PtG Comment 02.09.2013

Syria as an Olympic event

The Olympic protests over Russian anti-gay laws can soon be replaced by protests over Russian handling of the situation in Syria. The Syria-question has the potential to become the biggest political issue in the run-up to the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014 Syria in the UN Security Council

An intense political game is taking place in the UN Security Council these days between countries on both sides of America’s red line. The questions under consideration are whether to attack Syria after it was revealed that the country has made use of chemical weapons against civilians and whether a strike on Syria will pass in the UN Security Council.

Russia will most probably vote against and the US, France and Great Britain hold all options open – also an attack without approval from the UN Security Council. So far no connections to the Sochi Games.

Belated Olympic truce

However, this great power battle can spill over to the forthcoming debate on the UN Olympic Truce resolution. Since 1993, Olympic host nations have proposed a resolution on Olympic truce in the UN General Assembly. Every time the resolution has been adopted with a high number of supporting UN member states. Usually the Olympic truce is adopted one year ahead of the Games.

But this year the host nation Russia has failed to propose such a resolution. The question is why? On the website of the Sochi Olympics it says that the truce is to be adopted in December 2013. This is close to the Games and if proposed the resolution may be part of a greater political debate than the Olympic truce usually is.

States opposing Russia’s stance on Syria (and elsewhere) may use this opportunity for symbolic protests. Previously, host nations have put great prestige in the Olympic Truce resolution – the more nations supporting the resolution, the better for the legacy of the Games and the host nation.

Great Britain used all their finest French champagne and all their diplomatic finesse to get all of UN’s member states to sign the resolution in 2011. Should Russia decide not to propose such a resolution in fear of negative focus on the Sochi Games it will be historic for several reasons: it will be the first time the resolution is not adopted after it was established, the Olympic truce will not be adopted due to war, and it will go against IOC rhetoric that sport can help to unite.

Russian Geopolitics

However, it is not just in the corridors of the UN that the Syrian conflict will affect the Sochi Games. A small minority in Syria (Circassians) are directly linked to Sochi and its neighborhood. Circassians living in and around Sochi have brothers and sisters in Syria creating regional tension and bringing the international conflict springing from Syria straight into Sochi and the Olympics.

Double headache

In the Russian Republics of Adygeja, Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria, the Circassians is the titular nation. Adygeja is in a unique position as it is completely surrounded by the Krasnodar region where Sochi is located.The Circassians want autonomy from Russia, a claim similar to the Chechens’ in Chechenya – in other words they claim ownership of the land of Sochi.

Today, it is estimated that about one million Circassians are living in Adygeja and the surrounding regions and eight million live outside Russia, several in the USA. Around three million are estimated to live in the Middle East, and – most essential in this context – around 100,000 in Syria.

The Circassians are therefore giving the Russian authorities a double headache – both with regards to the country’s foreign policy and for the preparations for the prestigious event in Sochi 2014.

Sochi Olympics attracts attention

Circassian human rights groups in and outside Russia have signaled that the Sochi Winter Olympics will be an important arena for promoting their cause. The Circassians want focus on what they believe to be genocide of their own people, they want an apology for the historical injustice they suffered and they want a policy for helping the millions of people who have been displaced to return to Circassia.

Many other minorities in this region (Caucasus) have similar claims. This makes the Circassian and Olympics Games extra sensitive for the Russian Government– if they give in to the demands of the Circassians, what kinds of expectations will this create among other ethnic groups outside Sochi?

Furthermore, since the Olympics naturally will attract great attention from international media, other groups who want to fight Russia for their role in regional and international politics (al-Qaida, Taliban, etc.) will gladly use Sochi as an arena for helping the Circassians or to promote their own cause.

The Circassian games

In the last couple of weeks, the Russian Foreign Service has opened up to help all Russians living in Syria. It is uncertain if this also includes the Circassians. Earlier this year, the Russian authorities denied a demand from the Circassians in Adygeja of repatriation of Circassians in Syria, claiming that they were not Russian enough. No matter how they treat the Circassians in Syria during these hectic days it will put pressure on the organisers of the Sochi Games.

Loss of prestige for the IOC

The Olympic Spirit will be hit hard and the loss of prestige for the IOC will be enormous if Russia does not succeed in passing the Olympic Truce in the UN or if the support of the resolution will be low. But this is hard politics and the Olympic legacy is of little importance if bigger things are at play. We saw an example of this when Georgia and Russia went to war during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

British finesse?

Great Britain showed great diplomatic strength in order to pass the Olympic truce before the Games in London. Has Russia learned something from the British?

This article first appeared on Andreas Selliaas' blog 'Sportens Uutholdelige Letthet' on 28 August 2013. Follow Andreas' blog (in Norwegian) on