Heightened security at Sochi raises concerns

The 2014 Winter Olympics are being held in Sochi, a Russian resort city at the eastern end of the Black Sea. Along with the excitement and anticipation that the Olympics always bring, there is also controversy over the extensive security at the Games next year.

Sochi lies on the west side of the Caucasus region of southern Russia. This area, which includes Chechnya, is notorious for its large population of Islamic fundamentalist groups. These groups have been known to endorse terrorism, attack Russian officials and sponsor violent riots, and they allegedly inspired the Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlan and Dzokhar, who bombed the Boston Marathon last April.

While the Russian government’s official explanation for increased security at the Olympic Games is to protect the spectators and athletes from an attack, many critics believe that it is really to keep anti-Putin protesters from launching a series of demonstrations that would embarrass the government in the Kremlin.

The heightened security has already begun with extensive passport and background checks on anyone buying tickets to the games. In addition to buying tickets, all guests are required to obtain “spectator passes” so officials can easily identify them.

The Kremlin also turned Sochi and the surrounding area into a 400-square-kilometer security zone where no vehicles can go in or out during the Olympics. Within the zone, most of the city’s facilities, schools, stores and offices will be put under intense special protection during the weeks leading up to the games. The Kremlin will be increasing surveillance on all telephone calls and Internet transmissions within Sochi, and there will be a ban on protests, rallies and other demonstrations within the Sochi security zone. Candid cameras have been installed throughout the city, and drones will also be deployed. The Russian military has employed Special Forces to patrol the mountains that back the city and speedboats to survey the coastline and has introduced an intense sonar monitoring system to watch for submarines.

The Sochi officials are also completing background checks on all of the city’s current residents. If a migrant worker, homosexual or someone who is just “unwelcome” is found, they will likely be asked to leave the city. This is another way to enforce Putin’s ban on gay athletes, which has outraged many people.

Many critics believe that these new security procedures are violations of privacy and human rights. Andrei Soldatov, an independent Moscow-based security analyst, told the Associated Press, “The system … is very intrusive, much more intrusive than in the West,” he said. He is right in the sense that these new security measures are invasive. But on the other hand, they will keep everyone safe, which is the highest priority.

The Islamic militant groups in the Caucasus area have become more active in the past few years. In 2011, three tourists were skiing on nearby Mount Elbrus. They were gunned down by violent Islamic fundamentalists. If a similar incident were to happen during the Winter Games, it would be an outrage and could morph into a political crisis. In that regard, the security plan for the Sochi Olympics is a double-edged sword. It makes the Russian government appear racist and homophobic, but it could also end up allowing for the safest Olympics in history.