Sterilizing Sochi for the 'Big Brother Games’

In many ways all of Russia has been press-ganged into building a giant Potemkin village for TV.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

SOCHI - In the old center of Sochi, between the meticulously restored Winter Theater and the 24-floor Hyatt Regency Hotel, which won’t be ready on time for the Olympics that open next Friday, there’s a small square with a big bronze statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who died 90 years ago last week. Nearly a quarter century since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the father of the Bolshevik Revolution remains a symbol of a purer past. Most Russians prefer to accuse Lenin’s successors of the bloodshed and corruption. This week the statue was surrounded by scaffolding and white and blue Olympics hoardings.

“They’re hiding Lenin so no one will remember there was something else once – he has no connection with what’s happening here,” says Pyotr Zaitsev, head of the veterans association of Sochi, passing through the square on his way to a Saturday morning concert. “Putin and his entourage built their palaces, they don’t want to see Lenin.”

Some 140,000 pensioners live in the city but they haven’t been offered any tickets to the games, with a monthly pension of 7,000 rubles (nearly $200) they couldn’t afford them. But many of them will be watching the less popular competitions. “The organizers don’t want to see on television any empty spots in the stands,” said Zaitsev. The pensioners are available, disciplined and especially easily vetted by the security services, so they can be allowed into the “sterile” areas of the Olympic village, fortified against terror attacks.

Seventy years since they served as the Red Army’s cannon fodder, the veterans are called again to serve in the front line of financial exploitation, state security and Kremlin public relations.

The senior citizens of Sochi are not the only ones being put in the display window by President Vladimir Putin. An entire coastal region, its citizens and in many ways all of Russia have been press-ganged over the last seven years into building a giant Potemkin village for television. Camera crews of the Kremlin-controlled Russia Today network were busy this week filming the shining stadiums; the swaths of wasteland with their massive piles of building refuse remained out of focus.

Next week they will be joined by crews from NBC, which paid $775 million for the TV rights and claimed that they will not shy away from presenting on screen the less sporting aspects of the Russian reality. But will they be eager to ruin the Olympic festivities that Human Rights Watch says “have been marred by exploitation, illegal detentions, and deportations of migrant construction workers engaged on Olympic venues”?

The Western media have focused mainly on the conflict between Putin and other world leaders over LGBT rights. Sochi Mayor and Putin loyalist Anatoly Pakhomov claimed in an interview this week “we don’t have them in our town” though Sochi has at least two active gay clubs.

But the abuse of civil and human rights in Sochi goes much deeper. Entire streets in the city’s slums were emptied of their residents in recent weeks. “They cleaned all the Caucasians from the city – the police went from house to house and told anyone who wasn’t a permanent resident to take a holiday during the Olympics,” explains Boris Pitahov, manager of a local security company and former deputy commander of the Sochi Fire Department. “Nothing will be allowed to harm the games.”

As his business has done well from the Olympics, given the need for security around the hundreds of building sites, Pitahov is pleased they’re here. “They transformed Sochi from a village to a city” he says. “No one should complain that they were removed to build the stadiums. They lived in hovels and were given homes instead.”

The evacuees and deportees have been replaced by 25,000 enthusiastic, fair-haired and fresh-faced assistants wearing colorful ski jackets, all of whom have been flown in from all corners of Russia, after having been thoroughly vetted by security to help the games operate smoothly. None of them are local; Sochi’s residents can be divided into two groups – those who are making a profit and those who have been screwed. None have volunteered.

In the new, marble-paved, underground pedestrian crossings opened earlier this month, there is already a new Olympic event for the young Sochians: scribbling small protest graffiti without being caught by the police, who are everywhere. About 25,000 police officers, 30,000 soldiers and 8,000 special forces and members of the FSB security service, successors to Putin’s old outfit, the KGB, are guarding the games. Many of the security personnel come from the old Cossack units and seem lost in the urban surroundings with their fur shapka hats and riding breeches, dismounted.

The security operation is a combination of low-tech - flooding the area with thousands of police, some not even trained to use the new hand-held metal-detectors they have been given and who make do with just a perfunctory glance into the car trunks, without checking any of the objects inside - and high-tech.

At the new Sochi Airport, electronic warfare aircraft are standing on the tarmac, reconaissance drones hover above and anyone who uses a smartphone or switches on a computer in the city discovers strange messages and unsolicited offers to download software.

The threats issued by the Caucasus Emirate, the Islamist terror organization which orchestrated a series of bloody suicide attacks throughout Russia in recent years, are keeping the thousands of police and soldiers in the streets, at the roadblocks and in the hotel lobbies, but most security experts in Sochi do not believe the attack will fall there or in the three Olympic villages.

“This is the safest city in Russia, even before the Olympics,” says a former senior city police officer, now a security consultant. “Putin has one of his homes here, as do other senior officials. Heads of state are hosted here, including Netanyahu. The Caucasians will try and ruin the fun by attacking somewhere else, they can choose any target in Russia.”

Security technology made in Israel: a big winner at the Sochi games

To coordinate forces of such a scale and control simultaneous events at dozens of venues from Sochi center, through the neighboring town of Adler, and up in the mountains 45 kilometers away where the ski competitions are to be held, as well as to analyze in real-time information from 1,400 closed-circuit cameras and other sensors, the Olympics organizers have bought Israeli technology developed by NICE Technologies based in Ra’anana.

NICE’s Safe City system is used by police forces in cities in Israel and around the world, and on underground train networks in London and New York. NICE, along with its local partner Asteros, installed a control room with 40 workstations connected to the surveillance networks around the city and the Olympic venues, and is programmed to provide advance warning of a terror attack or major incident and the tools to supply immediate solutions in emergencies. This is NICE’s first Olympics, but the president of the company’s security division, Yaron Tchwella, says they previously secured major sporting events including the 2010 Commonwealth Games in India, and next week, just before the Olympics begin, their systems will be used in the NFL Super Bowl.

“The system allows the operator to take control of an event and carry out a set of critical actions immediately, such as closing or opening roads, sending out terror warnings, distributing information to officers in the field and preventing escalation,” says Tchwella.

NICE hasn’t revealed the value of the Sochi contract, though Israeli defense industry sources estimate it in eight figures in dollars.

Russian security services have used Western technologies in the past to track opposition figures and dissidents. Human rights groups are already claiming that Sochi 2014 will be the “big brother Olympics” and that all visitors, including athletes and journalists, will be under constant surveillance.

Local environmental activists were followed and harassed for months. “Like every company in our field, we are very aware of the ethical issues of public safety versus the right to privacy,” says Tchwella. “We supply technology and you can’t always supervise how the customer will use it, but our experience is that NICE systems improve public safety. Of course there are a lot of problems in Russia, but London has over a million closed-circuit cameras, and that’s a democracy.”

Security personnel walking with their dogs outside Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi earlier this week. APCredit: AP

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