After years of trying to suppress religious and ethnic tensions in its southwestern mountains with guns and troops, Russia is offering new incentives to combat unrest and terrorism: ski slopes and sandy beaches.
The idea is to bring jobs and prospects to the people of the North Caucasus, where Islamic fundamentalism and separatist aspirations have resulted in death and violence in the region’s mountains and a thousand miles away in Moscow, the target of suicide bomber attacks. The vehicle is an $18 billion plan for seven ski resorts scattered through the mountains and three beach developments costing $4.6 billion on the Caspian Sea.
The landscape here is awe-inspiringly beautiful, nearly everyone agrees, and economic development is vital to long-term peace. Then skepticism sets in. Will tourists feel safe? So far this year, 574 violent deaths have been reported in the North Caucasus. Last year, terrorists killed three Russian tourists near Mount Elbrus, at 18,510 feet Europe’s tallest mountain, where a small ski area has operated for years.
Much of the answer probably depends on the success of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which Russia is hosting in Sochi, on the Black Sea to the west. Islamists and grievance-bearing ethnic groups could attempt disruptions. Circassians, for one, want Russia to acknowledge czarist-era genocide against them in Sochi. Officials are counting on a well-run Games to stir up interest in Russian skiing and reassure vacationers.
The beach resorts would lie in the predominantly Muslim region of Dagestan, where police and militants regularly exchange gunfire. In July, a bomb was found on the beach in Makhachkala, the region’s capital, but was defused before it exploded. The attack came two years after another bomb maimed a woman on the same beach.
Russian leaders, from Vladimir Putin on down, support increased tourism and have allotted the government-sponsored Northern Caucasus Resorts $2 billion to begin development and seek investors. Foreign experts have been brought in to help, including Gernot Leitner, an energetic Austrian architect, skier and sports professional who played on the Austrian national volleyball team and spent eight years on the beach volleyball circuit.
“Only the Rocky Mountains are comparable with the North Caucasus,” said Leitner, who has skied for days on end in the region to select trails and sites for hotels and chalets. He was referring to the geography, not the infrastructure. Roads are narrow and rutted, hotels few. “It’s going to be nice. I believe in it.”
The resorts will take several years to build — roads, power grids and sewers have to be put in, airports constructed or expanded, and workers trained in the tourist business. Supply chains are nonexistent. But Leitner, chief executive of Masterconcept Consultants, said Russia will be 20 percent middle class by 2020.
“That means 30 million people with money to spend on vacations,” he said.
The nearest airport to Arkhyz is Mineralnye Vody, about 125 miles away on roads that wind through mostly Muslim villages and some Christian, where cows or herds of horses stop traffic in the evening as they return from grazing. In the last days of fall, elderly women sit outside the low brick or stone walls that surround their houses, soaking the last of the sun’s warm rays into their bones. The wood is chopped, the hay gathered as winter approaches. Along the roadside, people sell pumpkins, jars of honey, canned berries and pickled mushrooms and a thick mint-and-pine-infused syrup said to ward off the flu.
Leitner foresees many miles of slopes and trails, thousands of beds in hotels and cottages, supported by a newly created supply chain of thriving small businesses. And skiing, fabulous skiing, with golf in the summer.
“The good spots will be better than the best spots in the Alps,” he said. “It’s hard to say that as an Austrian, but it’s true.”
Leitner is well aware that corruption is a problem and that keeping costs affordable is imperative.
“All the resorts are in special economic zones, with special rights, so maybe it’s easier to control the flows of money,” he said. “We’re talking about a national project. When all the big guys are on board, things usually work in Russia.”
As the resorts develop, the lives of people here will improve, said Akhmed Bilalov, chairman of the board of the Northern Caucasus Resorts and for the last year a senator in Russia’s upper house of parliament. He predicts that as many as 300,000 jobs will be created eventually, directly and indirectly.
“That’s what provides security,” he said.
Alexei Malashenko, an expert on the North Caucasus at the Carnegie Moscow Center, is dubious.
“If I wanted to go to skiing,” he said, “I would go to Austria.”
Malashenko said Arkhyz, in Karachay-Cherkessia, is quieter than much of the region. But his friends go abroad because vacations are less expensive than in Russia and service is better. Corruption, he predicted, would raise prices here. And it will be a huge challenge to train historic traders as workers in a new service industry.
Security has been improving — Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee said in October that the rate of crime classified as terrorism has been declining, from 1,030 incidents in 2009 to 365 last year.
Acknowledging that progress, the International Crisis Group, an independent organization dedicated to conflict resolution, said in a major report in October that the region still needs a concerted strategy — improvement of rule of law and governance, along with the necessary economic development.
Malashenko agrees, but is pessimistic that Moscow can provide that.
“It’s a piece of Russia,” he said. “I can’t imagine doing that in the Caucasus without doing it in all of Russia. Eliminating corruption is impossible because corruption comes from Moscow, and there is certain mutual understanding between corrupt officials in Moscow and their brothers in the Caucasus.”
Although Arkhyz appears bucolic and unthreatening, journalists touring the building site recently were unsettled by a heavy show of security. Men wearing uniforms of the Ministry of Emergency Situations went up the ski lift first and waited at the top until reporters were safely on the ground. Several other burly men in camouflage fanned out, scanning the perimeter, as the visitors walked the grounds. A police escort led the journalists’ buses back to the airport.
“Come, don’t be afraid,” said Rashid Temrezov, head of the Karachay-Cherkessia region. “I’ll guide you myself. Many people come here and no one bothers them.”
The Caucasus are well-known for extraordinary hospitality. Temrezov and a resaturant owner had a sheep killed for the reporters’ lunch. “It was alive just a few hours ago,” the restaurateur said cheerfully as the carcass turned on a spit.
Maybe, Malashenko said, he’s too pessimistic. But Russia has had many big plans for the Caucasus.
“And what is the result? The same corruption, the same unemployment, the same resistance,” he said. “It’s a problem. It’s a problem forever.”