The Winter Olympic Games open in Sochi this Friday, but any expectation that there would by now be a rising tide of enthusiasm for the splendour of the opening ceremony or the thrill of the sports on show has been dashed. Instead we only read about the likelihood of a Chechen terrorist attack, the possible effect on athletes and spectators of recently enacted anti-gay Russian legislation and the appalling prospect that some Western journalists might find their hotel bedrooms are unfinished.
Of these, the terrorist threat occupies most press attention. Reports of a Russian military ‘ring of steel’ around the Sochi area to keep potential terrorists at bay cut little ice with seasoned analysts; after all these Winter Games have cost the Russian authorities an estimated $30 - $50 billion, and the need to recoup this money from tourism, plus wanting to avoid the embarrassment of half empty stadiums, means that even though the terrorist threat has been so well publicised visitors will be flocking to Sochi – perhaps as many as 100,000. It is difficult to see how any ring of steel can operate with that size of human invasion. The well-worn truism applies here – even if the security authorities get it right 99,999 times, if they get it wrong only once the result will be tragic.
Some scrutiny needs to be applied to the International Olympic Committee. Why in 2007 did they choose this venue over the other contenders (Austria and South Korea)? It is not as if the Russian/Chechen conflict is a contemporary surprise. The dispute, part religious (Chechen Islamists versus Russian Orthodox), part territorial and part revenge-oriented has been on the go for at least 200 years. There was an attempt at a negotiated settlement in the 1990s, but it failed within a few years, after Chechen forces invaded Russian Dagestan. Subsequent to that, atrocities committed by Chechen rebels, including the Moscow apartment bombs, the Moscow theatre hostage crisis, and most horrifically the Beslan school massacre in 2004 might have alerted the Olympic Committee to the possibility of trouble ahead. Apparently not. And subsequent terrorist attacks by Chechens, most recently at the Boston Marathon race and in Volgagrad in 2013 don’t lead us to have any more confidence.
In situations such as this, and there are many more around the world, where conflict appears to be deep rooted and endemic, is there any hope of resolution? Should the parties at war even try to negotiate a resolution? History suggests that where there is a victory by one side over the other it is usually short lived, and that when negotiations are tried they almost always fail (speculate about how badly John Kerry is getting on with the Palestinian/Israeli peace plan and the Syrian civil war, about the unlikelihood that the Tamil separatists have accepted their fate and that long term peace will reign in Sri Lanka, about the continuing resistance by Tibetans to their domination by China).
The alternative is the achievement of some sort of power balance, where there is no settlement but that each side recognises that the continuation of the status quo is better for them than fighting for change. Successful leaders in many Arab countries recognised this throughout the 20th century; the way to stability was not through democracy; it was better to dictate, but to dictate benignly. That way the disaffected minority couldn’t be bothered to rise up against their masters – life wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t so bad either. The Arab Spring changed all that, with the disastrous consequences we have seen in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria (and maybe in due course Turkey?)
Perhaps the most interesting idea is that even power-balance status quo situations need to be negotiated. In all the successful examples, there is constant dialogue between the factions, usually privately and behind closed doors. That way the minority parties feel they are being involved, and if issues arise there is a process to discuss and resolve them. Behind closed doors.
The problem is there are no closed doors in the blaze of publicity which is a global sporting event. So the Russians and the Chechens don’t talk, and the danger for Sochi is heightened.
Let’s hope that peace holds, and that the headlines we read over the next 2 weeks reflect world records being broken, rather than innocent people’s lives.