Mar 25, 2008

Securing the Silk Road - The Path of the Torch

We've been meaning to post the following Balkananalysis excerpts for a tardy week now, if only really to highlight the brotherly antics of Greece's butt-jabbing neighbour (Every year Turkey honors Greece's Day of Independence by violating Greek airspace.) The lighting ceremony now passed, this post is already somewhat dated. Perhaps though, somewhat dated can be considered somewhat tested.

With security for the Olympics, which start in Beijing on August 8 at an all-time-high, China’s concerns have reverberated as far as southeastern Europe, where on March 24 the Greek government will conduct the traditional lighting of the Olympic flame. Greece’s security precautions for the event involve new techniques and technology in practice since Athens hosted the last Olympics, in 2004, and are being executed with an eye to possible threats from political opponents of the Chinese regime, including left-wing terrorist groups, the Uyghur Diaspora, Tibet activists and other potential troublemakers.

The most visible dissidents to China’s political program, which are seeking to use the world spotlight cast on the world’s most populous country that the Games provide, are now the Tibetans. Following recent riots and continuing protests against Chinese rule in Tibet, and an outcry from Tibet activist groups outside the country, China is taking a great interest in identifying those involved. This interest has spread as far as the Peloponnesian home of the original Olympics, where on March 10 Chinese Embassy officials in Olympia filmed a group of Tibet activists concluding their own “Olympic flame” relay, a counter-action meant as a symbolic protest. This data will most certainly be shared with the Greek police, busy executing their final preparations for the March 24th event.

Greek-Chinese Relations: Smooth Sailing

Bilateral relations between the two countries have greatly expanded over the past few years, facilitated by the expanding role of China in world markets and by the role of the Greek merchant marine, which now transfers the bulk of China’s energy needs, especially its oil.

Diplomatic relations were formally established in 1972, during the time when Western policy formally opened up to Beijing as a counterweight to the then-Soviet Empire. According to information relayed by the Greek Foreign Ministry, “Greek-Chinese relations are excellent… China has a positive stance on the Cyprus issue and Greece supports the principle of One China.”

In the economic sphere, there is strong bilateral collaboration as well, especially in the shipping sector. The COSCO Group is willing to invest in Greek ports by buying controlling stakes, while the shipyards of China are filled with hundreds of orders from Greek ship owners rushing to take advantage of low-cost Chinese labor. In the tourism sector, Greece expects to accommodate some 300,000 Chinese visitors, a market recently making its entrance in Greece but with high potential due to explosive annual growth and high spending per capita.

Chinese Security Concerns

The Olympic Games 2008 will provide a unique opportunity for China to present its heightened role on the world stage. The security concerns of Beijing are mainly concentrated in the existence of minority groups, as now seen in Tibet, with communities scattered across the world that along with political demonstrations may attempt sabotage and even terrorist attacks on the Games themselves. Bloomberg reports that China is spending approximately $300 million on Olympic security (whereas the Greek government spent $1.5 billion to safeguard the 2004 Olympics). According to security expert and an official advisor to the Olympic Games, Dr. Darko Trifunovic, “China is paying considerable attention to terrorism assessment for the Olympic Games. It does not want the event to be associated with anything that can damage its reputation as a safe destination.”

Among the Chinese counter-terrorist efforts is the participation of America nuclear experts in removing radioactive materials from the vicinity of Olympic sites, “part of a security sweep focusing on highly radioactive devices in hospitals and research labs” reported The Canadian Press. “The fear is they could be detonated using conventional explosives - effectively becoming a ‘dirty bomb’ that would spew radiation and sow panic at the global sporting spectacle set for August.” Charles Ferguson of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations described for the Canadian media the security operation as being “precautionary,” adding that “if terrorists were able to take explosives, let’s say, and target a radioactive source that’s located at or near an Olympic site venue and blow up that facility… then that could be a huge international event.”

Chinese Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang has stated that “we face the challenges of terrorism, separatism and extremism.” Attesting to this concern, Beijing recently announced that it had foiled a plot devised by terrorists seeking to take over a passenger plane and crash it in a major city. According to Wang Lequan, the top Communist Party official in the western region of Xinjiang, there were plans “to sabotage the staging of the Beijing Olympics.” CNN reported that “two people were killed and 15 captured in the raid, along with weapons and extremist religious literature.”

Xinjiang province is home to the Uyghurs (also spelled Uighurs), a Turkic minority that has often clashed with the Chinese minority, motivated by dreams of independence, for a region it calls East Turkistan. During the 1990’s it collaborated with Islamic networks and Al Qaeda, and even with the Turkish state, which at the time was trying to expand its influence among the Turkic countries of Central Asia. Should the allegations prove to be correct, an initial serious security threat may have now been found. However, Western observers have also expressed skepticism over the veracity of the allegations, suspecting that China would like to voice security concerns to intimidate its restive minorities.

However, there are demonstrated links between a small number of Chinese Turks and international terrorist outfits. Dr. Trifunovic points out that “Uyghur trainers of Al Qaeda ended up in Guantanamo Bay [prison] in 2001. Six of them were released and they are presently in Albania.” The small Balkan country was the only one that would do the US a favor by accepting the men. A significant Uyghur community also resides in Munich, Germany, which would mean relatively easy access for any troublemakers looking to disrupt the Olympic flame lighting ceremony in Greece.

Another Chinese security concern which has implications for events in Greece next week is the Falun Gong religious sect, which has been in conflict with the Chinese government for years. Via its European representation, the group has made numerous connections in Greece, and developed a network of local supporters and collaborators, materializing in the past in the form of demonstrations in Athens. This activity has occasionally created slight strains in Athens-Beijing bilateral relations.

It is possible that the cult groups may try to hold demonstrations just before the lighting ceremony, in order to voice their public disapproval for the Chinese Olympic Games. It is notable to mention that in 2004 three members of that sect sued the Chinese government in a Greek court, claiming that it practices “genocide and torture” against minority members. Even though it cannot be estimated how many members of the sect reside in Greece, unofficial tallies suggest a community of approximately 1,000 members.

Lastly the ever-pressing issue of Tibet, one which has received much more popular support from Westerners, means another headache for Greek security tasked with safeguarding the lighting ceremony. On the 10th of March, a group of 10 Tibetans tried to enter the archaeological site of Olympia in order to symbolically light up their own fire, using benzine, but were prohibited by the police, though no arrests were made. The arrival of a wave of tourists from China and various European countries for the ceremony has kept local authorities on alert, as they fear similar incidents might be attempted.

Greek Security Preparations for the Olympic Lighting Ceremony

The lighting ceremony will begin at noon on Monday, the 24th of March, at the home of the original Games, Olympia in the Peloponnese. As before every modern Olympics, the torch will then travel throughout Greece – some 1,528 km in all – passing through 43 cities and finally arriving at Panatheneum Stadium in central Athens on the 30th of March at 3PM. On the following day it will be flown to China. During the week-long ceremony, 605 people in all will be involved in handling the torch.

Other concerns for the Greek government which do not involve China-related troublemakers regarding the high-visibility torch ceremony include the existence of certain radical leftist groups, such as the Revolutionary Struggle. The latter was reportedly involved with staging an attack against the American Embassy in January 2007, and is considered to have a considerable arsenal of illegal weaponry, as well as relations with the contraband arms trade in the Balkans, and possibly even with organized crime networks operating in Kosovo; in 2007, Kathimerini reported that the missile launched against the American Embassy had been imported from Albania via the largely Albanian-populated secessionist province of Serbia.

Finally, the generally fragile situation in the Balkans may now be affected as the Greek police are forced to temporarily expend their efforts on the lighting ceremony, rather than on other regional security issues.

Controlling the Path of the Torch, and the Holiday

The path upon which the Olympic flame will pass is considered generally safe. It will follow national roads, which are easily monitored and secured. Nevertheless, the country will be on a heightened state of alert for other reasons as well. The 25th of March is also the national Day of Independence in Greece, traditionally marked by a military parade in Athens. This simultaneous event also means the activation of Greek military units, as Turkey by tradition honors the holiday by violating Greek airspace, as a form of minor psychological warfare. Thus the Greek air force, and the army and navy as well, will have to be on standby.

Route and Itinerary of the Olympic Torch, March 24-30, 2008

  1. March 24: Ancient Olympia-Patra-Messologi (Stay overnight)
  2. March 25: Agrinio-Arta-Ioannina (Stay overnight)
  3. March 26: Metsovo-Grevena-Kozani-Veroia (Stay overnight)
  4. March 27: Naoussa-Edessa-Ginniatsa-Ancient Pella-Thessaloniki (Stay overnight)
  5. March 28: Larissa-Volos-Lamia (Stay overnight)
  6. March 29: Kalamos-Marathonas-Rafina- Panellinios Stadium (2 km from the final destination) in central Athens (Stay overnight)
  7. March 30: Delivery of the torch to Chinese Olympic officials at 3PM in Panatheneum stadium (close to the presidential palace, and the most secure area of Athens). The torch will be flown the same night or early the next morning for China.

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