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Economy

Russia’s New Recipe For Opening The Violence-Prone Caucasus: European-Style Winter Tourism

With the lingering threat of violence from Islamists and groups seeking independence from Moscow, Russia has turned to French firms to create a safe and lucrative winter sports business in the Caucasus.

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It has the makings of a James Bond plot, post-Cold War style. The Russian government, eager to create new economic opportunities in the perennially restive Caucasus region, sees an opportunity to recreate the European Alps' lucrative winter sports model. But before calling in the ski instructors and fondue, they know they must first answer the security question.

Moscow has called on French electronics company Thales, which delivers information systems and services for aerospace, defense, and security markets, to improve security in the mountainous area where both independence fighters and Islamists have been known to operate.

Jean Pierre Thomas, who is leading France's efforts to build economic cooperation with Russia, confirms the nature of the agreement: "The Russian state will guarantee the security of the French investment. It's the sine qua non condition for the firms to go there."

The Caucasus has been the scene of two wars in Chechnya over the past two decades. Since then, violence has increased in neighboring semi-autonomous republics such as North Ossetia and Dagestan. It still is a very unstable region, plagued by poverty and Islamist rebellion. In February, three skiers were killed by armed men near Mount Elbrouz, the highest European Mountain located in Kabardino-Balkaria.

Despite the uncertainty, this is one of the five issues taken into account in a joint declaration by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian President Dimitri Medvedev on the project to "open up" the Russian Caucasus. The declaration was published last May during the Deauville G8, and later solidified during an economic forum in St. Petersburg. Investments required are estimated at around 15 billion dollars.

Laurent Vigier, CDC head of International affairs, says that a Franco-Russian joint venture will be created next year. "For coherence's sake, this structure will gather all the offers by French mountain professionals, from ski lift to ski runs to security specialists."

Vigier noted that the CDC had implemented the Snow plan in the French Alps in the 1960s, though he acknowledges the current project is a bit trickier. "The situation is sensitive. But sustained tourism development is a way to put an end to violence."

Read the full story by Benjamin Quénelle

Photo - shioshvili

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