The Olympic games have begun, a welcome diversion from this winter’s extreme cold. I’m looking forward to the superb sports exhibitions we’ll see. I’m hoping that the U.S. coverage won’t be too nationalistic, that the games won’t be marred by violence and that American viewers may even get to learn a little more about Russia.
Russia is a big country, of course; there’s a lot to learn. Given the circumstances in which the 2014 games are taking place, that could and, I’d argue, should include learning about the terrorist threat that has cast a shadow over them and which is making Sochi the most security-intensive Olympics in history.
Who are the terrorists that 40,000 security forces are in Sochi to protect athletes and spectators from? What are the conditions that have led them to turn to violence? What do they hope to achieve by it? How much popular support do they have?
Those should be the standard questions we ask of any insurgency movement anywhere, and of any terrorist group.
Years ago I remember asking a professor of Russian history about the war going on in Chechnya. “Read Hadji Murad,” he advised at the end of a long conversation about the war. Tolstoy’s last novel, written between 1896 and 1903 and published posthumously in 1912, tells the story of a brave Muslim fighter in the Caucasus who has broken with his rebel commander, Shamil, and temporarily allied himself with the Russian government. Tolstoy shows Murad, the hero of the novel and a noble figure, squeezed between the absolutism of the Russian state and the ruthlessness of the insurgency movement he’s quit and which holds his family hostage. Tolstoy based the novel on the historical figure of Murad, a commander who led the inhabitants of Chechnya and Dagestan in their resistance to incorporation into the Russian Empire.
In depicting the conflict that lasted from 1811 to 1864, Tolstoy wrote, “I am fascinated by the parallel between two main figures pitted against each other: Shamil and Nicholas I. They represent two poles of absolutism – Asiatic and European.”
A decade after I read Hadji Murad, Islamist insurgency in the Caucasus is now more centered in Dagestan than in Chechnya, but as Tolstoy’s novel attested 100 years ago, then as now governments frequently sow the seeds of the terrorist movements they attempt to suppress.
The recent report from Human Rights Watch that the Iraqi government has been detaining thousands of Iraqi women on suspicions of terrorism, subjecting many to torture and sexual abuse, is a case in point. Is the Iraqi government apprehending terrorists or creating them? Among the women interviewed by Human Rights Watch was onepicked up by Iraqi and U.S. forces in 2010 and tortured until she confessed to terrorism charges. During her interrogation, she was told that unless she made a confession her teenage daughter would be picked up and raped.
"Iraqi security forces and officials act as if brutally abusing women will make the country safer,” says Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, in an AP story about the Iraqi women detained for months on end without trial. “In fact, these women and their relatives have told us that as long as security forces abuse people with impunity, we can only expect security conditions to worsen."
The International Crisis Group, a Washington-based NGO that studies conflicts around the globe, makes a similar point when it discusses the insurgency movement in the North Caucasus, the primary terrorist threat to the Sochi games.
“Moscow’s harsh security measures may temporarily suppress the symptoms of the North Caucasus insurgency, but they cannot solve the core problems,”notes Paul Quinn-Judge, ICG’s program director for Europe and Central Asia.
The ICG attributes the North Caucasus insurgency to a mix of economic, political, ethnic and religious factors. They include endemic corruption and unemployment, an absence of political means through which separatists can channel their aims, discrimination against Salafist Muslims who are perceived by many local Sufi Muslims as “foreign” and last but hardly least a reaction to abusive security measures by the government.
Terrorism— by non-state actors and by the state—has a long history in Russia. Watching the portrayal of Russian history in the opening ceremonies on Friday night, a friend mused, “Have any people suffered as much from their government as the Russians?”
Talking about the problems faced by a historic enemy can be tricky, but the opportunity exists for Western journalists to shed light, not heat, on a threat that, while rooted in Russian society, has the potential to shed light on the United States’ own struggle with terrorism. Stories that raise awareness of the complexity of Russian politics and society could make us more sympathetic to the Russian people(s) and more realistic about the necessity to counter terrorism not just with police or military action but by changing the conditions that breed it and the government policies that foster it.
“Dialogue and reform, justice and rule of law are needed much more than drones and special forces,” the International Crisis Group report on the Islamist insurgency in the Caucasus concludes.
I suspect the same could be said of those countries where the U.S. is conducting its own counter-insurgency operations.
Detachment often enables us to see others’ problems more clearly than they can, and can alter our own perspective.The Sochi Olympics will offer terrific entertainment. Some education along with it on Russian geography, history, culture and, yes, terrorism would help round out the program and might be as eye-opening for U.S. viewers as the spectacular sporting feats.