The hostage tragedy in North Ossetia, along with a spate of terrorist episodes in Moscow, is prompting scrutiny of the Russian government's policies in the North Caucasus, specifically the renegade province of Chechnya. Moscow's heavy-handed actions, featuring a reliance on force, are widening the gap between the local population and the Kremlin-supported governing apparatus in the region. This trend could easily fuel an expansion of violence.
The past 10 days have been arguably the most difficult of Russian President Vladimir Putin's presidency. Putin has staked his reputation on his ability to bring stability to Russia. His image has taken a big hit from the suicide bombings that brought down two Russian passenger jets, followed by another terrorist bombing in Moscow that left nine dead and dozens wounded. And now, Putin is confronting a hostage tragedy in which at leat 350 people have died.
Putin has been quick to attribute the series of tragedies to international terrorism, suggesting that Chechen militants are the driving force behind the incidents. That may indeed be true. However, the Kremlin's own policies are also acting as a catalyst for militant action.
In the North Caucasus, the lines separating political and military/security leaders is becoming increasingly blurred. One of the chief instruments of Russian policy has been the tendency to anoint regional leaders who are closely linked to either regional or federal security services. In Ingushetia, the Kremlin installed Gen. Murat Zyazikov as president in 2002. The recent election of Alu Alkhanov, who previously served as Chechnya's Interior Minister, offers further evidence of the increasing politicization of the security services.
The continued politicization of the security sector heightens the prospect of regime separation. Already, the brutal tactics employed by authorities – embodied by the notorious "cleansing operations" in which individuals are rounded up and disappeared – have alienated a large slice of the regional population. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Now, it seems that a vicious cycle based on violence is starting to spin faster, with local leaders behaving in an increasingly unaccountable manner, prompting the number of the disaffected to grow.
As the crisis between government and society escalates, leadership grounded in the security sector tends to respond with force in an effort to control events. Reliance on force perpetuates the emergence of quasi-government controlled militias such as the "Kadyrovsky" group in Chechnya. Operating on the fringes of government authority and collaborating with criminal elements, the Kadyrovsky group perpetuates the perception of government incompetence and corruption, while heightening the population's hatred for all security forces.
Repression also cultivates the development of religious movements and opposition groups as avenues for popular expression. Regional residents - frustrated with a government that neither protects nor respects them – are tending to sympathize with opposition groups, and may establish havens for the groups' members. In addition, as frustration mounts the number of recruits flowing into the radical Islamic camp seems to grow. Reports indicate that upwards to 10 percent of the Chechen population now supports extremist elements.
The Kremlin's security challenge appears to be expanding as terrorist groups from across the Caucasus-Central Asia arc reportedly are strengthening ties. Recent reports from Uzbekistan indicated that Uzbek security forces captured Chechens in a recent roundup of suspected extremists. And in a recent interview, Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov did not deny the presence of al Qaeda in Chechnya. The emerging terror coalition makes it easier for militants to find recruits and funding for operations in the North Caucasus and beyond. Moreover, the continuing anarchy in Chechnya ensures that extremists can use the region as a relatively safe base of operations.
The local population in Ingushetia is opposed to war, and those in Chechnya are undoubtedly war weary. Nevertheless, the region appears headed for an upswing in violence, given the Kremlin's dependency on the use of force, and the expansion of contacts among militant groups. Existing Kremlin policies lack the sophistication needed to win the hearts and minds of North Caucasus residents – the key to ending the violence in the region.
There are indicators that a silent majority of Chechens and others in the region are loyal to Moscow, or at least willing to accept Russian authority. The Kremlin won't be able to utilize this underlying support unless it moves away from policies based on coercion, and embraces a system of governance that is more responsive to local needs and sensitivities. The regions of the North Caucasus will need leaders who are not so closely associated to security services if those local governing bodies are to be recognized by the governed as legitimate.
Dr. Peter Kent Forster is an instructor of Political Science at Penn State and the Associate Director of Academic Programs for Penn States on-line university. Dr. Forsters research interests include national security policy and civil-military affairs. He is the co-author on a forthcoming book entitled NATO, the US, and Military Burden Sharing and has written articles related to American policy in the Caucasus and Uzbekistan. Dr. Forster is active member of NATOs Partnership for Peace Consortium.