The Moscow metro blasts of March 29, 2010, have raised new questions about the effectiveness of the ten-year-old Russian operation in the North Caucasus that has alarmed human rights activists and now seemingly failed to prevent new attacks reaching metropolitan Russia. The female bombers, identified by Russia’s Federal Security Service as Mariam Sharipova and Dzhennet Abdullaeva, were both from the republic of Dagestan, a region on the Caspian Sea in the Russian Caucasus. The majority Islamic Caucasian republics of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia have been the source of numerous attacks in Russia since 1999, when bombs destroyed three Moscow apartment blocks.

As Russia now tries to coordinate a response to these latest attacks, the main Russian human rights organizations Memorial and COVA as well as political commentators, Dmitri Trenin, Alexei Malashenko and Pavel Baev are alarmed that President Dmitri Medvedev may be prepared to allow a new crackdown in the region. This option is being pushed by powerful figures in the Kremlin and United Russia, the ruling political party. On March 30, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pledged to “drag the terrorists from the depths of the sewers,” and influential Parliamentary Speaker Boris Gryzlov demanded the government take harsher measures to destroy potential militants, telling RIANovosti, “It is too late to rehabilitate them.” What are the root causes of Caucasian violence and what is the nature of the threat to Russia? Would a new crack down solve the problems in the region and why have efforts in the last 10 years failed to halt the violence? Finally, what new measures can be taken to reduce violence in the Caucasus?

An old and on-going conflict

Moscow has been free of major militant attacks since the 2006 market bombing that killed ten people, but these latest explosions came only weeks before the anniversary of the official end of the Counter Terrorist Operation (CTO) in Chechnya in April 2009.

Moscow’s struggle to retain control of the majority Muslim republics of the Caucasus goes back to the Tsarist Russian occupation of the region in 1864 and the subsequent Chechen wars of 1996-94 and 1999, during which Chechen nationalists attempted to break away from Russia. When the Russian army returned to Chechnya in 1999 the campaign to re-establish federal control was surprisingly quick but, as Dmitri Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Center for International Peace pointed out at the time, “The country’s political authorities virtually allowed the Russian military to conduct the warfare carte blanche.” Over 20,000 Russian troops were kept in the republic and faced continued attacks from the estimated 15,000 separatists in the southern mountains.

Russia claims that the re-occupation of Chechnya was required to prevent further republics from breaking away from the center. After September 11th 2001 Moscow claimed that fighting Islamic separatism in the Caucasus was part of the global ‘war on terrorism.’ The Chechen separatist view is more fractured due to the split between Chechen nationalists and Chechen Islamists, but both agree in the cause of fighting for separation from the Russians who they claim are oppressors. This is aggravated by Stalin’s wholesale deportation of the Chechen people to Central Asia in the 1940’s as he felt he could not count on their loyalty. Violence has since spilled over into the neighbouring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia, finally reaching Moscow itself.

The situation in Chechnya since 1999 has been one of violence followed by additional violence. Attacks by Chechen separatists are regular and Oleg Orlov, head of Memorial Human Rights Group, says that 85 law enforcement officers have been killed between April 2009 and March 2010 as well as 168 injured. Attacks have also taken place in Russia itself, most notably the Moscow theatre siege of 2002 and the killing of 330 school children in the North Ossetian town of Beslan in 2004. Now the list has grown to include the 40 killed in the Moscow metro bombings. On the day of the attacks, Russians streaming out of the metro system voiced their anger and suspicion. 57-year-old pensioner Nina Ivanovna put the blame squarely on Chechnya. “It’s the Chechens. They will never let us live in peace. […] They hate us, and they will always hate us.” According to a poll taken on April 13th by VTsIOM, the Russian state-run polling agency, 75 percent of Russians believe that terrorism can only be defeated by force. The years of attacks in metropolitan Russia and the war and abuses in the Caucasus have clearly not created sympathy in Russia.

Since 2007 Russia has been trying to present the conflict in Chechnya as over, and has handed more power to loyal Chechen boss Razman Kadyrov. However, Kadyrov’s administration has done little to heal wounds between Russians and Chechens. Moscow’s policy seems to be that as long as the region’s violence is contained they will turn a blind eye to Kadyrov’s methods. Human rights abuses by the police and security services have allegedly become commonplace in an effort to suppress the separatist movement according to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Memorial. In 2008 alone 42 people were abducted, and only 5 were later “discovered” in state detention centers. The rest remain missing or were found dead, seemingly the victims of robberies but bearing signs of torture. Memorial, in its 2009 report on the situation in the 3 Caucasian republics, also provides examples of extra judicial killings by government militias. For example, on July 7th in the Chechen village of Dzhururty, a man named Akhkinche-Borzoy Rizvan was allegedly shot to death in the square after denying he had helped the rebels. His killers then warned watchers that the same fate would befall everyone who assisted the rebels. Kadyrov is also prone to making proclamations on the state run Grozny TV channel encouraging families to bear responsibility for their children fighting with the separatists, saying on May 23rd, “I swear by Allah, that we will allow only those to live here on Chechen grounds, who bring their children home! They either have to bring their bastard-children home, to imprison them or kill them.”

Young Chechens continue to join groups, either of Chechen nationalist fighters or the foreign fighters who come from the rest of the Muslim world to fight Russia because of religious zeal. Violence by the security services and the rise of radical Islam in social aspects of the republic create more violence in the form of radicalizing youth and drives more recruits into the hands of figures such Doku Umarov, who calls himself ‘The Emir of the Caucasus Emirate,’ and continues to attack pro-Russian forces. Umarov himself has taken credit for ordering the March 29th bombings, saying in an internet statement “I told you, the Russians, that now you only see the war on your TV screens, and you don’t respond to the crimes of the FSB (security agency) bandits and to the crimes of (Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin himself.”

President Medvedev admitted as recently as June 2009 that the illusion of peace in the region was just that, an illusion. He is not blind to larger issues however, expressing his belief in his speech of August 19th 2009 that the main problems in the Caucasus are unemployment, poverty, clan politics and corruption especially in the law enforcement agencies. The UN Transnational Workplan has said in recent years that Chechen unemployment is much higher than the Russian average and the displacement of Chechen refugees to Dagestan and Ingushetia have added to these regions’ own employment problems. According to Kadyrov himself Chechnya’s unemployment rate is over 50 percent.

Federal response, a policy doomed to failure?

In response to the March 29th bombings Medvedev has presented his new plan to deal with the threat emanating from the Caucasus, while visiting the capital of Dagestan on April 1st. While these measures called for addressing social and economic shortcomings, emphasis was clearly on beefing up the work of the police and security services in the three republics and hunting down militants. Medvedev also appeared to support the Chechen government position of putting responsibility on families and friends of the accused telling, RIA Novosti that there could now be no leniency to people who assist militants. “It is not important what they do – make soup or wash their clothes.”

The indicators are growing that Medvedev might be prepared to emulate the tough policies of his predecessor Vladimir Putin as he described the planners of the most recent attacks as “animals,” who needed to be hunted down and eliminated. Already in the first two weeks of April, the Russian government has taken steps to ready the public for new action. First, on the 9th of April the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda published the names and personal details of 22 Chechen war widows. Citizens were warned they could be ‘black widows,’ as female Chechen suicide bombers have been dubbed, and to keep an eye out for them. According to a Daily Telegraph article published April 22nd this information was leaked to Pravda by the Russian security services. Since then, one of the women, Aisha Makasharipova has said that she is being followed by cars with tinted glass. “This is absurd,” Makasharipova told Radio Free Europe on April 14th, “I am the mother of four children. My life is full. I go to work, come home, take care of my children, and go to work again.” Abdullah Duduyev, editor of the Chechen-language magazine Dosh, told Radio Free Europe that he and other Chechens in Moscow are saddened by what happened on March 29th and that those killed were “innocent people.” But in the aftermath of the attacks it would be Chechens who would suffer.

Speaking to TIME magazine, Pavel Baev, an expert on the North Caucasus for the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, warns that whereas Medvedev had previously been stressing his background as a lawyer and a defender of human rights, he was now simply talking of “eliminating” militant suspects. The Russian measures mean a more dangerous and brutal phase of Russia’s operations in the Caucasus is beginning, which Baev says could see federal law enforcement officers adopt the same methods as the Chechen leadership. “Now the heads of the security forces have the green light to act with maximum harshness, including against the families of terrorists,” Writing in the Eurasia Daily Monitor on April 12th, Baev said “This ‘securitization’ clearly does not suit his [Medvedev] personal quasi-liberal preferences and goes against the “Putinism-lite” style of his presidency […] the North Caucasus has demanded from Medvedev, however, answers to increasingly tough questions.” But, he warned Medvedev has little chance of succeeding with a new counter-offensive against Caucasian militants because, like many insurgent conflicts, the enemy cannot be identified.

Alexei Malashenko, from the Moscow Carnegie Institute agrees, writing in the Moscow Times that Kremlin officials clearly have no idea what to do next. “On the one hand, the direct application of force is no longer effective. Sending Federal forces to the region evokes hostility from the local people and only escalates tensions. On the other hand, it is unrealistic and even dangerous to give full authority to local officials to solve their own problems, given the widespread lack of trust they have among the people.” Malashenko says that the largest problem is the rule of Kadyrov. The human and political costs associated with his rule are damaging Russian efforts to stabilize the region.

Leadership and rebuilding

Malashenko’s colleague at the Carnegie Institute, Dmitri Trenin, in contrast, wrote in a 2008 article entitled ‘Russia and Terrorism’ that Russian efforts to halt Caucasian violence and subsequent attacks in Russia depend entirely on the success of installing cooperative local leaders rather than ruling directly. He does not endorse Kadyrov, but says the key to success is finding Caucasian leaders who will cooperate in peaceful reconstruction and who will not steal reconstruction funds or look to violence as the first option to solve difficulties. However, he writes, “That is a tall order.”

Encouragingly, it is at the level of regional government in the Caucasus that there are signs of change in dealing with Caucasian violence. While Moscow and Grozny choose to remain silent about alleged abductions, extrajudicial killings and torture, the President of Ingushetia, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, is publicly demonstrating his preference for observance of law and dialogue, while still talking of the need to fight the rebels. According to Memorial’s 2009 situation report, Yevkurov, who was injured in an attempted assassination bombing in June 2009 but returned to office in August, often meets with the parents of abducted children and killed rebels, discussing solutions to their issues and grievances. He even attempted in June 2009, during Medvedev’s visit to the Caucasus to discuss with him the case of two young Ingush men who had disappeared in his republic.

These steps mirror the recommendations of Amnesty International’s Secretary General Irene Khan. In a report published April 17, 2009 Khan wrote: “Without true respect for the rule of law from all sides, and a genuine commitment to address the festering legacy left by the blatant failure of political will at all levels to prevent and punish a catalogue of grievous abuses there can be no stability and security for the people in Chechnya as well as in the rest of the Russian Federation.”

Malashenko and Trenin both agree there is a need for Russia’s military in the region, but only to prevent violence. Rather than, as Malashenko put it in his paper ‘Losing the Caucasus’ “actually eradicating it at its roots.” Rebuilding must also be undertaken in the security services, Dmitri Trenin recommends. In the wake of the Moscow metro bombings, Russia needs well equipped and re-vamped police, military and intelligence services to provide protection and root out the un-professionalism and corruption in these services, identified by the President.

Something generally agreed upon by Trenin, Malashenko, and the Kremlin, as well no doubt, as ordinary Chechens is the need, in the long term, to rebuild Chechnya’s shattered economy so as to provide opportunities to the local people and decrease support for separatism and violence. In this respect Malashenko points out the upcoming Sochi 2014 winter Olympic Games as a hopeful event. It may give the region a much needed kick start. The games will inject money locally and bring a large amount of tourists to the region, as long as security is assured.