Terrorist threat at Sochi 2014 throws spotlight on Georgia-Russia ties

By bne IntelliNews July 23, 2013

Molly Corso in Tbilisi -

In the face of threats of terrorism against the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, Georgia has put its full support behind Russia's Olympic endeavour. But analysts warn it's unlikely this will provide any real improvement to Tbilisi-Moscow relations or resolution to the problem of its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Doku Umarov, a Chechen Islamist military leader, called on his followers to thwart Sochi 2014 in a video message released on July 3. This new strategy marks the end of a ceasefire Umarov started last year when Russians started protesting against President Vladimir Putin and his government.

In his message, Umarov called on Mujahedeen to use "maximum force" to stop the Games. "They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea. We as Mujahedeen are required not to allow that, using any methods that Allah allows us," he said in the video, which is believed to have been filmed in June.

Coming nearly a month after a series of YouTube videos that outlined jihadist threats to target Georgia in retribution for its support of the Nato mission in Afghanistan, the video message raised concern in Georgia. While the timing of Umarov's message was disturbing, regional security specialists, as well as the Georgian government, have downplayed concerns that supporting the Games could make Georgia a target. "I don't think the North Caucasus Mujahedeen views Georgia as a special enemy," says Dr Andrew McGregor, director of Aberfoyle International Security in Toronto, Canada.

While the threat of terrorist attacks is unlikely to extend to Georgia, Russians are already trying to counter the possibility of an uptick in violence in the region. Umarov, who has taken credit for some of the most horrific terrorist attacks in Russia including those on the Moscow metro in 2010 and Moscow's Domodedovo airport in 2011, reportedly lost a bodyguard in a gunfire exchange with the Russian Antiterrorism Committee on July 13, according to media reports.

Blame game

Working to stop the terrorist groups is in Georgia's interests, according to regional specialists. McGregor, who also serves as a senior editor at the Jamestown Foundation Global Terrorism Analysis Program in Washington DC, tells bne that any terrorist attack at the Sochi Games could indirectly hurt Georgia if Moscow decides to blame it as part of the ongoing propaganda battle raging between the two countries. "I think they [Georgia] are doing all they can do. They are trying to distance themselves from the [Mujahedeen ] and they are giving some basic support for the Sochi Games," he said. "I don't think any kind of attack at the Sochi Games could benefit Georgia."

While tense relations with Georgia over the conflict territories have captivated Russia's attention in the past, Moscow has bigger concerns as the country prepares to host the Games, McGregor said. Islamic groups, already angry with Moscow over its policy in the North Caucasus, are fuming at Russia's support of Syria, he said, which makes them a much bigger threat than Tbilisi in the run-up to the Sochi Games.

Fears that security problems at the Games could be used against Tbilisi have long been a concern, however. Russia has a long history of blaming Georgia for harbouring terrorists; in 2001, Moscow used the pretence of Islamic fighters allegedly hiding in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge to bomb the area. Last year, Georgian Special Forces were involved in a controversial shootout with its own citizens, allegedly Islamic fighters attempting to use Georgia's border with Dagestan and Chechnya to travel.

Over the past month, however, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and Defense Minister Irakli Alasania have both pledged to work with the Russians to ensure security at the Games. Ivanishvili told reporters in May that his government is ready to "provide maximum assistance" to Moscow to insure the security at the Games. Russian President Vladimir Putin has tentatively agreed to take the Georgia up on its offer, although there has not been any public discussion on how the two countries would work together.

The topic is a tricky one for both Tbilisi and Moscow. In addition to the fact the two countries have not had official diplomatic relations since the August 2008 war, the Sochi Games are scheduled to be held about 4 kilometres outside of Abkhazia, one of Georgia's two conflict territories. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been recognized as independent states by Russia.

An unknown number of Russian troops are stationed in both territories, and in South Ossetia Russia has taken the added precaution of building a fence around the de-facto administrative border that separates the breakaway territory from Georgia proper.

On July 15, during a press conference, however, Alasania told reporters Georgia has "repeatedly" voiced its readiness to help prevent terrorist attacks at the Sochi Games. "The Georgian government and myself have repeatedly spoken about our willingness to cooperate with regional countries, including Russia, in assuring the security of the Sochi Olympics. We want peace during the Olympic Games," he said.

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