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Published: Sunday, 1/12/2014 - Updated: 8 months ago

COMMENTARY

Danger lurking in Sochi, despite what Putin says

BY MIKE SIGOV
BLADE COLUMNIST
Mike Sigov Mike Sigov
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Streets empty of people and full of slogans, parking lots full of empty tourist buses, and hundreds of police by subway exits and stadiums are stuck in the memory of a guide and interpreter at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

Nearly 34 years later, it appears that one can expect more of the same from the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Then a Moscow University student, yours truly did a summer stint in 1980 as a guide and interpreter for a handful of perhaps several hundred U.S. fans who traveled to Moscow. Thousands of Americans had been expected, but the United States boycotted the games because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Designed to showcase “the Soviet way of life,” the games were a costly propaganda failure.

While the United States is not about to boycott the upcoming Sochi Olympics, the Olympic facilities' proximity to areas contested by militant Muslim secessionists in southern Russia makes the games a questionable tourist destination at best.

For years, Russia has been plagued by terrorist acts blamed on Muslim radicals from the restive Caucasus mountains region it has been trying to pacify since the mid-1800s. Having installed a puppet regime in Chechnya after fighting two wars there, the Kremlin has effectively pushed the armed rebellion into the neighboring province of Dagestan, which remains a source of terrorism, according to Russia’s Kremlin-controlled media.

Most independent experts agree that the recent flare-up of terrorism in Russia aims to derail the Sochi Olympics — a $51-billion pet project that President Vladimir Putin has inspired and personally supervised as a showcase of Russia’s newly boosted statehood, relative prosperity, and much-touted “stability.”

Following the twin blasts that killed dozens of people last month in the Russian city of Volgograd — about halfway between Moscow and Sochi — the Kremlin assured the world that a security clampdown in Sochi makes the city absolutely safe for visitors.

To make that point, Mr. Putin hit the ski slopes in Sochi while on an inspection trip that came a day after he visited Volgograd, where two suicide bombings killed 34 people earlier that week.

Ostensibly to drive the message home, Mr. Putin even celebrated Christmas in Sochi last week. For Russian Orthodox believers, Christmas falls on Jan, 7, according to the Julian calendar.

But even if Olympic facilities in Sochi may be relatively safe, transportation routes may be less so, which makes a trip to the Sochi Olympics a hairy business.

What raises the most concern is the reputation of the Russian police, who are notorious for their bribe taking. Terrorists might simply bribe their way to their targets as they have done in the past. No wonder the U.S. Olympic ski team has a Sochi evacuation plan.

Tellingly, Russian tourist agencies have reported problems selling Olympic event tickets to foreigners.

Brainwashed by the government propaganda on television, the average Russian believes what Mr. Putin is telling him and thus is not overly concerned with personal safety. Foreigners, on the other hand, tend to have a more balanced view of Russia, based on more objective news coverage and media analyses that draw a connection between Russia’s systemic corruption and its chronic inability to prevent terrorism.

Considering the risk, braving the security threat at the Sochi Olympics makes no sense.

Moreover, making a trip there would only play into Mr. Putin’s propaganda effort and help him perpetuate human rights abuses in Russia.

Mike Sigov, a former Russian journalist in Moscow, is a staff writer for The Blade.

Contact Mike Sigov at: sigov@theblade.com, 419-724-6089, or on Twitter @mikesigovblade.



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