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Kabardino-Balkaria: A Deteriorating Situation

Police in Nalchik today Chechen resistance fighters launched simultaneous attacks in the morning of 13 October against multiple targets in Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR), but reportedly sustained heavy losses in fighting with Russian police and security forces. ITAR-TASS quoted KBR President Arsen Kanokov as saying that 50 of the estimated 150 militants have been killed.

The attackers' tactics -- luring police into an ambush and simultaneously attacking the local headquarters of the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB), among other targets -- are reminiscent of the raids on Nazran and other towns in Ingushetia during the night of 19-20 June 2004. On that occasion, however, the attackers killed up to 80 police and other officials but incurred only minimal casualties. The 2004 raids were organized by radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev; the attackers reportedly included both Chechens and young Ingush alienated by corruption, plummeting living conditions, mass unemployment, and arbitrary police reprisals. (See also, Is A Chechnya-Style Conflict Brewing In Ingushetia?)

The assault on Nalchik is the first major resistance operation outside Chechnya for which the resistance has claimed responsibility since Abdul-Khalim Sadullaev, successor to slain Chechen President and resistance leader Aslan Maskhadov, subdivided the so-called Western Front in May to create seven sectors, including one for Kabardino-Balkaria, and named commanders to head those sectors. While Maskhadov had issued strict orders to his men to confine their operations to Chechen territory, Sadullaev has broken with such constraints, arguing that the Russian policy of "genocide" against the Chechen people justifies extending military operations across the North Caucasus. If the reports that the Nalchik attacker suffered heavy losses indeed prove true, this would raise the question whether they may have been less well trained, less experienced, and less well led than the fighters who launched the 2004 operation in Ingushetia.

The Fourth Such Incident

The fighting in Nalchik is the fourth, and clearly the most serious, such incident in the city within the last 12 months. In the previous three cases, Russian officials identified the militants responsible as members of an armed djamaat, or militant Islamic group. In December 2004, armed militants attacked the Nalchik headquarters of the Federal Antinarcotics Service, killing four men. The Yarmuk djamaat, which is said to have links with Basaev, subsequently claimed responsibility for that raid; most of Yarmuk's members were reportedly surrounded and killed in a shootout with police in late January, while police killed several members of a second Djamaat in a similar shootout in late April. Since then, police have conducted a major antiterrorism operation in which they claim to have arrested several dozen suspected militants.

There are believed to be at least 20 djamaats in Kabardino-Balkaria, some of which espouse violence, while others seek to subvert the system peacefully from within by creating what one Russian analyst described as "a separate social space where Russian social and legal norms no longer obtain." It is not clear whether the militants who attacked Nalchik today were all Chechens, or if they included Kabardians and Balkars as well. Under Valerii Kokov, who stepped down last month last month after 15 years as president due to his failing health, Kabardino-Balkaria became a byword for official corruption, economic stagnation, unemployment and intolerance of even the mildest manifestations of religious devoutness (see No Muslims Need Apply).

KBR President Kanokov acknowledged on taking office in late September that the republic's official Muslim clergy have alienated many believers, and he warned them to take immediate measures to win back believers' trust.

Today's violence suggest that such measures may prove too little, too late to counter what Russian deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov recently termed a "bush-fire" of violence that threatens to engulf the entire North Caucasus.

See also:

North Caucasus: No Clear Strategy In Region

What Is The Biggest Threat To Stability In Kabardino-Balkaria?