Russian President Vladimir Putin warned his security services yesterday that they will have to redouble their efforts to prevent terrorists and extremists from disrupting an upcoming string of high-profile sports events to be hosted by Russia, including the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
But the Kremlin, which announced today they would be charging prominent left-wing opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov with "organizing disorder," also appears to be moving to conflate terrorists with the largely peaceful opposition movement.
"In the coming years, a whole series of very important political and sporting events will be taking place in Russia, and it should be a matter of honor for law enforcement officials and special forces to ensure that these events take place in a normal, businesslike and festive atmosphere," Mr. Putin told security officials, according to the independent Interfax news agency.
"We have many tense and conflict-ridden hot spots here, but we also have enough strength, skills, and means to deal with possible threats," he added.
Security experts say that multiple threats exist, and that time may be running out to create a safer atmosphere. In recent months, Putin has launched a sweeping reorganization of law enforcement agencies by downgrading the state security service, replacing virtually the entire upper echelons of the Interior Ministry – which oversees Russia's police forces and maintains huge internal paramilitary forces – and by making the Interior Ministry the main agency for coordinating all domestic security operations.
At the same time, critics add, the Kremlin is moving to place all kinds of security challenges, including street protests, under the heading of extremism, on par with terrorism. Today prosecutors confirmed that they would be charging veteran left-wing street activist Sergei Udaltsov with "organizing a mass disorder" – which carries a potential 10-year prison sentence – citing as evidence accusations made in an inflammatory "documentary" broadcast by the state-run NTV network.
The Kremlin's powerful Investigative Committee has indicated it may soon lay charges against 17 other activists for alleged "mass disorders" that took place during a mostly-peaceful opposition rally in Moscow on May 6, the day before Putin's inauguration for a third term as Russia's president. Some of them also face potential 10-year sentences.
"Putin's aim is to create the impression that all opponents represent the same danger," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
"There are various kinds of extremism, and they represent differing sorts of threats. But anything that disrupts the outward calm, and seems to undermine Putin's position, is apparently going to be handled by the same methods. In some ways, it looks like he regards street protesters as a bigger threat than terrorists," he adds.
The first big event that's triggering the Kremlin's anxieties is the 2013 Summer Universiade, now less than a year away. The huge sporting event, which involves almost 14,000 student athletes from 170 countries, is to be held in Kazan, the capital of Russia's mainly-Muslim Volga republic of Tatarstan. Until last summer, oil-rich Tatarstan seemed a model of peace and tranquility, where a tolerant and secular, officially-sponsored "Euro-Islam," appeared to be taking root. But last July Islamist extremists struck in Kazan, killing one of "Euro-Islam's" top theologians and seriously injuring another.
The next event is the much anticipated 2014 Sochi Winter Games, which the Russian government has spent upwards of $35 billion to prepare for, and which experts say is closely connected with Putin's personal prestige. But Sochi, a beautiful old Soviet resort city on the shores of the Black Sea, abuts the turbulent north Caucasus region, where a violent Islamist insurgency rages on. Sochi is also just minutes away from the border with Georgia's breakaway republic of Abkhazia.
In 2018, Russia will also host soccer's World Cup, another event that brings enormous prestige for Russia, and for Putin personally, but also presents a mass of potentially explosive headaches for Russia's security forces.
"Nowadays the Olympic Games, besides being a field of struggle for sportsmen, has also become a battlefield for different extremist forces against law enforcement," says Oleg Nechiporenko, a reserve KGB colonel and chief analyst of the National Anti-Criminal and Anti-Terrorist Foundation in Moscow.
"I was entrusted with the security of [the Soviet] team in the Olympic Games in Mexico and in the Moscow 1980 Olympics. The difference between the situation then and now is enormous. Now, besides being a big sports event, it's also large-scale operation of many different types of armed forces being prepared as well," he says.
"No wonder Putin is speaking out about this now, because time is running out. The concentration of so many people in one place, and the attention of the whole world, might serve as a bait for radical forces.... International terrorism is changing its classic character. They do not make public their demands but simply strike. After a terrorist action there is nobody to take responsibility for it but gives enough material to the forces that are speculating with it to destabilize the situation," he adds.
Putin told law enforcement officers that their work was improving, but they were going to have to try much harder.
"In the past several months, 479 militants were detained, and 313 terrorists, who refused to surrender, were killed, including 43 leaders," Putin said, referring mainly to ongoing counter-insurgency operations in the troubled north Caucasus.
"Our security agencies have started to work more effectively. At the same time we pay a high price for every mistake, therefore we must work relentlessly and decisively, a step ahead [of terrorists], and, when necessary, even boldly," he added.