Russia’s President Vladimir Putin urged a radical restructuring of the country’s security system after the hostage crisis in North Ossetia ended in a major bloodbath. But some influential analysts argue that the Kremlin’s policies in the Caucasus need to be drastically changed to prevent a scenario whereby Russia’s southern border may retreat to the Don River.
As the death toll from the chaotic battle that ended the siege in the town of Beslan rose to over 350, Putin admitted that Russian authorities had failed to recognize or react effectively to the threats facing the country. The Russian leader ordered the creation of a more effective system of security. Putin specifically charged the power ministries with building “a new system of forces and means for exercising control over the situation in the North Caucasus.”
Political analysts have long warned about the spread of instability from war-torn Chechnya to the other autonomous republics of the North Caucasus. The recent string of terrorist acts, including the June raid in Ingushetia and the recent hostage taking in North Ossetia, testify to the fact that the Kremlin failed to localize the Chechen conflict, some regional experts say. The potential for conflict is being increased by the attempts of Georgia’s Saakashvili government to reunite that country and re-establish Tbilisi’s sovereignty over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Now, “Russia is actually facing a whole range of multi-vector threats coming from the Caucasus Range,” notes one commentator.
In the opinion of Russian security experts, the devastating terrorist attack in North Ossetia could seriously undermine stability on Russia’s southern flank. Against the backdrop of a possible re-escalation in South Ossetia, they contend, the North Ossetian region, until recently viewed as the main bridgehead for Moscow’s rule in the Caucasus, could quickly turn into a kind of Russian Bosnia. Two conflicts may flare up there — an ethnic and religious conflict between Christian Ossetians and Muslim Ingush in the north, and ethno-territorial conflict in the south between Georgians and Ossetians.
The analysts are concerned most with the threat that the hostage crisis poses to Ossetian-Ingush relations. These two peoples have lived an uneasy coexistence since the end of the 1950s, when Ingush returning from deportation under Stalin found part of their former territory incorporated into North Ossetia. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ossetians and Ingush fought a brief but bloody war over the disputed land that resulted in 600 deaths and almost total expulsion of the Ingush from the Prigorodny region, which they had tried to reclaim. Of late, they have begun to slowly come back and live side-by-side with Ossetians again. At present, of the 35,000 Ingush who lived in the Prigorodny region before the 1992 war, around 15,000 have returned.
The assertion that Ingush gunmen participated in the attack on Beslan could easily explode the precarious peace between the two neighbors. According to Sergei Arutyunov, the head of the Caucasus Department at the Moscow-based Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, “The conflict in the Prigorodny region can resume and this will lead to major bloodshed.”
The Kremlin appears to understand the reality of this danger. “One of the tasks pursued by the terrorists was to stoke ethnic hatred, to blow up the whole of our North Caucasus,” Putin told security officials when he visited Beslan early Saturday morning. “Anyone who feels sympathetic towards such provocations will be viewed as accomplices of terrorists and terrorism,” warned the Russian president. He also ordered the North Ossetian border sealed.
While there is a consensus within the Russian analytic community that the dual tension in North and South Ossetia presents a grave threat to Russia’s security, the experts disagree on which strategy Moscow should pursue to protect its national interests in the Caucasus. More hawkish commentators suggest Russia should take a much tougher stance toward Tbilisi. They flatly say that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s aggressive attempts to re-establish control over the renegade province of South Ossetia objectively helped the terrorists to strike in Russia’s North Caucasus. As Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin-connected head of the Effective Policy Foundation, contends, those who planned a terrorist act in Beslan wouldn’t choose Ossetia as a target if Saakashvili hadn’t “unfrozen the Ossetian issue.”
In contrast, another group of analysts urges the Kremlin to seek a comprehensive accommodation with Tbilisi in South Ossetia. The conflict-fraught situation in North Ossetia, Arutyunov argues, should prompt Russia to start building a peace process in the southern enclave, which de jure belongs to Georgia. The end result of this process, Arutyunov contends, should be a full-fledged and internationally guaranteed autonomy of South Ossetia within Georgia. For Moscow, he continues, Tbilisi’s friendship and assistance are absolutely necessary to prevent the conflict from spreading beyond Chechnya to the entire territory of the North Caucasus.
More liberal-minded regional specialists advocate an urgent shift in the Kremlin’s Caucasus strategy, saying the consequences of Russia’s current policies might be “catastrophic” for the country. The mere revamping and strengthening of security forces, as Putin demands, will not help Russia meet the challenges it faces in its southern underbelly. “If there are no [policy] changes, Russia will be drawn into the endless war with the terrorists and will suffer one defeat after the other,” argues the liberal Russian lawmaker Vladimir Ryzhkov. Although Moscow probably does not risk losing the North Caucasus today, in the worst-case scenario Russian may be forced to retreat from the region (Strana.ru, August 2; Izvestiya, August 4; Vremya novostei, August 3; Russ.ru, August 5; Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 6).