On February 27, President Dmitry Medvedev made a surprise trip to the North Caucasus, visiting Nalchik in Kabardino-Balkaria and Cherkessk in the neighboring republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The Russian president reiterated that the government remains concerned about the situation in the North Caucasus. Recognizing the growing number of insurgents in the region, Medvedev stated in Kabardino-Balkaria that the extremist forces “have spread like tumors.” In Karachaevo-Cherkessia he called for a steady fight against the extremists, without “hysteria” (RIA Novosti, February 27). President Medvedev has now visited all of the North Caucasian republics with the exception of small and relatively peaceful Adygea.
Earlier this month, the Russian Supreme Court reminded the public about the seriousness of destabilization in the North Caucasus when it took an unexpected step of proclaiming the Caucasus Emirate a terrorist organization and officially outlawed it on February 8. As Russian law provides for those accused of terrorism to appeal the decision, it came into force only on February 25 (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 26).
A number of observers were initially puzzled by the decision of the Russian Supreme Court, because the Caucasus Emirate’s creation was announced by the North Caucasus insurgents’ leader, Doku Umarov, in October 2007. Even the principal coordinator of the fight with the insurgents in Chechnya, Adam Delimkhanov, could not help saying: “It is strange that Umarov’s organization [the Caucasus Emirate] has been recognized as terrorist only now. As if they were not terrorists before” (Kommersant, February 9). Avraam Shmulevich, a commentator on the North Caucasus, ridiculed the court’s decision as it estimated the number of insurgents “from 50 to 1,500.” He wrote: “If, because of 50 or even 1,500 bandits, huge territories, whole federal districts are redrawn [a reference to the recent creation of the North Caucasus Federal District], these [militants] are cyborg-terminators, each of whom is worth 10,000 federal soldiers” (www.apn.ru, February 11).
However, on February 25, the Russian Prosecutor General’s office published a short notice about outlawing the Emirate that might shed some light on the reasons for the Supreme Court’s decision. According to the prosecutors, recognizing the organization as terrorist allows the law enforcement agencies to prosecute not only the active militants who launch the attacks, but also terrorists’ accomplices and ideologues, who act in support of the organization, including providing “informational support.” The announcement by the Prosecutor General’s Office promised that supporters of the Caucasus Emirate would be subject to anti-extremism legislation (www.genproc.gov.ru, February 25).
Determining who is a supporter of extremism can be subject to very wide-ranging interpretations in Russia. Dagestani independent journalists (the freest in the North Caucasus) were recently targeted by the authorities for alleged support of the Islamic insurgency after they criticized the harsh and unlawful practices of the security services in the republic. So the official designation of the Caucasus Emirate as a terrorist organization might legalize prosecutors’ attempts to file criminal cases against virtually any critic of the government’s malpractices in the North Caucasus.
Since the time of its conception in 2007, the Caucasus Emirate has encountered significant resistance and suspicion from the long-time proponents of Chechnya’s independence. Most notably Akhmed Zakaev, the prominent member of Aslan Maskhadov’s government in exile, repeatedly accused Russian security services of being behind this project. According to Zakaev, the Federal Security Service (FSB) staged the Caucasus Emirate to discredit the Chechen national liberation movement and connect it to Islamic extremists and al-Qaeda in order to portray Russia as a victim of the jihadists and align it with Western countries in their war on terror (Kommersant-Vlast, October 26, 2009).
The Kavkaz Center website, the main informational resource of the Caucasus Emirate, denounced Zakaev on several occasions, accusing him of being an “FSB agent.”
While it is hard to be certain about the origins of the Caucasus Emirate since it operates illegally and has no easily accessible spokesperson, some observations can be made by drawing on historical and contemporary events and facts. First, the number of attacks in the North Caucasus has clearly increased since 2007, and 2009 was by far the most deadly year in the past several years. According to the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, there were over 1,100 incidents of violence in 2009 that resulted in more than 900 fatalities, in comparison to 795 incidents and 586 fatalities in 2008 (www.csis.org/program/north-caucasus, January 14).
Second, attempts to bring the different peoples of the ethnically diverse North Caucasus under a single command and utilizing Islamic ideology to fight the Russian invaders have been made since the extension of the Russian empire into the region. There is no reason to believe that historical figures like Shamil and the Caucasus Imamate that he headed in nineteenth century did not have an influence on the current generation of dissenters or even perhaps inspire them.
Third, it is a proven fact that the insurgency phenomenon spread to the other North Caucasian republics and for some time has not been confined within the boundaries of Chechnya. So as the underground militancy grew outside Chechnya, at a certain point Doku Umarov must have been pressed to give recognition to those non-Chechen centers of the rebellion. Announcing a new umbrella organization like the Caucasus Emirate to give credit to all, not just to the Chechen fighters, represented the logical step of including the various ethnic rebel groups in the North Caucasus.
Moscow, in its turn, has been struggling to adjust its policies to the changing environment in the region. The installation of Ramzan Kadyrov-like governments in each of the republics may have been an attractive option for some in Moscow, as it is the only strategy that has yielded some results so far. But each republic in the region has a unique composition of political forces, ethnic make-up and historical background, meaning that Kadyrov’s example can hardly be repeated elsewhere in the region.