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Danger in Sochi? Putting the US State Department Alert in Context

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The Sochi 2014 Olympic Games is stirring worldwide controversy–both officially and unofficially–due to threats of terrorism over the Games, overspending, and a recently enacted Russian law banning public displays of pro-LGBT issues to minors.

The United States has taken the strongest stance globally. On January 10,  the U.S. Department of State issued a travel alert focusing on the Olympic Games. It cautions:

The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens planning to attend the 2014 Olympic Games in Russia that they should remain attentive regarding their personal security at all times.

The alert cautions travelers to be vigilant concerning increased crime, terrorist attacks (the terrorist organization Caucasus Emirate has called for attacks on the Winter Olympics), dangerous public demonstrations, and LGBT-related issues. The travel alert continues until March 24, a week after the Games.

In regards to terrorism, Russia has announced that it is planning the tightest security in the history of the games. However, the U.S. still issued the following warning:

Large-scale public events such as the Olympics present an attractive target for terrorists. Russian authorities have indicated that they are taking appropriate security measures in Sochi in light of this. Acts of terrorism, including bombings and hostage takings, continue to occur in Russia, particularly in the North Caucasus region. Between October 15 and December 30, 2013, there were three suicide bombings targeting public transportation in the city of Volgograd (600 miles from Sochi), two of which occurred within the same 24-hour period. Other bombings over the past 10-15 years occurred at Russian government buildings, airports, hotels, tourist sites, markets, entertainment venues, schools, and residential complexes.

Unlike the detailed U.S. alert, other countries have suggested only general cautions when attending, if they issued an alert at all.

Countries such as Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand have issued alerts: Great Britain warns to “remain vigilant in all public places”;  and Australia counsels “We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Russia because of the threat of terrorist activity and the level of criminal activity”; Canada’s dedicated page cautions, “If you are planning to travel to the Games, take sensible precautions. Maintain a high level of personal security awareness at all times and in all places. Avoid demonstrations, monitor local developments and follow the advice of local authorities.”

Out of the 69  countries to sign the UN General Assembly’s declaration of an Olympic truce, the United States is the only country to issue an official warning to anyone traveling to Russia about the law banning pro-LGBT displays. The state department warns that travelers could face US$3,100 in fines, 14 days in jail, and deportation for breaking the law.

In addition, the State Department cautions about how the law is interpreted and applied:

Russian authorities have indicated a broad interpretation of what constitutes “LGBT propaganda,” and provided vague guidance as to which actions will be interpreted by authorities as “LGBT propaganda.” Travelers should review the State Department’s LGBT Travel Information page.

President Obama urged to not boycott the Olympics but explained his opinions of the anti-gay law in a press conference in August, saying, “Nobody is more offended than me by some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you’ve been seeing in Russia.”

Other leaders expressed similar discomfort with the law but were not as outspoken, including the prime ministers of Canada and the United Kingdom.

Credit: Victorgrigas

Credit: Victorgrigas

The International Olympic Committee released a statement that it will: “Continue to work to ensure that the Games can take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media.”

The Committee cited rule fifty of their Olympic Charter, which bans politics from entering the Games, and tried to alleviate worries by saying in the same statement “…the IOC has received assurances from the highest levels of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.”

Russian president Vladimir Putin lifted a blanket ban on protesting during dates of the Games, but demonstrations will only be allowed in one place and must not be directly connected to the Games themselves.

Though there are many protests and travel alerts worldwide, Russian authorities have tightened security and placed more personnel and surveillance equipment at Sochi in the hope of assuring a smooth 2014 Olympic Games.

 

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