Friday, February 07, 2014

At start of Sochi Olympics, State Department issues Russia travel warning

On the same day as the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, the U.S. Department of State distributed a travel alert that, while couched in diplomatic language, seems designed to discourage American citizens from attending the Olympics this month.

Here's how the travel alert -- which I received by email -- begins:

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 Olympic and Paralympic Games will take place in Sochi, Russia, from February 7 to March 16, 2014. This travel alert replaces the alert issued on January 24, 2014, and provides updated information on reported threats against the Games, cyber-security risks, identification requirements, and lodging. This Travel Alert expires on March 24, 2014. Full information about the Olympic and Paralympic games for U.S. citizen visitors is available on the Sochi Fact Sheet and the Country Specific Information for the Russian Federation on our website, The Department strongly recommends that all U.S. citizens residing or traveling abroad enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) in order to receive pertinent safety and security information.
The State Department advisory goes on to note potential problems with medical care, hotel room availability, terrorism, crime, and cybersecurity and none of the language is likely to promote confidence in anyone's capacity to remain safe in Sochi:
MEDICAL CARE: The Olympics are the first large-scale event to be held in Sochi and medical capacity and infrastructure in the region are untested for handling the volume of visitors expected for the Olympics. Medical care in many Russian localities differs substantially from Western standards due to differing practices and approaches to primary care. Travelers should consider purchasing private medical evacuation and/or repatriation insurance.

Western Russia (Source: Central Intelligence Agency)
LODGING: There may be shortages of hotel rooms during the Olympics. Some hotels are still under construction, and there are reports that some rooms booked in advance have not been available upon arrival. Advertised rates for standard rooms are currently $300-1,000 per night.

TERRORISM: Large-scale public events such as the Olympics present an attractive target for terrorists, and the U.S. government continues to monitor reported threats of potential terrorist attacks in Sochi or in Russia in general. 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. In early January 2014, media reports emerged about the possible presence of so-called "black widow" suicide bombers in Sochi. These reports have not been corroborated, and the U.S. government continues to seek further information. Other bombings over the past 10-15 years occurred at Russian government buildings, airports, hotels, tourist sites, markets, entertainment venues, schools, and residential complexes. There have also been large-scale attacks on public transportation including subways, buses, trains, and scheduled commercial flights, in the same time period. On January 11, 2014 Russia implemented a "no liquids" policy for carry-on bags on flights originating within Russia in response to potential security threats against commercial aircraft. In line with the Government of Russia's actions, on February 6, 2014, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration implemented similar precautionary measures for direct flights between the United States and Russia.

In July 2013, Doku Umarov, the head of the Caucasus Emirate (an organization the United States designated as a terrorist organization in 2010, and known in Russian as the Imirat Kavkaz or IK) released a video message rescinding prior directions not to attack civilians and calling for attacks on the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The Caucasus Emirate is responsible for many of the aforementioned attacks. The group has targeted civilians, as indirect supporters of the government, including through attacks on a ski resort, metro system, high-speed rail, airport, and a theater. Westerners have not specifically been targeted, but are viewed by IK as complicit in the Russian government's efforts to control the North Caucasus region. In January 2014, another video was released by a radical Islamist group claiming responsibility for the Volgograd bombings and promising "a present for tourists" in connection with the Olympic Games in Sochi.

Travelers to Sochi should expect increased police presence and enhanced security measures in and around the Olympic venues. There is no indication of a specific threat to U.S. institutions or citizens, but U.S. citizens should be aware of their personal surroundings and follow good security practices. U.S. citizens are urged to remain vigilant and exercise good judgment and discretion when using any form of public transportation. When traveling, U.S. citizens may wish to provide a friend, family member, or coworker a copy of their itinerary.

The U.S. Embassy will continue to monitor the security situation in Sochi throughout the Olympics. In the event the U.S. government receives information of any specific and credible threat, the Department of State will immediately provide information to the public. Information about potential threats to safety and security can be found on the Embassy's website and the Department of State's travel website. Individuals who have enrolled in STEP will receive this information directly via email.

CRIME: U.S. citizens planning to attend the Games in Sochi should remain alert regarding their personal security at all times. Criminal activity in Sochi is similar to other cities of comparable size. However, major events such as the Olympic Games are a prime opportunity for criminal elements to target tourists, and travelers should be alert to the possibility of mugging, pick pocketing, theft, and harassment. Travelers should avoid going out alone at night and carrying large amounts of money or other valuables. Since cash may be the only accepted form of payment outside Olympic venues, consider keeping money in a hotel safe or dividing money and placing it in several different locations on your person. Purses, wallets, cell phones, and electronics should be secured in public, especially while traveling on buses, trains, or other forms of public transportation. Travelers should only use marked taxi services and prearrange transportation through hotel concierge or other reputable services whenever possible. If you are stopped by the police, you may ask to see the officer's identification. Photocopies of passports, visas, credit cards, and other important documents should be kept in a secure location so proper notifications can be made if original documents are lost or stolen.

CYBER SECURITY: U.S. travelers should be aware of cyber security threats and understand that they have no expectation of privacy when sharing sensitive or personal information utilizing Russian electronic communication networks.
Finally, the State Department travel warning notes that the Russian police have a "papers please!" policy, that freedom of expression is limited, and that Russia is not a welcoming environment for gay people:
IDENTIFICATION: Russian police officers have the authority to stop people and request identity and travel documents at any time and without cause. Due to the possibility of random document checks by police, U.S. citizens are strongly advised to carry at all times their original passports, Russian visas, hotel registration, and migration cards (issued at the airport upon entry into Russia.)

PUBLIC DEMONSTRATIONS: U.S. citizens should avoid large crowds in areas that lack enhanced security measures. Use caution in any areas where protests, demonstrations, or other public disturbances are taking place. Demonstrations intended to be peaceful can develop quickly and unpredictably, sometimes turning violent.

On January 10, Vice Prime Minister Dmitriy Kozak announced that the Sochi authorities have determined that the village of Khost, located seven miles from the Olympic venues, will be the designated area for political demonstrations during the Winter Olympics. Demonstrations must be unrelated to the Olympics and the organizers must receive permission prior to the event from the regional authorities of the Ministry of Interior and the Federal Security Service (FSB). It is also worth noting that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Charter states "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDER (LGBT) ISSUES: In June 2013, Russia's State Duma passed a law banning the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors. The U.S. government understands that this law applies to both Russian citizens and foreigners in Russia. Russian citizens found guilty of violating the law could face a fine of up to 100,000 rubles ($3,100). Foreign citizens face similar fines, up to 14 days in jail, and deportation. The law makes it a crime to promote LGBT equality in public, but lacks concrete legal definitions for key terms. 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." LGBT travelers should review the State Department's LGBT Travel Information page.

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