In 2007, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gave a "national pledge" that Sochi, a Black Sea resort town near the border with Georgia, would be a safe venue for the 2014 Winter Games. The International Olympic Committee believed him, and Russia won the bid. But Sochi, it turns out, is no Vancouver, and on May 26 the credibility of Putin's promise took a drastic hit. Just before 7:00 p.m., a bomb stuffed with shrapnel was detonated in the nearby city of Stavropol, wounding more than 40 people and killing seven others, including two young girls. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, and in the aftermath investigators fumbled around for a possible motive. But the blast, and the uncoordinated official response to it, has prompted some experts to pose unpleasant questions: Had the security situation around Sochi been properly assessed before Russia took on its Olympic challenge? And if the risk of violence is real, might countries consider pulling their athletes out of the Games?
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the attack and the ensuing investigation has been the sheer number of possible bad guys. According to the various law enforcement officials speaking to Russian media after the blast, there are no less than four groups in that region thought capable of bombing a crowded square in broad daylight. It could have been the Islamist rebels camped out in the nearby Caucasus mountains, they said, but it could also have been Russian nationalists or local mafia groups. Some police officials have suggested the bombing could lead back to neighboring Georgia, noting the blast fell on May 26 Georgian Independence Day. Georgia and Russia fought a war in 2008, and one of the disputed regions in that war, Abkhazia, lies about 25 miles away from Sochi.
"The region is such a muddied and bloodied aquarium of conflict that to pick out any one fish is impossible," says retired KGB Colonel Oleg Nechiporenko, now the chief analyst for Russia's National Anti-Terrorist and Anti-Criminal Fund. "Even the idea of holding the Olympics has to be predicated on the end of all violent conflicts in the area, and here we are preparing to hold the Games in what is virtually the front line in our war on terrorism."
For decades, this conflict has focused on the North Caucasus, the basket case of territories that lies a short drive from Sochi and includes Chechnya and the tinderbox republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia. In January, with the Olympic preparations clearly in mind, President Dmitry Medvedev appointed a newcomer named Alexander Khloponin to try to stabilize these regions by developing their economies rather than bringing more police. He has made little progress. As a businessman and former governor in Siberia, Khloponin has no local power base in the North Caucasus; he is grappling with pervasive corruption and widespread poverty, not to mention Islamist insurgents fighting to turn the territory into a Muslim caliphate governed by strict Shari'a law. On March 29, two suicide bombers killed 40 people in the Moscow subway; Chechen warlord Doku Umarov, the leader of those insurgents, claimed responsibility.
But Khloponin has made some surprising claims in the wake of last week's Stavropol blast. In an interview with the Rossiyskaya Gazeta daily published on May 27, he said that the latest explosion has nothing to do with the Islamist rebels, and was most likely part of a turf war between local gangs. That same day he told a meeting of law enforcement officials that the violent scramble for assets in this region is likely get worse as Russia tries to build tourist infrastructure and ski resorts in the lead up to the Olympics. "There has been an attempt to lump this division of property together with ethnic fighting or to present it as terror," he said, adding that both interpretations were wrong.
It is true that turf wars and racketeering are still common in this part of Russia. Last February, a suspected mafiosi named Alik Minalyan nicknamed Sochi Alik was gunned down in Moscow after allegedly running the Sochi underworld for years, and Islamist groups in the North Caucasus are known to extort money to finance their activities. But investigators in Stavropol were quick to question Khloponin's statements on Thursday, telling Russian news agencies that jihadis were still at the top of their list of suspects. These contradictory claims, and the fact that no arrests have yet been made, have done little to calm the public after the bombing.
"It looks like the result of panic, of bad coordination, as if they are trying to cover all the possibilities in case one of them is right," says Nikolai Zlobin, director of the Russia and Eurasia Project at the World Security Institute in Washington. "That shows there has never been a full and systematic security review in these regions to figure out what is a theoretical threat and what is an actual threat."
For its part, the International Olympic Committee is standing by its decision to grant Sochi the right to host the 2014 Games. In a statement to TIME, the IOC says the latest bombing has not changed its position. "Security arrangements fall under the responsibility of the local authorities of the host cities, who ensure that everything that is humanly possible is done to protect the athletes, the spectators and all the people involved in the staging of the Games. We have no doubt that Russia will be up to the task."
But as 2014 approaches, other countries will be watching to see what dangers their athletes might face in Sochi; if any large nation decides to pull out, Zlobin says it could cause a "chain reaction." "There are so many danger points, and this terror attack showed that they are not prepared for them," he notes. "It would be very easy to derail these Olympics, or at least show that the athletes there will be in a compromised position."