Andrew Osborn








The Caucasus on Fire

1st August 2009 16:28

The bullet-riddled body of a female human rights worker dumped in a forest. A car stuffed with explosives ramming a presidential convoy.

A suicide bomber blowing himself up in front of a packed theatre. This is Russia’s North Caucasus region “at peace.”

After four years of lower level violence and no “spectaculars” since the Beslan school siege, the region – centred on ever-volatile Chechnya  - is spinning out of control. The upsurge in violence has taken the Kremlin by surprise and, not for the first time, it is faced with a serious threat to its already fragile authority along its strategically vital southern border.

The Kremlin has fought two Chechen wars in the last fifteen years to keep a lid on an area it has struggled to quell since writer Leo Tolstoy served in the army there as a young man. It doesn’t want a third war. It has therefore tried to pacify the region – an ethnically and culturally diverse patchwork - by giving huge power to local leaders, demanding unswerving loyalty in return. It has also pumped billions of roubles into it despite no real economy to speak of and rampant crime and corruption. 

But the strategy is in pieces.

At least three of the impoverished mountainous republics in the area are now locked in a spiral of deadly and worsening violence. Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan have all been rocked by a string of brutal bombings, shootings, and assassinations since the spring. Several other regions show dangerous signs of contagion too. The violence has badly weakened the Kremlin’s influence, severely disrupted its political management of the region, and given the lie to any claims of “normalization.”  The Kremlin’s handpicked leaders have been more interested in personal power than good governance, and its huge subsidies seem to have evaporated beneath the fierce Caucasian sun, disappearing into the bottomless pockets of greedy officials.

Russian analysts say reports from the region already resemble those from a war zone, while the country’s elite Alpha commando unit, deployed in the Chechen wars and in major terrorist attacks, has unusually broken its silence to warn of serious problems ahead.

“Believe me, that hotbed will bring us a lot of trouble,” Gennady Zaitsev, a former Alpha commander, warned darkly recently.

The enemy is a shadowy one. Up to one thousand Islamist fighters according to some estimates operating in the region’s hills and forests, concealing themselves in a complex network of underground bunkers.

Their aim: to establish an Islamist Caliphate in the North Caucasus where Sharia law prevails and where Russian influence is nil.   

Recruitment to their ranks doesn’t seem to be a problem. Crushing poverty, unemployment rates that often exceed fifty percent, and endemic official corruption and brutality see many young men join the fighters out of despair and for wont of a lack of any other options. In a part of the world where blood feuds are ruthlessly pursued, many of the new recruits have been radicalized by heavy-handed policing and the torture or murder of their relatives at the hands of the authorities. In Chechnya, human rights groups have accused Kremlin-backed forces of burning down houses that belong to the relatives of suspected militants and of kidnapping fighters’ relatives to pressure militants into surrendering. In Ingushetia, rights activists say Kremlin-backed security forces frequently torture and kill innocent civilians they wrongly accuse of being terrorists. “As long as security services and death squads continue to force their way into private homes and detain lads who then disappear without trace…this violence will not end,” Magomed Khazbiyev, an opposition politician in Ingushetia, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station. 

Depending on who you believe, the Islamist fighters are financially supported by corrupt local officials and businessmen keen to protect illegal income flows that are predicated on continued lawlessness and anarchy. Foreign Islamist fundamentalist groups are also frequently accused. Kremlin-backed forces regularly claim to have killed “an Arab fighter.”   

President Dmitry Medvedev has warned that the Kremlin needs to get tough, using unusually blunt language to describe what he has called “a very very difficult” situation.

“Do you know how a government that does not demonstrate its authority in the Caucasus is treated?” he asked political allies in Moscow two weeks ago. “They wipe their feet on such authority. This is unacceptable. This leads to collapse.”

A senior law enforcement official went even further, calling the region “the scene of a war declared on the state by criminals.”

It’s a far cry from April when the Kremlin lifted a decade-old security lockdown of Chechnya after intensive lobbying from the region’s Kremlin-backed president Ramzan Kadyrov who insisted he had turned Chechnya into one of the most peaceful regions in all Russia.     

That now looks like a sick joke.

In July, the lifeless corpse of human rights defender Natalya Estemirova was found. She was – without exaggeration – one of Chechnya’s most professional and bravest investigators of human rights abuses.  Of mixed Russian and Chechen parentage, she collaborated with Russian human rights group Memorial and U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. In particular, she looked into abductions and extra-judicial killings. She was a fierce critic of Chechnya’s Moscow-backed government. She was also a close colleague of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, herself shot dead in Moscow in 2006.

In mid-July – as she made her way to work in the Chechen capital Grozny– Natalya’s turn came. She was bundled into a car by a group of camouflage-clad men, shot in the head and the chest, and then dumped in a forest off a main road in neighbouring Ingushetia. Memorial, the human rights group she worked for, publicly accused Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov of complicity in her murder. Kadyrov, as in so many similar cases before, protested his innocence. He then sued the head of Memorial, alleging he’d been defamed.

Estemirova’s murder isn’t the only incident to undermine Kadyrov’s claims of restoring order in his war-scarred republic. At the end of July, a suicide bomber tried to enter a busy theatre in Grozny packed with 1,000 people. Police stopped him before he could get in but he still managed to detonate his explosives just outside, killing six people in the process. Kadyrov was due to attend the performance and believes he was the real target.

A group of nine Chechen policemen on a counter-terrorism operation in nearby Ingushetia was also massacred in July. Swearing revenge, Kadyrov didn’t even pretend the militants responsible would be tried when caught. 

“Those who killed the policemen will deeply regret this action,” he told state TV. “They will all be found and annihilated. Death awaits them in this forest and it will find them in the very near future.”

Critics say Kadyrov, who is openly vying to expand his power base into other regions, is part of the problem not the solution. Rights groups have long alleged he uses torture, murder and kidnapping to enforce his own version of law and order in Chechnya. He denies that, but makes no secret of his belief that force is the only way to rule the Caucasus. The object of a self-made cult of personality, Kadyrov is widely seen as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s point man. “The impunity and omnipotence of Ramzan Kadyrov depends on the support of …Putin,” veteran human rights activist Ludmila Alexeyeva said recently. “As long as Putin supports him, nobody will touch a hair on Kadyrov’s head. Even if he kills us all.” Powerful elements within the Russian security apparatus have long feared that the Kremlin has created a monster in Kadyrov who may one day slip the leash. In recent months, a growing list of Kadyrov’s enemies and opponents, both

inside and outside Russia, have been murdered. Critics say the Chechen strongman has almost finished consolidating his power base inside Chechnya and suspect he wants to set himself up as the de facto ruler of the entire North Caucasus. His clampdown on militants in Chechnya has had a paradoxical result. It has been so tough that many militants have fanned out across the entire Caucasus, seeking shelter in other regions where they feel safer.  His ruthless efficiency has in short effectively exported many of Chechnya’s problems elsewhere.   

A suicide bombing in neighbouring Ingushetia towards the end of June shook the Caucasus to its foundations and was a reminder of that. The target was Yunus-bek Yevkurov, the region’s president, and the bomber very nearly got his man. Ramming an explosive-packed car into the president’s motorcade, he managed to kill several of Yevkurov’s associates and seriously injured the president. Yevkurov is still in hospital and it’s not clear whether he’ll be able to continue in his role with the same energy as before.

The attack on him was darkly symbolic and depressed those who hoped that the Kremlin and its proxies could start to solve the region’s highly complex problems without always resorting to brute force.

Yevkurov was relatively new in the job and had been brought in by the Kremlin to save what had effectively become a failed statelet within Russia’s borders. Unlike Kadyrov in neighbouring Chechnya, Yevkurov tried to solve Ingushetia’s problems through negotiation and by genuinely clamping down on corruption. He enjoyed the public and personal support of President Medvedev. The suicide bombing therefore appeared to be a calculated “back off” signal to the Kremlin. The effect, analysts say, has been to discredit Yevkurov’s softly softly approach in favour of the Chechen president’s blunter methods. “Now, anybody can point to Ingushetia as proof that the soft approach to resolving conflicts is ineffective,” says Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Centre. “This once again strengthens the position that the use of force is the only effective way to rule in the North Caucasus.”

Other analysts say Ingushetia and many other regional governments are beginning to look like the hunted not the hunters. Shortly before the assassination attempt, a senior judge in Ingushetia was gunned down just after she dropped her children off at school, while a former deputy prime minister was shot dead outside his home.  Nearby Dagestan isn’t faring much better. The country’s top policeman was recently shot dead by a sniper and gun battles frequently rock its capital.

Experts believe the Kremlin is groping for a coherent response as the entire region becomes radicalized and increasingly becomes an enclave within Russia’s borders over which it has little control.

“Kremlin officials have no idea what to do next,” says the Moscow Carnegie Centre’s Alexei Malashenko.

“On the one hand, the direct application of force is no longer effective.  Sending federal forces to the region evokes hostility among local people and only escalates tensions. On the other hand, it is unrealistic and even dangerous to give full authority to local officials to solve their own problems, given the widespread lack of trust they have among the people.”

Unless the Kremlin can find a new solution to this, a problem it’s been grappling with for centuries, he warns it will face a wave of terrorist attacks for years to come. There has been nothing to compare to the sheer horror of the Beslan school siege in 2004. But something similar, it seems, is again a real possibility