New POPC Sochi Olympics issue available for free

ME Sharpe has made the entire Problems of Post-Communism Sochi Olympics special issue available for free online through February 28, 2014.

The issue includes an introduction by guest editors Richard Arnold and Andrew Foxall and features articles by Sufian Zhemukhov and Robert W. Orttung on the Russian government’s management of security for the games; Bo Petersson on Putin’s high-stakes Great Power play in Sochi; and Natalia Gronskaya and Andrey Makarychev on the Olympics and the discourse of sovereign power in Putin’s Russia. There is also an article on rural inequality in Russia by Stephen Wegren.

You can access the individual articles below or view the entire issue.

Problems of Post-Communism

Vol. 61, No. 1 | January-February 2014

Richard Arnold and Andrew Foxall

Munich Syndrome

Sufian Zhemukhov and Robert W. Orttung

Still Embodying the Myth?

Bo Petersson

The 2014 Sochi Olympics and “Sovereign Power”

Natalia Gronskaya and Andrey Makarychev

Rural Inequality in Post-Soviet Russia

Stephen K. Wegren

Problems of Post-Communism January 2014 Table of Contents: Sochi Olympics issue

Volume 61 Number 1 / January-February 2014 of Problems of Post-Communism is now available on the web site.

This is a special issue focusing on various aspects of the Sochi Olympics. The introduction, by Richard Arnold and Andrew Foxall, is freely available to all readers.

The other articles are written by some of the foremost experts on Russian politics from Russia, the United States, and Europe and address in greater detail some of the issues outlined in the introduction. Sufian Zhemukhov and Robert W. Orttung examine how Russia has orchestrated its security preparations prior to the beginning of the Games. Their insightful article recalls the 1972 Olympics, in which Palestinian terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage. They address security preparations at the federal level and the decision in 2010 to carve off the North Caucasus federal district from the Southern federal district. Realizing the impossibility of pacifying the entire region before the Olympics, Moscow assigned the most dangerous areas to the North Caucasus federal district and Krasnodar and Sochi to the Southern federal district. This move created its own set of problems, however, as nationalists in Stavropol krai tried to have their region redistricted out of the North Caucasus.

Bo Petersson explores how the Olympic Games provide Russia with an opportunity to “live out” its “great-power myth.” Positioning Sochi 2014 in the context of earlier Olympic Games, some of which were used for political purposes (for example, those in Munich in 1936), Petersson argues that President Putin has used the Olympics as a way to present himself as both the embodiment and the ideal guarantor of Russia’s great-power heritage. This presentation has become increasingly shaky since antigovernment protests began in Russia in the winter of 2011–2012. Precisely because of its location in the North Caucasus, Petersson argues, Sochi provides the perfect site for Russia to restore its “great-power”’ status.

Natalia Gronskaya and Andrey Makarychev approach the 2014 Sochi Games by analyzing reports in the Russian-language press, both print and electronic. Because almost all journalistic media in Russia are either state-owned or closely aligned with the Kremlin, Gronskaya and Makarychev argue that their analysis provides insights into official narratives of and attitudes toward the Games. Basing their analysis on the concept of “sovereign power,” the authors explore the multitude of (sometimes conflicting) meanings attached to sovereignty in the context of Sochi 2014. Ultimately, they find that the Kremlin has used the Games to portray Russia as “normalized,” meaning that they represent Russia’s return to great-power status. However, gross corruption and widespread mismanagement have somewhat undercut Russia’s avowed used of the Games to boost national patriotism.

In addition to the articles on the Olympics, the issue also includes an article by Stephen Wegren examining rural inequality in Russia. Wegren shows that rural inequality has increased significantly in the post-Soviet period, thereby mirroring trends in society at large. The article analyzes four dimensions of rural inequality. Urban-rural income differences are shown to have widened. Income inequality and stratification is documented between agricultural workers, across agricultural professions, and within agricultural professions. Underlying the increase in income inequality is a change in sources of income. The post-Soviet period has witnessed significant change in households’ mixed income strategy for upper income households, less so for lower income households. Finally, wealth inequality is examined. Upper income households have more present-day wealth and also have engaged in behavior that will most likely lead to greater wealth in the future.

Lord of the (Five) Rings: Issues at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games: Guest Editors’ Introduction pp. 3 – 12
Richard Arnold and Andrew Foxall
Munich Syndrome: Russian Security in the 2014 Sochi Olympics pp. 13 – 29
Sufian Zhemukhov and Robert W. Orttung
Still Embodying the Myth?: Russia’s Recognition as a Great Power and the Sochi Winter Games pp. 30 – 40
Bo Petersson
The 2014 Sochi Olympics and “Sovereign Power”: A Political Linguistic Perspective pp. 41 – 51
Natalia Gronskaya and Andrey Makarychev
Rural Inequality in Post-Soviet Russia pp. 52 – 64
Stephen K. Wegren

Back on BHTV Foreign Entanglements with Robert Farley

I was back on Foreign Entanglements with Robert Farley (from Lawyers, Guns and Money) again this week, talking about US-Russian relations. We talked about the causes of the cancellation of the Putin-Obama summit, and discussed the two countries’ unproductive paradigm with respect to Syria. We also talked about how  the Russian public has responded to Snowden.  Inevitably, the topic of a potential Olympic boycott in response to Russia’s “gay propaganda” law came up. And we concluded with a short discussion of recent changes in how the Russian military conducts readiness exercises. The links will take you to the specific segments, or you can click here to watch the whole thing.

Sochi Olympics security measures

I published the following Oxford Analytica brief in early May. It still seems timely…


President Vladimir Putin has staked his reputation on the 2014 Winter Olympics, scheduled to take place in Sochi, a city on the Black Sea coast, near the Abkhazia border. As preparations for the games enter the home stretch, the Russian government has intensified efforts to ensure security at the event. The threat of terrorism at international sporting events has been highlighted by the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon. The ethnic and religious background of the Boston marathon bombing suspects has intensified fears of a similar attack in Sochi and the possibility that the Boston bombing will be used for a further crackdown on minority populations, primarily in the North Caucasus.

Russian leaders tend to succeed at such high-visibility events as the Olympics. In the past, these included the 2006 G8 summit in St Petersburg and the 2012 APEC summit in Vladivostok. The Sochi Olympics are probably the highest profile event held in Russia since the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Given its decline in credibility, the Putin regime is under a great deal of pressure to ensure that the event is a domestic public relations success. Other than ensuring that all venues are built on time, security issues are the biggest concern facing the government. Two of the most significant sets of issues include:

  • public protests against the regime; and
  • terrorism and ethnic conflict.

Tightening of the screws

Ensuring a positive image for the Olympics is part of the reason for the recent clampdown on dissent in Russia. Several measures have been implemented recently, including a new law passed in mid-2012 that required any politically active non-governmental organisation that receives funding from abroad to register as a ‘foreign agent’.

Wider definition of treason: Furthermore, the definition of treason has been expanded to include the provision of assistance to a foreign state, an international or foreign organisation or its representative in activities directed against the security of the Russian Federation. Under this definition, someone may be convicted of treason for sharing information with foreign agents even if the person does not have access to classified material. The goal of this law appears to be to discourage contacts between Russian nationals and foreigners. There are also fears that it may be applied selectively against opponents of the Putin administration.

Restrictions on protests and online freedom: Moreover, the government has introduced high fines for public disorder and unsanctioned protests. They exceed 9,000 dollars for participants in rallies held without government approval and over 18,000 dollars for protest organisers. The government has also implemented restrictions on free speech in cyberspace, with a law banning websites devoted to drug use, suicide promotion and paedophilia. Many Russian activists fear that this law could also be used to ban anti-government websites.

Terrorism and ethnic conflict

Anti-Putin protests are not the only threat to the image that the government wants to present during the Olympics. Circassians, a North Caucasus ethnic group, want official acknowledgment that their exile from the vicinity of Sochi in 1864 was genocide. The Olympics, which will coincide with the 150th anniversary year of the exile, are perceived by the Circassians as an opportunity to build identity and to remind the world of their challenges.

Radical Islamists and Chechen separatists had until recently largely disappeared from headlines for some time. However, they have not been completely suppressed. While Chechnya itself has, by and large, been pacified, small-scale violence by Islamist groups has spread to other North Caucasus republics, especially Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria. The latter is located only a few hundred kilometres from Sochi, causing Russian officials to fear that the Olympics may present an opportunity for radical Islamists to stage a large-scale attack intended to remind people of their cause and to attract funding and recruits.

Previously tense relations with Georgia, on the other hand, are unlikely to cause serious problems in the coming year, especially after Bidzina Ivanishvili’s parliamentary election victory in October 2012. Yet Russian leaders remain cautious, keeping troops in Abkhazia and engaging in joint patrols of the border with Abkhaz troops.

Response measures to terrorism

The bulk of security measures undertaken by the Russian authorities are aimed at protecting the Olympics against a potential terrorist attack:

  • All Interior Ministry troops in Sochi will be made up of professionals, rather than conscripts.
  • Special restrictions on the sale of weapons, including stun guns, were introduced in the region.
  • The local security services have compiled a database of background information on all residents. Construction personnel have presented the greatest difficulty, as they are generally not local residents but mostly temporary workers recruited from Central Asia.

Surveillance will play a key role in the Olympics security effort. Video cameras have already been installed in the main locations. During the event itself, security services will also be using unmanned aerial vehicles and reconnaissance robots. Spot checks of luggage will be in place at local airports and train stations.

During the games, strict restrictions on access to the Olympic village and other sites will be in place. This will include background checks for all ticket-holders, who will be given special passes after the screening. Without these passes, visitors will not have access to any events or facilities in the region, including public concerts, museums and theatres.

The Russian military has formed a dedicated ‘Operations Group Sochi’ to enhance security. This force consists of two brigades, with a third possibly being established this year to provide a total of over 10,000 troops by 2014. The troops, which have extensive experience in mountain warfare and counter-terrorism operations, will be responsible for guarding the mountainous belt from Sochi to the Mineralnye Vody tourist region. The units include aviation forces, such as Su-25SM fighters and modernised attack helicopters. At the same time, Russia’s 58th army will be responsible for watching over the southern border with Georgia. Finally, a special air defence force is being formed.

What next

There will be several security ‘dress rehearsals’ before the Olympics, including the G20 summit in St Petersburg in September this year, and the Kazan World University Games. Many of the measures to be used in Sochi will first be tested in Kazan. Although security services may have a harder time preventing a terrorist act in Sochi than in Kazan, given that endemic corruption in the region may allow attackers to bypass security efforts, protests are likely to be repressed much more effectively.


  • · Ensuring that the state does not embarrass itself during the Olympics has been one of the reasons for the laws aimed at curbing protests.
  • · Olympics-related counter-terrorism efforts have resulted in a high degree of surveillance over the residents of Sochi.
  • · The Boston bombings may have contributed to higher public support for the Russian position on Chechnya.

North Caucasus Federal District

Yesterday,  President Medvedev split the Southern Federal District into two parts, creating the North Caucasus Federal District. The new district includes Stavropol krai and the ethnic republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, North Osetia, Karachaevo-Cherkesia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. The district will be headed by Alexander Khloponin, who was previously the governor of Krasnoyarsk krai in Siberia. He will be both the presidential representative to the district and a vice-premier in charge of the region.  The capital of the new district will be in Piatigorsk, a fairly small resort town (~150,000) in Stavropol.

What does this mean for Russian politics and the region?

First of all, there’s the question of why the region was divided in the first place. One hypothesis is that it was done to separate the troublesome ethnic republics of the North Caucasus from Sochi, the site of the 2014 winter Olympics. I find this vaguely plausible but not very likely. Nobody outside Russia (other than a few scholars) really cares about the federal districts. And renaming and reorganizing things doesn’t change the essential geography. No matter what district they’re in, Sochi is still not that far away from places with a bad international reputation, such as Chechnya and Beslan.

It seems more likely that this was done  to increase Moscow’s control of the region, both by making it more geographically focused (and thus hopefully improving governability/control) and by bringing in the right person to take charge.

This brings me to the second question: why Khloponin? While there are some rumors circulating that Dmitry Kozak was offered the position but turned it down, Khloponin nevertheless seems to be ideally suited for the job. He is an outsider who is not beholden to any of the clans that run political and economic life in the district’s republics. This is an absolutely critical factor, as he will have the task of reducing the influence of these elites, who until now have largely traded on the threat of more instability in the region to receive continued financial subventions from the center.

Khloponin is also an excellent manager, with a proven track record both in business (as chief of Norilsk Nickel) and in politics (as governor first of Taimyr okrug and then of Krasnoyarsk — one of Russia’s largest and most economically significant provinces). He has received high marks in both positions and was instrumental in effectively carrying out one of the first regional mergers — by folding Taimyr and Evenk autonomous districts into Krasnoyarsk. He is also not considered a member of either Putin or Medvedev’s teams, thus allowing him to have access to both leaders.

One thing he is not is a general (or a silovik of any kind). Russian papers are speculating that this is a sign that Russian leaders have decided it is time to shift from a policing/counter-insurgency strategy in the North Caucasus to one of hoping that economic development leads to a reduction in violence and an increase in stability. Military and quasi-military operations will still be necessary from time to time, but these will be handled either by provincial leaders (such as Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya) or by existing quasi-military structures (such as the local branches of the Ministry of Internal Affairs). Khloponin, on the other hand, will be responsible for overall coordination and particularly for the district’s economic development.

To this end, the unique combination of giving Khloponin the positions of both presidential representative and vice-premier is particularly significant. This allows him access to both President Medvedev and Prime-Minister Putin and puts him in charge of not just the power ministries. As Vice-premier, he will have the authority to give orders to representatives of all federal ministries in the region. The unique nature of the position is also meant to serve as a signal to regional leaders that he is someone with direct access to the top leaders in the Kremlin; in other words, he is someone to be respected and obeyed.

Finally, there is the question of why Piatigorsk was made the capital of the region. This seems fairly straightforward — it is close to all of the regional capitals without actually being one of them. If the capital of the new district was placed in one of the republics, it would give that republic an advantage over the others, something that would not go over well in the region. Placing the capital in the city of Stavropol was possible, but it is farther removed from the republics. Piatigorsk is only an hour or so drive from any of the other capitals in the district. It hosts the Liudmila market, which is a central meeting point for traders from the entire region. And last but not least, it is a resort town, which will make it an attractive place to live for the federal bureaucrats who will now be based there (and also an attractive place to visit for officials from Moscow…).

Overall, this seems to be a very successful decision on the part of Medvedev and Putin, allowing them to reap the benefits of Khloponin’s potential success in the region, while giving them the necessary distance from their new viceroy to lay the blame squarely at his doorstep should things go badly awry.