With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics only half a year away, the games are facing a number of challenges from organizations within the Russian Federation, as well as from foreign countries and international human rights groups. Beyond a number of environmental concerns which have plagued the games since Sochi’s selection, the planners of the games face the following five social and political challenges:
1. Threats from Chechen Separatist Groups:
Since Russian security forces reportedly thwarted a planned attack by Chechen rebels in May 2012, Sochi has been a focus of both the rebels and the Russian organizations eager to prevent violence in the run-up to the games. Last week, a Chechen militant leader called on his followers to use “maximum force” to derail the Sochi games. The games seem to have inspired a renewal of violence by anti-Russian forces in the North Caucasus. Chechen leaders previously banned attacks on targets outside of the Caucasus, but have apparently reversed this decision in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics.
2. Protests from Circassian Diaspora Groups
One of the reasons Chechen and other Caucasian groups express such vehement opposition to Sochi 2014 is the history of the Black Sea region, where Sochi is located. Traditionally, Sochi and the Black Sea region were home to the Circassian people. After a long Russian-Circassian War ended in 1864, approximately 1.5 million Circassians were expelled from their homeland to the Ottoman Empire, and many died during the expulsion. Many in the Circassian diaspora view Sochi as an opportunity to draw attention to their cause and force Russia to issue an apology for the expulsion. So far, Russia has refused to acknowledge Sochi’s history, but a number of human rights groups have voiced support for the Circassians and even called for a boycott of the Olympics.
3. Georgian Opposition
Georgia recently decided not to boycott the 2014 Olympics, but tense Georgian-Russian relations nonetheless remain a challenge. In particular, Sochi’s geography presents a conundrum for Georgian politicians, who are attempting to slowly rebuild a functional relationship with Russia in the wake of the 2008 war in the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Olympic park is located only five miles from Abkhazia, which Georgia claims as part of its territory, but which Russia recognized as an independent state in 2008. Georgian officials initially indicated that they might boycott the Olympics, the Georgian National Olympic Committee voted unanimously in May to attend. However, since Russia and Georgia do not maintain political relations, and Abkhazia remains a major point of contention, Sochi 2014 is likely to continue to cause controversy in Georgia.
4. LGBT Rights Issues
Russia’s abysmal record on LGBT rights has led to concern that Sochi will stifle expressions of homosexuality. Most notably, Russia’s Duma recently passed a law which bans “propagandizing of nontraditional sexual relations.” While the law is vague, when interpreted in the Russian context it is used to prevent the public discussion of homosexuality and suspend gay rights organizations. Gay and “pro-gay” foreigners can also be detained and fined under the law. The law has raised a number of questions among human rights groups and LGBT advocates about legal repercussions for openly gay athletes in Sochi. This month, the International Olympic Committee attempted to assuage fears of anti-gay persecution at Sochi by pledging to support openly gay athletes at the games, while also expressing concerns about Russia’s decision to enact the law.
While social and political issues like gay rights and tensions in the Caucasus have drawn international attention to Sochi 2014, the biggest challenge the games face may in fact come from Russian officials and planners themselves. According to some reports by the Russian opposition, as much as $30 million may have been stolen from Olympic preparation funds. Even if this number is greatly inflated, charges of corruption have tainted the Sochi games since the city was selected, with many alleging that only pro-Putin businesses have won contracts for the games.