Early last year Russian President Vladimir Putin solemnly declared, “Armed confrontations and conflicts are becoming history. Even in the most difficult territory, the Chechen republic, the peace process is becoming irreversible” (grani.ru, March 3, 2004). Putin then called for investment in the North Caucasus.
However, his invitation has had few takers. Rosneft and Gazprom, two of Russia’s largest companies, have so far resisted pressure from the Russian authorities urging them to be more active in Chechnya. Yet these two locomotives of the Russian economy do not want to waste their money on a politically motivated campaign, and they have pointed to the lingering instability and extremely difficult business conditions in the republic.
Nevertheless, Chechnya is not the entire Caucasus and perhaps Russian and foreign businesses might find another republic more hospitable.
On May 26, a large international business forum called, “Dagestan: New Regional Possibilities” will convene in Makhachkala, the capital of the republic. Delegates from various Russian regions and potential investors from Turkey, Germany, France, Italy, and other countries are expected to attend (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 23). The conference is the brainchild of Zakhir Arukhov, Dagestan’s minister for national policy, information, and external affairs.
Arukhov, a talented scholar and politician, assumed that post in 2003 after the assassination of Magomedsalikh Gusaev. Locals believe that Islamist rebels killed Gusaev in retaliation for the counter-wahhabi propaganda orchestrated by his office. Arukhov softened the anti-insurgency propaganda and managed to persuade two former rebel ideologists living abroad (Adallo Aliev and Sirazhutdin Ramazanov) to return to Dagestan and admit their “mistakes” in public.
Their confession was used to portray Dagestan as a peaceful and prosperous place for the international community. The business forum will be a key component of this image makeover. The Kremlin also hopes to use the conference as “proof” of its successful policy in the North Caucasus. Dmitry Kozak, Putin’s special envoy to the Southern Federal District, is expected to attend the forum (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 23).
Nevertheless, the event will be overshadowed by Arukhov’s violent death on May 20. He was killed by a bomb that exploded at the entrance to his apartment complex. His bodyguard also died as a result of the blast. Sharia Jamaat, the Dagestani rebel group, claimed responsibility for Arukhov’s assassination, calling him “an enemy of Islam” and “an old KGB agent” (Kavkazcenter, May 21). Russian and local authorities were shocked by the murder, and a team of officers from the Interior Ministry (MVD) and Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters rushed to Dagestan to investigate (Interfax, May 20).
Arukhov’s assassination is one of many reasons for the international business community to shy away from Dagestan. Despite media censorship, it is becoming clear that the widespread criminal violence in the republic is slowly turning into a guerilla war against Russian troops. On May 19, a military truck was bombed in the town of Buinaksk, the base of the 136th Motorized Brigade of the Russian Army. The number of casualties is unknown, but Interfax-AVN reported that shrapnel had seriously damaged the windows and wheels of the truck (Interfax-AVN, May 19).
The rebels also intensified their attacks in Ingushetia. On May 23, two powerful roadside bombs blew up a column of the 121st regiment of the MVD troops. Reportedly 13 servicemen were wounded, including two top commanders (Newsru, May 24). The reconnaissance unit immediately started to comb the woods near the explosion looking for a rebel group, and a soldier stepped on a mine near the village of Nesterovskaya (RIA-Novosti, May 24).
The most interesting aspect of this story is the appearance in Ingushetia of units from the 121st regiment. The regiment is permanently based in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria. Newsru reports that units of the regiment were sent to Ingushetia to reinforce the 126th MVD regiment already stationed in the republic. They were sent for search operations near the Ingush village of Galashki in the southern mountainous part of the region. A column of the regiment was bombed while the servicemen were returning from Galashki to Nazran, “the place of their temporary location” (Newsru, May 24).
Why would Moscow send more troops from Kabardino-Balkaria to Ingushetia, a republic already bursting with men in uniform? In addition to the 126th MVD regiment, the 503rd regiment of the Russian Army and many special-task police units are currently in the region. This reinforcement of the Ingush military and police is likely connected with reports of a squad of about 300 gunmen who had been seen in Ingushetia near the Ossetian border. At the same time, gazeta.ru reports that 20 gunmen were seen in the southeastern outskirts of Vladikavkaz, the Ossetian capital (gazeta.ru, May 20). On May 20, lessons were canceled in all schools in two districts, and police units were also put in alert in Ingushetia (gazeta.ru and Ingushetiya.ru, May 21).
Recent events suggest that “the irreversible peace process” has been accompanied with efforts to turn the Caucasus into one huge battleground. Unfortunately, the theater of war is not the best investment zone for businessmen who expect a profit.