Maximum security has been imposed around Sochi one month ahead of Russia’s Winter Olympics. As of January 7, an exclusion zone has been enforced around the Black Sea city, stretching 100 kilometers along the Black Sea coast and up to 40 kilometers inland. Within the zone, demonstrations are banned, military presence is high, and access is blocked for any non-authorized visitors.
Over 37,000 officers have been deployed to the area. They are on “combat alert” said Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov, following last month's terror attacks on Volgograd that killed 34. The attackers are believed to have been separatists from the volatile North Caucasus region, who have explicitly threatened the Games.
Security has placed restriction on local people, hundreds of whom had staged protests at the weekend.
“Police stop all the cars and try to take our driving licenses to keep roads free…only special services can drive,” Sochi resident Gregory Adler, 25, told Metro. “I don’t feel more protected, it’s more like a show.”
“All of us are excited about the Games but we also want this nightmare to be finished,” said Ulyana Butikova, 20. “At every step you find policemen and metal detectors appearing at all the train stations and shops.”
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Human rights groups are concerned that security measures will impact civil liberties.
“For weeks we have been receiving reports of activists and critics being threatened and intimidated in the name of security,” said Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
While the authorities have softened a ban on protests by providing demonstrators designated zones, Denber believes the gesture is hollow. “You need a permit from security services and to request one would make you a target. They have done what the Chinese did by establishing a protest zone far from the city or anywhere people could access.”
Security experts believe terror fears will create a difficult atmosphere for visitors. “They are flooding the area with security personnel to try and lock down the area,” said Raymond Mey, senior program manager at the Soufan Group and former FBI agent with responsibility for security at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics. “It’s not going to be the picture of sport and peace the International Olympic Committee want.”
But Mey believes an “enclosed security bubble” is the only way for authorities to address a genuine terror threat, with Sochi a high-profile target that is hosting its first event on this scale. Policing that threat will entail a zero-tolerance approach to dissent, he added.