Putin made a personal appearance at the IOC deliberations in Guatemala City, where he pledged his full commitment to the success of the Games, and promised to invest US $12 billion in infrastructure improvements for the region. Sochi’s win was immediately touted in the media as a significant boost to Russia’s international standing, and as the crowning glory of Putin’s own tenure in the Kremlin. Sochi will be Russia’s first Olympiad since the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, and Putin undoubtedly meant the return of the Olympics to symbolize Russia’s own return to great power status. Still, it is not obvious why Putin wanted Russia’s winter games to be held in the country’s warmest region, long known more for sunbathing than for skiing. In other words, why Sochi?

The selection of Sochi for the Games has political – and indeed geopolitical – motivations. It fits in within a larger trend toward the enhanced importance of the Northwest Caucasus within Russia. The Russian government has made a priority of upgrading infrastructure and communications in the region. It is building a new highway from the Black Sea to central Russia. And it is pouring money into modernization of the province’s major port, Novorossisk – a hub for the trade in oil and other commodities, which will probably also become the new home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet when Russia’s lease of Sevastopol (in the Crimea, part of Ukraine) expires in 2017. Sochi 2014 will also stimulate the region’s economic development, and tie it more closely to the rest of Russia. In other words, both the Games themselves and the investments Russia is making into them demonstrate the Kremlin’s determination to maintain its presence in the broader Caucasus region. In addition, there is a regional political dimension: the Games were a triumph not just for Putin, but also for Krasnodar governor Aleksandr Tkachev, whose position as Moscow’s leading regional ally has been reinforced by Sochi’s win.

With Putin and Tkachev having triumphantly secured Sochi 2014, the Russian government must now practically prepare to hold the Games. However, since the IOC’s announcement, more and more questions have been raised about the Games. The concerns range from security, to construction and development issues, to the impact of the Olympics on the region’s physical environment and its indigenous population.

There are multiple, extant armed conflicts that are alarmingly close to the future Olympic city. Sochi is only kilometres from Russia’s border with the disputed region of Abkhazia – a major bone of contention in the recent Russia-Georgian war. Abkhazia, which is legally a part of Georgia, has been ruled by a separatist government with Russian backing since the 1990s. In August 2008, Russian troop deployments into Abkhazia, and shelling of Georgian territory from the separatist region, lured the Georgian government into its ill-fated offensive. Neither Georgia’s defeat in that war nor Russia’s subsequent recognition of Abkhazia’s independence has resolved the conflict, and hostilities could break out again. Indeed, whether or not there is another full-scale war, the Sochi Games will be taking place near a heavily militarized border between Russia and a neighbouring state – somethat that is hardly conducive to the Olympic spirit of international amity.

Along with the threat of another Russo-Georgian war, the Russian government has had to address increasing concerns about the risk of terrorist attacks in or near the Sochi Olympics. In the mid-2000s, as the IOC was reviewing Russia’s proposal, the country’s long-running conflict with separatist forces in Chechnya seemed to be winding down, with Russia triumphantly proclaiming the end of ‘counter-terrorist operations’ in the North Caucasus. More recent events, however, have belied Russia’s assertions. In several North Caucasus provinces, economic stagnation and the brutality and corruption of many of the region’s leaders have produced growing anger at Russian rule, as well as an expanding Islamist terrorist campaign throughout the region. Terrorist attacks in the North Caucusus, such as the assassination of local officials or explosions in police stations in Dagestan, do not always capture international media attention. But the recent suicide bombings on the Moscow subway evidently captured headlines around the world, and indeed suggest that the situation in the Caucasus is getting worse, not better. Although the IOC officially accepts Russia’s assurances that it can guarantee the security of the Sochi Olympics, security measures will have to be pervasive and stringent, and the atmosphere may be quite tense.

Along with the issue of security, questions are being raised about the construction spree that is supposed to produce a modern sports and tourism complex in Sochi. The 2014 Games are managed by a newly created corporation under mixed public and private ownership. While the Russian government has invested huge sums, and Putin has given the matter the attention that he promised, the new entity has been dogged with controversy from the start. There is unease about both the quality of the Olympic sites, and the transparency of the financing: not all the funds allocated for Olympic construction have necessarily been used for their intended purpose. Media reports indicate that tensions with the IOC have already emerged. Moreover, the building boom is not necessarily benefiting local businesses. The coming Games are accelerating an ongoing transfer of ownership of hotels and other tourist sites on the Black Sea littoral: smaller private owners (often members of the local Armenian community) are being edged (or forced) out of the tourism business, and being displaced by much larger corporate structures – often with political connections. Russian media sources have alleged that the city government of Sochi is selectively demolishing buildings (such as privately owned hotels) – ostensibly for building code violations, but in fact to make way for more powerful investors. All this suggests that, in contemporary Russia, it is difficult to carry out a major infrastructure project in a transparent manner.

Finally, there are questions about the environmental and cultural sensitivity of the Olympic planning. Environmentalists have expressed alarm about the impact of Olympic construction on the fragile ecology of the Black Sea littoral, which includes a major national park. In early 2010, the World Wildlife Fund angrily suspended its cooperation with Russian authorities, alleging that Olympic construction was causing irreparable destruction of habitats and contamination of watersheds. Moreover, Sochi 2014 has exposed disagreement between the Russian state and some native peoples about the proper development of Olympic sites. As discussed in last week’s piece, the indigenous Cirassian people formerly inhabited the entire Black Sea coast, including Sochi, but are now concentrated in Adygeia. Some Circassian activists allege that Olympic construction is already resulting in the destruction of important historical sites. In particular, the mountain area known as Yasnaya Polyana, slated to be the site of the downhill events, was the location of a decisive battle between Russian troops and Circassians during Russia’s 19th century conquest of the region; the name actually means ‘Red Meadow,’ – a reference to the blood spilled there. While North American Olympic cities like Vancouver and Salt Lake City have wrestled with this continent’s own painful aboriginal history, Russia’s Olympic preparations have shown unwillingness even to acknowledge native peoples’ concerns, let alone address them in the planning process.

In short, the Sochi Olympics were intended both to showcase Russia’s rising political fortunes, and to reinforce its presence in the Northwest Caucasus. Having said this, much will have to change between now and 2014 if the Games are to produce the impression on foreign observers for which the Russian government is hoping.

Matthew Light is Assistant Professor at the Centre of Criminology and Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (CERES), University of Toronto.