Molly Corso in Tbilisi -
Alexander Ankvab, leader of the Georgian breakaway province of Abkhazia, may have survived when his motorcade struck a landmine and came under fire from machine guns and a grenade launcher on February 23. But this attack just 100 kilometres from where the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics will be held was yet another blow to Russia's attempts to convince people about the security surrounding around the Games.
The North Caucasus' recent history of suicide bombers, terrorist attacks and deeply rooted corruption are making security provisions for the Sochi Olympics a headache for Moscow. While the Sochi Olympics are supposed to spotlight Russia's return to superpower status, analysts have questioned the Kremlin's ability to properly prepare for the event. The February 23 attempt to assassinate Alexander Ankvab, the de-facto president of the Georgian breakaway province of Abkhazia, roughly 100 kilometres from the site of the Games, underscored the region's complex security problems - and Russia's struggle to keep its clans, mafia groups and armed bandits in check.
While analysts believe there is little connection between the Sochi Olympics and the attack on Ankvab, it provides an interesting insight into the myriad of security issues that Moscow has to grapple with as it prepares for the Games.
Sochi is roughly 30 km from Abkhazia, and although there is no clear indication that de-facto state will be used for the event, it has played a role in Russia's preparations by providing materials and labour for the extensive building and renovation projects underway for the Olympics.
Thomas de Waal, a specialist on conflict in the Caucasus and a senior associate in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment, notes that any connection between the attack on Ankvab and the Sochi Games is an indirect one. "The most obvious explanation for the assassination attempt is that it was carried out by a criminal group, perhaps one connected to a part of the political elite, who feel their power is in danger because of Ankvab's recent launch of a crackdown on corruption and criminality in Abkhazia," he tells bne. "Criminality and security problems have long been a problem in Abkhazia. [Ankvab] has made tackling these issues his main priority [and] has brought the struggle out into the open."
Turf battles for a piece of lucrative construction contracts as Olympic preparations kick in could push clans to attack Ankvab before his anti-corruption reforms kick in, notes de Waal. "As the Sochi Olympics are a big source of revenue for these groups, there may be a connection there."
E. Wayne Merry, a senior fellow for Europe and Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC, says that if the attack was related to "domestic criminal groups," there is no real connection to the 2014 Games or the Russian military presence.
But the February 23 attack on Ankvab took place near Gudauta, the home of a Russian base - a potentially embarrassing security lapse for Moscow since it has pledged to protect Abkhazia following the Georgian-Russian war in 2008. The base has T-62 tanks, light armored vehicles, S-300 air defense systems and several aircraft, according to media reports.
In August 2008, Moscow declared Abkhazia and fellow separatist state South Ossetia sovereign nations. It quickly stationed thousands of soldiers on the unrecognised borders between the contested states and Georgia, effectively creating an armed barrier between Tbilisi and its wayward territories. Abkhazia alone is home to a reported 5,300 soldiers and a newly built base.
Georgia, along with most of the rest of the world, does not recognize Abkhazian sovereignty and Russia's military presence in the region has added to tension between Tbilisi and Moscow. Russian officials have repeatedly accused Tbilisi of preparing to attack, or sabotage, the Olympics. Investigations into the attack on Ankvab have centered on internal clans, however. This was the sixth attempt to kill Ankvab, who previously served as prime minister in the de-facto government.
"Abkhazia should not turn into a country where criminal, extremist groups and political circles close to them would be able to undermine plans to establish order," Ankvab said, according to wire reports. "I share opinion of the Abkhaz citizens, that it was an assassination attempt on our statehood and sovereignty and that it was an attempt to destabilise situation from within."
Georgian analyst Alexander Rondeli notes that Moscow "completely" controls Abkhazia, and any internal turf battles are waged with the Kremlin's consent. But Rondeli believes Russia is eager to use the instable situation in the region - and the potential for an incident at the Olympics - to punish Georgia. "We are not against the [Sochi] Olympic Games at all. The Olympic Games are not political, although in Russian hands it is always political," he said. "There are serious [security] problems there [with the Olympics]. They [the Kremlin] can take preventive action, saying: 'Georgians were preparing something' ....they are quite effective in spreading lies... Fortunately, we have this European monitoring group (EUMM). If it were not for them, I can imagine how many allegations there would be."
de Waal notes that the danger of a security threat during the Olympics, particularly from Islamic radicals seeking revenge for Chechnya. "There are many possible problems awaiting the Olympics," he says, noting they span from the technical difficulties of preparing Sochi for the event to security threats.
"There are Islamic radicals – of whom there are of course thousands in the North Caucasus. Preventing any attack by them on any one of dozens of different public events will be a real challenge. It should require the kind of work with international agencies, including Western security agencies, which Russia has never done before and finds ideologically very difficult," he says.
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