Sochi is a prestige project for Putin
Russia cast one of the most extensive security nets in Olympic history over the city of Sochi on Tuesday, activating restrictions on the Black Sea resort a month before the start of the Winter Games.
The sweeping safety regime restricts access to sensitive areas and puts thousands of officers on “combat alert,” a measure stemming from an Olympic security order that Russian President Vladimir Putin issued last year.
The rules, which will remain in effect until after the Paralympic Games conclude in Sochi on March 16, come a little more than a week after two bombings killed more than 30 people in the Russian city of Volgograd on Dec. 29-30, an attack that raised safety concerns about the Games set to take place little more than 400 miles away.
Doku Umarov, the leader of an Islamist insurgency in Russia’s southern Caucasus region, has called on his followers to use “maximum force” to disrupt the event.
The result of that threat is one of the biggest security operations in Olympic history. Some 37,000 police officers will join army and navy units to seek to ensure the safety of the Games, far more than the contingent of guards used to protect the 2012 Olympics in London. The Russian officers have carried out antiterrorism exercises in Sochi in recent months.
The Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, is also running checks on participants, all of whom have been required to register their passports. Six Pantsir-S missile defense systems will guard the skies during the Games. The rules that took effect Tuesday are just one part of the security regime.
“Starting Jan. 7, all units guaranteeing the safety of Games guests and participants are entering combat alert, all venues will be sealed off, and a satellite monitoring system will be activated,” Emergency Services Minister Vladimir Puchkov told Russian news agencies. “All security issues for the Winter Olympics are being solved at the highest international level.”
The safety regime requires authorities to prevent cars without local license plates or special permits from entering Sochi, a measure that will remain until weeks after the Games. The order bans weapons and explosives from being sold in Sochi. It also divides Sochi into “forbidden” and “controlled” zones, where guards will now begin controlling access and checking documents.
It remains unclear how much the extra security will be felt by visitors. A senior FSB official Alexei Lavrishchev said in October the measures would be largely “unnoticeable,” and he said Russia would avoid some of the more intrusive measures used in London in 2012.
Visitors will be subjected to metal detector scans and bag searches, in addition to the background checks the authorities plan to carry out. Police already often check the passports and visas of people on the streets and such checks could occur in Sochi.
Though few Russian policemen speak English, organizers have set up a call center where officials can receive simultaneous translations.
The Black Sea resort is relatively difficult to secure because Greater Sochi is one of the largest municipalities in Russia by area, with city limits that include 90 miles of coastline and stretch well into the mountains. Some of the Olympic facilities are in a park by the seashore, while others are in the Caucasus Mountains 30 miles away.
Originally, Mr. Putin’s executive order issued a blanket ban on demonstrations in Sochi for the duration of the Games, citing terrorism concerns. Russian officials denied that the ban had anything to do with possible protests over Russia’s new “gay propaganda” law, which bars people from condoning same-sex lifestyles in front of minors.
“A week after three terrorist bombings rocked Russia, Vladimir Putin went skiing. The Russian leader’s slalom at Sochi, set to host the Winter Olympics next month, was meant to show that athletes and fans at the snow-sports extravaganza will have nothing to fear.”
On Jan. 4, the Kremlin rolled back the ban under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, amending the order to allow protests in a designated place to be agreed upon with city officials. In the past, Sochi activists have said the city often allows them to hold registered demonstrations only in areas away from high-traffic view.
“We welcome this announcement—it is in line with the assurances that President Putin gave us last year and part of the Russian authority’s plans to ensure free expression whilst delivering safe and security Games,” the IOC said after the executive order was amended.
Work on the facilities isn’t finished, though OAO Sberbank CEO German Gref, who is overseeing construction of the media village, known as Gorky Gorod, and the ski jump, said last week all work will be completed by Jan. 20. The Main Media Center, a complex seven times the size of Moscow’s Red Square that includes a bank, a post office, a gym and a dry cleaner, opened Tuesday. The Games, set to be the most expensive in history with a price tag of about $50 billion, start Feb. 7.
By Paul Sonne, WSJ