The Russian military claims those sweeps resulted in the destruction of local radical Islamic cells with purported links to Chechnya.
Also in mid-February, an alleged liaison of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network blew himself up in Ingushetia to avoid capture. Fighting between security forces and purported Islamic militants has been going in Daghestan, east of Chechnya.
Grigory Shvedov is editor in chief of “Kavkazsky Uzel” (Caucasian Knot), a Russian information website that covers developments in the North and South Caucasus regions. He told RFE/RL that he saw this upsurge of violence as yet another confirmation of a dangerous trend.
“The absence of a long-term vision of developments in the North Caucasus [in the Kremlin’s] policy is responsible for the spilling over of the Chechen conflict," Shvedov said. "Today the war is no longer confined to Chechnya and is now spreading in Daghestan and Ingushetia. Militants are carrying out operations in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia and these actions are no longer sporadic, but continuous. In North Ossetia, we see no longer isolated terror attacks, but a conflict wave that is spreading all over the republic, not in the form of militant raids, but rather in that of civil confrontation. All these developments are linked to one another and stem from the irresponsible policy carried out by the Russian armed forces and the federal center.”
Tensions are running high across the North Caucasus -- and not only because of the war in Chechnya. Bad governance, economic mismanagement, and authoritarian tendencies on the part of regional elites have also helped foster social discontent and violence.
In North Ossetia, President Aleksandr Dzasokhov’s failure to prevent September’s Beslan hostage crisis, which claimed more than 300 lives, has served as a catalyst for political demands that he step down.
In neighboring Ingushetia, critics blame President Murat Zyazikov for the disappearance of dozens of opponents at the hands of alleged “death squads.” These abductions and suspected killings might have been one of the main motives behind the militant raids that decimated the republican Interior Ministry headquarters in June.
In Daghestan, State Council Chairman Magomedali Magomedov’s reluctance to comply with a power-sharing agreement has rekindled simmering tensions among various ethno-political groupings vying for power. Two high-ranking government officials survived a bomb attack in the town of Kizlyar in mid-February, and reports say security has been beefed up in the capital Makhachkala in anticipation of new attacks.
In Karachaevo-Cherkessia, the suspected involvement of police officers and President Mustafa Batdyev’s son-in-law in the collective murder of seven young businessmen in October has triggered a wave of antigovernments protests.
In Kabardino-Balkaria, critics blame ailing Soviet-era President Valerii Kokov for economic collapse and widespread corruption.
Thomas De Waal, Caucasus project manager at the London-headquartered Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), said domestic political developments have – perhaps to an even greater extent than the Chechen war --- contributed to radicalizing entire segments of the local populations.
“In Kabardino-Balkaria, for example, you have an extremely authoritarian government, you have an extremely heavy-handed presence of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, you have suppression of opposition, and you had closure of mosques," De Waal said. "So you might say it’s a small model of Uzbekistan. All the ingredients are there for a homegrown Islamist movement.”
In predominantly Christian North Ossetia, authorities have moved against non-official Islam. Three weeks ago, on 2 February, regional FSB officers arrested Yermak Tegaev, the head of the Vladikavkaz-based Islamic Cultural Center and an open critic of the republic’s government-appointed mufti. The FSB claim radical religious literature, explosives, and detonators were found in Tegaev’s house.
Northern Caucasus militants claim to draw their inspiration from Islam.
But De Waal said religion serves primarily as a vehicle for political and socioeconomic demands.
“[These people] call themselves Islamists, but there is not much evidence about how much they know about Islam," De Waal said. "I think it is more of a socioeconomic agenda, in which Islam has become a flag that they fly. This is probably true of a lot of conflicts, but in the North Caucasus there is still, I think, widespread ignorance about Islam. We’re talking about young people who are 20 or 25 – sometime even younger – for whom basically there is no place in the societies they live in, and this is why they are turning to this agenda.”
De Waal said that, while developing their own political agenda, many of the region’s radical groupings have been maintaining relations with Shamil Basaev and other Chechen radical field commanders. For some of them, these ties date back from the time Basaev fought Georgian troops in Abkhazia in the early 1990s. For others, they were forged during the 1997-99 interwar period that saw many radical youth undergo military training in the war-torn republic.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to reassert his authority in the North Caucasus by appointing new regional leaders when the terms of the serving presidents expire. In the meantime, he clearly intends to rely on force to keep those volatile areas under control.
At a government meeting yesterday, Putin told Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev, who had just reported to him on recent security raids in Nalchik, to show no mercy in the battle against suspected Islamic militants.
“You must continue working like that," Putin said. "Be tougher with them. Be tougher."
Nurgaliev in turn pledged further raids would be carried out in Ingushetia and Daghestan.
For Russian Caucasus expert Shvedov, the Kremlin’s response to political violence can only lead to a deadend.
“This policy, which consists in killing as many ‘terrorists’ as possible, can lead nowhere," Shvedov said. "In my opinion, we should go in the other direction. If Russian society really wants that an end be put to mass terrorism, [it] should first start examining its causes. But society today is not interested in examining the causes of terrorism -- be it the war in Chechnya, or the overall situation in the North Caucasus. As for state, not only it is not interested, but it is also making life impossible for those who reflect on these issues, thus killing all hope of seeing terrorism decrease.”
De Waal also said he saw no end to unrest in the North Caucasus.
“We’re now seeing the violence intensify and I fear it will get into a circle in which every [Russian] response will make with a new upsurge of violence from these young radicals,” he said.