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CFR Papers: Prisoners of the Caucasus (1)

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Russia’s Invisible Civil War / Part 1 from 4

By Charles King and Rajan Menon

The empty gymnasium of School No. 1 in Beslan is whipped by winds from the plains of North Ossetia, a republic in Russia’s North Caucasus region. On September 1, 2004, the first day of classes, masked gunmen entered the elementary school and herded hundreds of children and their teachers onto the indoor basketball court. They held their captives for three days. In the stifling late-summer heat, some children died from dehydration. Many others were killed when a series of homemade bombs exploded, collapsing the roof and igniting a massive fire. Today, photographs of the more than 300 victims, including those of smiling girls outfitted in the ornate hair ribbons traditional on the first day of classes, line the walls of a makeshift memorial.

The Beslan siege was Russia’s most heart-rending episode of carnage during the last two decades. But it was by no means unique. Two years earlier, gunmen interrupted a play at a Moscow theater and took the entire audience hostage; 170 people died when security forces attempted a rescue. A series of suicide bombings in and around Moscow killed dozens in 2003 and 2004. In the days before Beslan, suicide terrorists brought down two Russian passenger airplanes. In November 2009, a bomb derailed the Nevsky Express, the high-speed train connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg, killing nearly 30 passengers. (Another bomb had derailed the same train in August 2007, although no one was killed.) And then, this past March, a pair of female suicide bombers blew themselves up in the Moscow metro during morning rush hour, killing nearly 40 people.

Even this grim tally is incomplete; it does not include the much higher level of violence that regularly occurs in the North Caucasus itself. The Russian government seems to have few creative ideas about how to deal with the turmoil in the region, which has become the epicenter of routine political violence in the country. It has tried to will the conflict into a sort of resolution, with little result. In April 2009, the Kremlin announced the end of the second Chechen war — or, in official parlance, the decadelong “counterterrorist operation” — thereby setting the stage for the withdrawal of the thousands of federal troops that had been dispatched to the republic. The following summer, however, the North Caucasus — where Chechnya is but one of seven multiethnic republics — experienced an upsurge in violence. A wave of assassinations, bombings, and suicide terrorist attacks spread well beyond the old war zone into the neighboring republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria.

Federal and local officials frequently trumpet the capture and killing of the planners of these attacks. Shamil Basayev, the architect of the Beslan siege, was killed in 2006; Said Buryatsky, the alleged mastermind of the 2009 train bombing and trainer of the two female bombers who struck Moscow, was killed in Ingushetia just three weeks before the subway attack. But Russian officials also admit that the situation is getting worse. Earlier this year, Russian Interior Ministry officials announced that “terrorist crime” in the North Caucasus was up by 60 percent in 2009 compared to 2008. The chief prosecutor’s office for the North Caucasus region noted last fall that 80 percent of all terrorist incidents in Russia take place in this one small slice of land.

Moscow has attempted to secure order by adding intelligence agents and beefing up the presence of federal border guards, along with redeploying police from elsewhere in Russia — but to little avail. In October 2009, President Dmitry Medvedev told Russia’s Security Council that the North Caucasus remains the country’s foremost internal political problem.

Confronting the threats to internal security that bubble up from the southern frontier — both real and perceived — has been a constant in Russian history and culture. “Cossack! Do not sleep,” Aleksandr Pushkin wrote in the 1820s. “In the gloomy dark, the Chechen roams beyond the river.” But today, unlike in Pushkin’s time, the intrigues and conflicts of the North Caucasus do not stay contained in a remote and restive borderland. They affect the Russian heartland itself.

As the violence has spread, Moscow has responded by relying on the playbook of imperial Russia, buying off provincial officials and deploying the state’s substantial repressive apparatus to sweep up suspected subversives. But the success of such a strategy depends on the good faith of local elites and the weakness of their rivals. It merely buys Moscow time without fixing the underlying problems of economic development and governance. Medvedev is encountering the same dilemma that has confronted past Russian rulers: What happens when payoffs and raw power are no longer enough to stop those who seek to break the bargain with the center?

Particularly after Vladimir Putin became president, in 2000, the Russian government began burnishing its image as the redoubtable guardian of order. The smoldering politics of the North Caucasus — and the seepage of violence north of the Terek and Kuban rivers, which form a natural and symbolic barrier between central Russia and its southern republics — could tarnish this cultivated reputation, potentially eroding the government’s legitimacy. If the Kremlin cannot contain the cycle of attacks and counterattacks, then Russian nationalist groups — many of which spew chauvinistic rhetoric demonizing Russia’s non-Christian minorities — could gain traction in Russian politics. Such groups have already been involved in mob attacks and killings of Muslim migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia. The possibility of street violence is very real and potentially destabilizing — Muslims make up as much as 15 percent of Russia’s population, with more than two million living in Moscow alone.

A new upsurge in violence within and beyond the North Caucasus would also accelerate Russia’s drift away from democracy, by providing fodder for politicians who promise to avenge the victims and hammer the disorderly south. Just as Putin did during the second Chechen war, the government may invoke public safety to justify the further restriction of civil liberties and concentration of power inside the Kremlin. Both outcomes — increased nationalism and increased authoritarianism — would, in turn, hamper progress on arms control and make cooperation with the West on issues such as energy, Iran, and North Korea even more difficult.

End of the Part 1


Written by Theophyle

July 17, 2010 at 8:31 am

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  1. […] More here: CFR Papers: Prisoners of the Caucasus « Politeía Digest […]

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