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Fear And Loathing: Russian Attitudes Help Fuel Instability In The North Caucasus

  • Gregory Feifer

Rasul Magomedov's daughter blew herself up in the Moscow subway in March 2010 killing 40 people

Rasul Magomedov's daughter blew herself up in the Moscow subway in March 2010 killing 40 people

BALAKHANI, Russia -- The tiny village of Balakhani clings to a mountainside at the end of a rough dirt road winding high into the Caucasus Mountains in Russia's region of Daghestan.
This was the home of a 28-year-old schoolteacher who came to national attention last year as one of two suicide bombers who killed 40 people in the Moscow subway. Chechen militant leader Doku Umarov claimed credit for ordering the attacks.
Inside the modest house where Mariam Sharipova lived with her parents, her father sits on the floor. A devout, bearded teacher who works in the same school, Rasul Magomedov refuses to speculate about why his daughter blew herself up. But he says the Kremlin encourages such actions by using the threat of terrorism to consolidate its power.

In Focus: Radicalization Splitting Society In Russia's North Caucasus
"The Caucasus is where Moscow pours all its blame for everything wrong," he says, "to justify its actions and failures before average working people."
Displaying metal shards he says is shrapnel from a military rocket that recently landed near his house, Magomedov says security forces chasing militants in the mountains are killing innocent civilians, victimizing Muslims on "Muslim land." His daughter was a hard worker who had planned to study for a doctorate, he says, but he understands why she would want to take revenge. And he predicts there will be more attacks like hers in the future.
This region may lie on the fringes of the country's vast landmass, but the culture of violence here is an important trope in the Russian consciousness. If once seen as a romantic, if dangerous, part of the tsarist empire, however, the Caucasus are now viewed as little more than a seat of terrorism and poverty, and the negative attitudes are seriously dampening hopes for stability.
Neither Amusing Nor Romantic
The poet Mikhail Lermontov immortalized the mountainous region on the southern edge of Russia's expanding empire in the 1840s. The Muslim clans battling tsarist troops in the North Caucasus may have been seen as ruthless, but the region was lionized as a romantic, beautiful object of Russian manifest destiny. A century later, popular Soviet comedy films depicted the Caucasus as an exotic tourist destination where communism was modernizing an amusingly backward people. But there's little Russians find funny about the Caucasus today.

(WATCH: RFE/RL's Gregory Feifer speaks to Rasul Magomedov)
Mention the Caucasus today and many Russians say they think of television news images of strewn corpses, smoke and bleeding victims such as those seen by millions of viewers after the subway attacks last year. And it's helping fuel deep suspicion and hatred.
This year, protesters in Moscow began rallying under the banner "Stop Feeding the Caucasus," demanding the government stop funding a region many see as hopelessly corrupt.

Among the supporters, Sergei, a Muscovite who wouldn’t give his last name, echoes the views of many who say they also believe too many migrants from the North Caucasus are responsible for growing crime in the capital. "They get together in groups and attack people," he says, "mostly women after dark, for no reason."
Spreading Violence
Still, such fears haven't convinced most Russians the government should give up rule in the Caucasus, even though the current state of affairs is chiefly the result of the Kremlin's drive to maintain its grip on the region.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin first came to power in 2000 launching an invasion of breakaway Chechnya, vowing to kill Chechen terrorists wherever they were hiding.

"If we find them in the toilet," Putin said, "we'll exterminate them in their outhouses."

His slang-inflected promise helped make him the country's most popular politician. Putin has since exploited the threat of terrorism to consolidate power by abolishing the election of regional governors in favor of Kremlin appointments and cracking down on civil society and press freedom.
The village of Balakhani is nestled in the mountains of Daghestan

The village of Balakhani is nestled in the mountains of Daghestan

Chechnya, once bombed into ruins, was rebuilt under its feared, Moscow-appointed leader Ramzan Kadyrov. But violence has since spread to other previously stable neighbors such as Ingushetia and Daghestan, where militant attacks now take place virtually every week. And there are no signs they'll abate any time soon.
In Ingushetia, several hours away from Daghestan by car, the popular leader, President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, is trying to forestall such attacks by prevailing on the security services to reduce the number of house searches and arrests in his region. But he says relations between people from the Caucasus and others are complicated by the hatred incited by public figures elsewhere in Russia who associate entire nationalities with criminality.
"Our young people tell me matters have reached a point where 'We avoid other groups of people on the street, not because we're afraid but because they'd pick a fight and we'd be blamed,'" he says. Yevkurov calls on the government to help break down stereotypes by regulating the media and punishing public figures who incite hatred.
Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov

Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov

But others say the problem lies deeper. Alexander Verkhovsky of Moscow's Sova Center for Information and Analysis says Russians in private speak far more negatively about the Caucasus than in public, and that they're steadily embracing nationalism.

"Nationalists demand there be a common enemy," he says. "And the post-Soviet history of the Caucasus has led to the fact that that common enemy is the North Caucasus."
Back in Daghestan's village of Balakhani, Magomedov -- father of suicide bomber Mariam Sharipova -- says his daughter's act should have provided the authorities a huge wake-up call.

"Change your attitude toward us Dagestanis," he says. "Don’t think we're stupid people."
But as Putin prepares to return to the presidency for at least another six years, Magomedov is deeply pessimistic about the future. A recent poll showed most Russians believe the authorities should undertake even harsher measures to fight militants in the Caucasus, such as reviving the death penalty and punishing their relatives.

Many in the Caucasus fear that bodes badly for the entire country's stability.

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