Russia's Heavy-Handed ProxiesFail to Quell Caucasus Chaos

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This April, Russia proudly announced that its 15-year conflict in Chechnya was over and that all further counter-insurgency operations by federal troops would cease.

Russia had struggled to control Chechnya, an autonomous republic in the south of the country, even after two wars and several handpicked local regimes. Finally, after empowering Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov to fight the insurgency with whatever means necessary, violence in the region slowly abated.

“It would be difficult to describe Chechnya as peaceful. But Kadyrov has achieved ‘stability’ in the Russian and Chechen definition of the word,” Sergei Markedonov, of Moscow’s Institute for Political and Military Analysis, wrote in the Moscow Times in April.

But within months of the announcement of the conflict’s conclusion, violence in Chechnya and its two neighboring regions, Ingushetia and Dagestan, had rebounded to the highest levels seen in years as assassinations of local officials and devastating suicide attacks pierced the relative calm. More recently, after a Chechen insurgent group claimed responsibility for a train bombing near St. Petersburg that killed 26 and wounded some 100 people on Nov. 27, it became clear the situation was no longer under control.

Maria Lipman, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the gradual deterioration of the security situation across Russia is a direct result of the Kremlin’s North Caucasus strategy.

“This is a policy basically of neglect. The Kremlin does not deal with local problems, entrusting them with those rulers who are fully loyal to the Kremlin and who ensure the desired election results. Each time there is an election — whether local or federal — these leaders can be relied on that [the pro-Kremlin United Russia party] not just wins the election, but wins usually in those territories something like an 80 to 90 percent majority,” she said.

Lipman added that while Moscow has been allocating vast amounts of federal funds to local governments in the North Caucasus, the Kremlin’s expectations for these governments have been merely to fix the elections and keep the violence from spilling into Russia at large. And up until recently, regional leaders had held up their end of the bargain.

In 2004, Chechen militants seized a school in the town of Beslan and in the hostage crisis that followed at least 334 people were killed — many of them children.

For five years following Beslan, there were no major acts of violence outside of the North Caucasus, ending a series of terrorist attacks that had killed more 1,000 civilians across Russia over a decade following the First Chechen War.

Lipman called this ebb in violence an “important achievement,” but said it was clearly untenable in a region that is essentially a tinderbox of Islamism, clan feuds, poverty, separatist attacks and heavy-handed tactics by law enforcement.

Indeed, although the Kremlin’s containment policy may have spared lives outside the North Caucasus, violent crackdowns by the regional governments’ strongmen and deadly reprisals by their populations now kill dozens on a nearly weekly basis.

Many journalists and human rights activists investigating corruption and abuses of power in the region — such as prominent human rights activist Natalya Estemirova — have also been assassinated as Russia loosened the leash on local leaders like Kadyrov.

Albert Adamov, a lawyer and journalist working in Russia, said that it has become practically impossible to work in Chechnya as a journalist because of personal safety issues.

“You have to constantly watch yourself, control yourself and what you are reporting to the point where the work is meaningless,” he said. “Corruption kills.”

Adamov said that one of the primary roots of the violence that has plagued the region is the sheer lack of opportunities afforded to the region’s youth. In one survey that he helped to coordinate in September, interviewing residents in the Chechen capital of Grozny, more than half of the respondents said they were unemployed. According to Adamov, the unemployment rate in Chechnya as a whole is probably close to 85 percent, and for young people it is practically impossible to find jobs.

And as fares for public transportation have been raised, many residents — particularly young people — find themselves desperate and isolated in the mountain villages where weapons are prevalent and frustrations are raw, Adamov said.

The conditions in the North Caucasus “breed this vicious cycle of punitive violence from the government and revenge from those who regard themselves as treated harshly and unfairly,” said the Carnegie Center’s Lipman. “And this cycle continues. But the Kremlin looks the other way.”

Kadyrov himself took power from his father, Akhmad, who was assassinated as president of Chechnya in 2004. Ramzan Kadyrov has since himself been targeted by attacks several times — most recently in October.

Next door, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, president of the autonomous republic of Ingushetia, was critically wounded in an assassination attempt in June. Months later, a longtime opposition figure in Ingushetia, Maksharip Aushev, was killed when his car was sprayed by gunfire along a federal highway. Shortly before he was killed, Aushev, who had led mass protests against abuses by the government’s security forces, accused the powerful Federal Security Service (a KGB successor), as well as local police controlled by Kadyrov of conducting an indiscriminate campaign of abductions, torture and killings in Ingushetia that had only strengthened the rebels.

Ingushetia was also the site of an August bombing at a police station that killed more than 20 people in what experts believe was recrimination for the government’s brutal counterterrorism campaign.

Lipman blames the Kremlin for fueling many of the assassination attempts and bombings, arguing that by encouraging the rule of law through harsh police methods, the Kremlin made its handpicked local governments “the object of hatred and revenge. But because they’re local — not Russian officials, federal officials — Russia thereby minimizes or reduces the anti-Russian sentiments” — which Lipman says reduces the likelihood of an outbreak of violence deeper within Russia. In other words, the chaos is contained to the Caucasus and stays far from Moscow.

In addition, although secular resistance movements are responsible for much of the attacks on law enforcement and government officials, Islamic fundamentalists from abroad continue to finance and engage in acts of terror, many having come to fight Russian troops in the first and second Chechen wars.

The recent upsurge in violence has also further enflamed relations with Russia’s southern neighbor, Georgia. In October, Alexander Bortnikov, director of the Federal Security Service, Russia’s intelligence service, accused Georgia of assisting al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists to send arms and fighters to Dagestan and Chechnya through the Pankisi Gorge region of northern Georgia.

The Pankisi region is predominately populated by Chechens, many of whom came to Georgia fleeing the wars of the last two decades. In 2002, Georgia admitted that the region had become a safe haven for militants involved in the fighting in Chechnya and launched an “anti-criminal” operation to clear the refugee settlements of militants and secure the border with Russia.

Today, however, Georgian authorities adamantly deny any terrorist activity in the gorge, where the population has dropped considerably since the initial crackdown. Mogomed Gaurgashvili, a doctor who serves the Pankisi region, said most of the remaining male residents of the gorge are former mujahadeen with families who fear returning to Kadyrov’s Chechnya.

But he said he doubted that any major terrorist network was operating in the area and downplayed any connection between Pankisi and the current violence in Chechnya, though he did reveal that his clinic — the only one serving Pankisi residents — primarily treats wounds of various kinds and he doesn’t ask questions.

“It happens, people shoot each other,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “When people bring wounded to me, I treat them, that’s my job. They say, ‘Mogomed, we have a guy hurt here,’ so I help them.”

Mogomed, who is originally from Grozny, came to Georgia himself in 2000 when the Russian army took full control of Chechnya. As the only doctor to actively serve the towns in Pankisi, he has a good sense of the populace and knows their stories.

Many, he said, are veterans of the multiples conflicts across the Caucasus throughout the 1990s, in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia, against Georgia in the Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and of course Chechnya, whose people, he said, have accepted that war is simply a part of life. “We’re like the Afghans. We grow up in war. Every generation has its war.”

As the violence continues to increase in the region, Lipman said she still sees little prospect for Moscow change course, largely because the Russian political system does not hold the Kremlin accountable.

“The only factor that can actually change the Kremlin’s policy is the Kremlin itself — not the public, not political opposition within the parliament, since there is no political competition to speak of,” she said. Furthermore, the paradigm has shifted in the struggle for the North Caucasus. Whereas the conflict originated as a struggle for Chechen independence, Chechens no longer look to secession as a solution, according to Adamov, who noted that the North Caucasus republics are already essentially independent, while receiving the vast majority of their local budgets as direct allocations from Moscow.

“Without Moscow, there’s nothing left,” he said.

However, the ultimate solution to the region’s current woes lies in good governance, and that may not be found even with all of Moscow’s help.

“It’s not like governance is efficient in Russia elsewhere,” Lipman pointed out. “Because of a lack of political competition, because of rampant corruption all over Russia, because of empowered bureaucracy instead of responsible policymaking, the Russian government is not good at solving problems, because it’s not good at solving problems even in the more peaceful territories of Russia.”

About the Author

Nicholas Clayton is a freelance writer based in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Last Edited on July 2, 2014