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Why Is The North Caucasus An Unholy Mess?

PHOTO GALLERY: The Eight Horsemen Of The North Caucasus Apocalypse (click photo above)

By Liz Fuller

Over the past 15 years, Russia's North Caucasus has become a byword for war, destruction, human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, corruption, economic collapse, and Islamic terrorism. Last year, 754 people were killed in ongoing low-level hostilities -- two a day on average.

On August 12, gunmen killed two police officers after Friday Prayers at a mosque in Khasavyurt, Daghestan, near the border with Chechnya. A day later, in the nearby village of Kurush, a local fire chief was shot and killed while driving his car.

The region is variously compared to a tinderbox ready to erupt, a cancer on the body of the Russian Federation, and a financial black hole that absorbs without trace billions of rubles intended to promote stabilization and desperately needed economic development.

How did a predominantly rural, mountainous region of fewer than 10 million people degenerate so swiftly into chaos, misery, endless bloodshed, and religious and social polarization?

That process was triggered and perpetuated by the short-sighted, misguided, self-serving and amoral actions of a small handful of men. On the one hand, Russia's leaders and their local satraps pinned their careers and reputations to retaining control initially over Chechnya, and then over the North Caucasus as a whole. On the other, the local population took up arms against them, first in the name of Chechen independence, but now increasingly under the banner of Islam.

'Restore Constitutional Order'

The struggle began when then Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent the Russian Army into Chechnya in December 1994 to "restore constitutional order." In November 1990, Chechnya's mercurial president, former Soviet Air Force General Dzhokhar Dudayev, had signed a sovereignty declaration that the population construed as cementing the republic's emergence as an independent state. And for almost three years after the collapse of the USSR in December 1991, Chechnya indeed functioned independently of Moscow.

Yeltsin's Defense Minister Pavel Grachev boasted that Dudayev could be ousted and Chechnya brought to heel by a "small victorious war." But the Chechens, collectively psychologically scarred by the memory of the entire nation's deportation by Stalin to Central Asia in 1944, mobilized en masse and fought back, David against the Russian Goliath. Dudayev was killed in April 1996, but in August that year several hundred Chechen fighters succeeded in retaking the capital, Grozny, and forced Moscow to sign a peace agreement and withdraw its defeated troops.

But the peace was short-lived. True, in May 1997 Yeltsin signed an agreement with Dudayev's successor as president, Aslan Maskhadov, which referred to the Chechen Republic Ichkeria as a "state" with which Moscow pledged to structure relations "in accordance with the universally accepted principles and norms of international law." But Moscow failed to provide funds to restore the republic's devastated infrastructure and create new jobs. That neglect played into the hands of rival bands of demobilized Chechen fighters who turned to banditry and hostage-taking and, increasingly, came under the influence of purist Salafi Islam.

The radical Islamist faction was headed by field commander Shamil Basayev, the mastermind of the June 1995 seizure of hundreds of civilian hostages in the south Russian town of Budyonnovsk, and Saudi jihadist Khattab. Having sidelined the secular nationalist Maskhadov, they invaded neighboring Daghestan in August 1999 and proclaimed an independent North Caucasus state. That incursion furnished the Russian authorities with the excuse they needed to launch a second war and paved the way for the election of Vladimir Putin to succeed the ailing and ineffective Yeltsin as Russian president.

'Stabilizing' Chechnya

The second time around, the Russian Army avoided the tactical errors it had made during the first war. Within months, the Chechen resistance forces retreated from Grozny at night through a snow-covered minefield, losing hundreds of men, and headed for the southern mountains. They are still entrenched there, sallying forth at intervals from a network of well-equipped underground bases to attack Russian troops.

Putin's plan for "stabilizing" Chechnya hinged on tasking pro-Moscow Chechen officials headed by former mufti Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov with stamping out the last vestiges of resistance and providing virtually unlimited funds for postconflict reconstruction. When Kadyrov was killed in May 2004, Putin continued to back his son, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Since his formal confirmation as Chechen Republic head in March 2007 at the age of 30, Kadyrov has successfully overseen large-scale reconstruction that has transformed Grozny from a rubble-strewn battlefield into a functioning city. But his continued reliance on brute force against anyone suspected of sympathizing with the Islamic insurgency and his opulent lifestyle in the face of chronic poverty and deprivation have made him the most hated and feared man in Chechnya.

Meanwhile, "preventive strikes" against suspected Islamist fighters outside Chechnya impelled more and more angry and alienated young men to join the insurgency ranks, and thus contributed to the spillover into neighboring republics of what had begun in 1994-95 as a battle to defend Chechen independence.

In Ingushetia, Putin's former FSB crony Murat Zyazikov gave the green light for the abduction and summary execution of hundreds of blameless young men whose brothers retaliated by flocking to fight under Basayev's banner. They killed nearly 80 police and security personnel in one night of revenge attacks in June 2004.

Further west in Kabardino-Balkaria, local police systematically harassed, detained, and tortured young practicing Muslim men. Basayev recruited them, too. In a wakeup call to Moscow, his fighters launched similar attacks in Nalchik, the republican capital, in October 2005.

Islam As New Ideology

As the flames of insurgency spread, Islam gradually superseded the original ideology of national liberation. In late 2007, then Chechen president and insurgency commander Doku Umarov formally abjured the cause of Chechen independence and proclaimed himself head of a virtual Caucasus Emirate. More recently, he has pledged to "liberate" Russian regions far from the Caucasus that have historically been populated by Muslims.

Umarov's positioning of the insurgency as part of a global jihad enabled Moscow to rationalize the ongoing indiscriminate reprisals in the North Caucasus as part of the war on terror. So, too, did the terrorist attacks launched by new recruits to the militants' ranks. Aleksandr Tikhomirov (aka Said Buryatsky) a convert to Islam from Buryatia and a hugely popular ideologist of jihad, staged two car bombings in Ingushetia in 2009, one of which narrowly missed killing Zyazikov's successor as president, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov. Daghestani Magomed Vagapov (aka Seyfullakh Gubdensky) recruited the two women from Daghestan who blew themselves up in the Moscow metro in March 2010, killing 40 people and injuring a further 95.

Yevkurov and Daghestan's President Magomedsalam Magomedov have both appealed repeatedly to young fighters to lay down their arms and return to peaceful civilian life. But only a few dozen have availed themselves of that offer, far fewer than continue to "head for the forest" to join the insurgents' ranks. Ninety-six fighters were killed in Daghestan during the first six months of this year, compared with 53 in Kabardino-Balkaria and 27 in Chechnya. As Magomedov complained last month: "You kill two fighters and four more spring up to take their place."

The insurgency is certainly not the only problem the North Caucasus faces. But as the most visible one, it eclipses the others, which is one reason why for years the Kremlin channeled into fighting it funds that could otherwise have been spent on badly needed economic and infrastructure development and creating new jobs.

Shift In Focus

When Dmitry Kozak, Putin's intelligent and perceptive point man for the North Caucasus from 2004-07, argued the need to address other problems plaguing the region -- entrenched corrupt elites, crime, human rights abuses, interethnic tensions, disputes over the use of land, economic stagnation, unemployment -- he was ignored.

Only when Dmitry Medvedev succeeded Putin as Russian president did the focus shift. Many observers doubt, however, whether the grandiose 15-year plan to exploit the region's tourism potential recently unveiled by Deputy Prime Minister and North Caucasus Federal District head Aleksandr Khloponin can turn the tide. The specter of terrorism already deters most investors from financing projects even in those republics (North Ossetia, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Adygeya) where the insurgency has made only minimal inroads to date. Moreover, the maladies afflicting the region are immune to a "quick fix," even if large-scale investment could provide one.

Russian nationalists increasingly advocate allowing the North Caucasus to secede. But that would play into the hands of the Islamic militants fighting to transform the virtual Caucasus Emirate into a functioning state. Those fighters have reportedly already threatened to inflicting the maximum carnage on spectators and participants in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi on the Black Sea coast.

At least for the next few years, Moscow has no choice but to continue the struggle to retain its grasp on the region. But that struggle is motivated more by prestige and a residual imperial mindset than by concern for the fate of the millions of Russian citizens for whom it is home.