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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Moscow's North Caucasus quagmire

By Jeronim Perovic for ISN Security Watch (01/06/06)

The Chechen Republic, until recently an isolated outpost of instability, now forms the center of a larger North Caucasian crisis zone. Although Moscow is aware of the dangers of the situation, it has no cohesive strategy for its troubled southern territories. After years of war and destruction, Moscow is endeavoring to stabilize the situation in Chechnya with its policy of “Chechenization”, whereby it is delegating power and authority to local structures. In contrast, as the crisis has escalated in the other North Caucasus republics, the Russian government has opted for greater direct control and increased its military presence. Both approaches are fraught with problems and risks.

Conflict zone

Until a few years ago, instability in the North Caucasus was largely related to the war in Chechnya. Apart from refugee flows or recurring raids by Chechen fighters into neighboring territories, the population felt the consequences of war most dramatically through acts of terror, carried largely by ethnic Chechens. Today, however, the perpetuators of violence in the North Caucasus republics are of various, not necessarily Chechen, ethnic backgrounds, many of them representatives of local youth.

A large-scale attack in June 2004 by between 200 and 300 men on various official buildings in the city of Nazran, in the Republic of Ingushetia is a case in point. A total of 93 people were killed, most of them Ingush government and security officials. Around half of the rebels were Ingush, while the remainder comprised Chechens, Avars, and members from other North Caucasus ethnic groups. Tensions have been remained high since the 2004 attack.

Another large-scale attack in October 2005 in Nalchik, the capital of the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, saw over 200 rebels storm various government buildings. According to the Russian government, 92 rebels, 33 security force troops, and 12 civilians were killed in the attack (although rebel websites reported much higher losses for the security forces). Two-thirds of the attackers were local residents, most of them in their early twenties.

The two attacks followed a similar pattern, targeting official structures using the same tactics. Both raids were carried out by small groups attacking different targets simultaneously. Both also were organized from a joint central command: Shamil Basaev, extremist Chechen rebel commander, is believed to have been among the ringleaders of the operation. Moreover, as maintained by Basaev himself, the Nalchik attack was carried out “by the Kabardino-Balkarian Section of the CF [Caucasian Front] and by other affiliated sections of the Caucasian Front”. In fact, the “North Caucasus Front” was founded on 5 May 2005 by Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, successor to the late Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov. According to Chechen rebel websites, the Front operates everywhere in the North Caucasus, but is most active in Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Dagestan.
The Dagestani front

In the context of the North Caucasus crisis, Dagestan stands out as a unique, if highly confusing, theater of war. In the period between January and October 2005 alone, the Dagestani Interior Ministry recorded 70 acts of terrorism - a figure twice as high as that for the whole of 2004. There are now a number of “jamaats” (Islamic communities) in Dagestan, whose members follow the strict Islamic Sharia law, which means that they live outside the official rule of law. These jamaats often comprise the inhabitants of individual, isolated mountain villages, who have squads of armed men primarily to secure their own territory and who are mainly engaged in defending local interests.

Other jamaats have fewer local interests and rather resemble terrorist networks. The most notorious of these is the Jamaat “Shariat”, which features on Moscow’s list of terrorist organizations. According to official sources, this group is responsible for the deaths of approximately 50 members of the security forces in Dagestan. There are ideological links between the Jamaat “Shariat” and the North Caucasian Front, as both are fighting for the establishment of a theocracy in the North Caucasus region that is independent from Russia. It is also probable that there are operational links between them; many of the leading members of the organization fought in the Chechen wars on the side of the rebels against Russian federal troops.
Moscow’s assessment

Two reports on the situation in the North Caucasus have caused something of a stir in Russia. One was on the North Caucasus, and one specifically on the situation in Dagestan. They were commissioned by Dmitry Kozak, the president's envoy to the Southern Federal District. In these secret reports drawn up for Russian President Vladimir Putin, from which extracts reached the Russian press in summer 2005 under “mysterious circumstances”, corruption, clan-based loyalties, a shadow economy, and the general alienation of the population from the ruling elite are listed as the principal threats to social stability and a key factor for the continuing economic crisis. The increasing radicalism and Islamization of society are mentioned as manifestations of the situation, not as its causes. The situation in Dagestan, in particular, is seen as giving cause for concern. According to Kozak, 7 per cent of the 2.5 million Dagestanis are, in theory, prepared to resort to armed struggle if the situation demands; one-third of the population would take part in illegal protest actions.
Control through cadre policy

Moscow is attempting to bring the situation under control by using strategies such as a cadre policy, redesign of the administrative and territorial structures, and intensive militarization. But it is doubtful whether this will be enough to deal with the problems. The cadre policy is a case in point. Typically, it was an event in North Caucasus, the Beslan tragedy in September 2004, which gave the Russian president an excuse to abolish the direct elections of regional leaders and replace with system with presidential appointments. So far, the presidents of North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Dagestan have been appointed by Putin, while others will follow suit once their current terms expire.

It is also unclear how successful this strategy will be in breaking up clan structures. Outside intervention generally tends to create new tensions and new conflicts. Such interventions also may lead to power shifts within the system, rather than changing the system itself. The situation in Dagestan provides a good illustration of this. Although the then-outgoing Dagestani president Magomedali Magomedov was unable to present the Kremlin with a suitable candidate from his own family for his successor, continuity was preserved by appointing Mukha Aliev, a close ally of Magomedov. Also, the influence of the Magomedov clan was secured by the fact that the son of former Dagestani president Magomedsalem Magomedov was appointed parliamentary president.
Territorial restructuring and militarization

Moscow sees a further means of exercising control through territorial and administrative restructuring. Plans are being discussed to merge the small Republic of Adygeya with the ethnically Russian-dominated Krasnodar Krai. Chechnya would again have to unite with Ingushetia (as was the case up until 1992), later possibly also with Dagestan. However, this may merely prove the first stage of a more comprehensive territorial restructuring of Russia. Mass demonstrations in April this year by ethnic Adygs in Maikop, the capital of Adygeya, served as an early indication of how sensitive such projects can be in the region, with its strong mix of ethnic groups and delicate balances. Reservations about an ethnic restructuring of the North Caucasus have now been expressed by the leaders of most of the other ethnic republics, and even in the Russian-dominated regions of the Southern Federal District.

The policy of militarization represents a third element of control. Despite the fact that Russia has now significantly reduced its troop numbers in Chechnya, it has dramatically increased its military presence in the other republics. The estimated 300,000 federal troops in the North Caucasus were spread throughout the entire territory at the beginning of 2005, including the regions with a Russian majority (if we discount the concentration of between 80,000 and 100,000 soldiers in Chechnya at that time). Now, however, Moscow has consolidated its troops in much greater numbers in the ethnic republics. In this context, the Russian Interior Ministry has started to build up more frontier posts and has set out to create two “mountain brigades”, which are to be stationed in Dagestan and Karachayevo-Cherkessia.
The dangers of 'Chechenization'

On 31 January, Putin declared at a press conference that the “anti-terrorism operation” in Chechnya had been brought to a conclusion. Although the military still carries out operations against remaining Chechen rebel groups (whose total number, according to the Russian Interior Ministry, is around 750 active fighters), the intensity of war has indeed dropped over the past three years. In addition to just under 40,000 federal troops that remained in Chechnya this spring (including all special forces), there are now Chechen “battalions” supported by Moscow and the security forces of the Chechen Interior Ministry. On a political level, the main institutions in Chechnya have been re-established, formally at least: The republic now has a constitution, a president elected by the people (though some say the election was rigged by Moscow), a government, and an elected parliament.

In principle, the integration of former resistance fighters, some of them war criminals and common criminals, into political life, and the transformation of private armies to official armed forces, is not a bad thing: This represents only a pragmatic policy approach. However, the problem is that Moscow has, up until now, relied on a single faction in Chechnya - the clan of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Moscow-appointed prime minister, and his force of several thousand armed men.

According to a recent report by the respected Russian human rights organization “Memorial”, the policy of Chechenization has merely authorized the official bodies to use “unlawful force”. Today, a frequent method of removing or wearing down an opponent is to kidnap the person concerned, or members of their family. Memorial says that such kidnappings are often carried out in the wake of “mopping-up operations” by the “Kadyrovtsy” (literally: “Kadyrov’s men”). Mopping-up operations, it says, are generally carried out in those regions of Chechnya that are home to supporters of an opposing clan. In 2005 alone, according to Memorial, 316 people were kidnapped, 23 of whom have since been found murdered, with a further 127 people reported missing. Fifteen people were found in secret prison facilities. These, however, are merely the confirmed cases.
Dire perspectives

There are no tailor-made solutions for the problems of the North Caucasus. On the one hand, the policy of Chechenization is basically moving in the right direction. However, the problem remains that Chechnya, if left to itself, could rapidly slide into chaos and civil war among the different Chechen clans and rebel groups. On the other, centralism and militarization in the other ethnic republics of the North Caucasus risk upsetting the already complex ethnic, political, and social balance, and - as just one possible consequence - galvanize radical and militant forces from the nebulous cluster of Islamist militant groups.

Dr. Jeronim Perovic is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich.
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