On February 2, the leader of the North Caucasus rebels Doku Umarov made an astonishing statement in support of the growing movement in Russia against Vladimir Putin. In a dramatic departure from the previously circulated views, the head of the Caucasus Emirate called on the rebels to stop attacks against Russian civilians. In a short video recording posted on the rebels’ primary website Kavkazcenter, Umarov spoke against a wintery background, presumably in the North Caucasus mountains, flanked by two young militants. Referring to the mass demonstrations against fraudulent parliamentary elections and the Russian government in general, Umarov said: “The peaceful population of Russia does not support the Cheka regime of Putin… [T]hese people are hostages to the same regime that brutally fights against Islam on the territory of the Caucasus.” Given the new circumstances, Umarov said, “the Mujahedeen must protect this civilian population” since these people do not fight against Muslims, but rather oppose Putin’s regime that attacks Islam in the North Caucasus. The Caucasus Emirate leader said that people of Russia are also exploited by the regime in Moscow and oppose this regime and therefore should not come under attack by the rebels. Umarov issued direct orders to curb operations that are in progress, if civilians might suffer in these attacks. Instead, Doku Umarov called on the insurgents to focus their efforts on attacking law enforcement agencies, the military, the security services, state officials and the so-called “national traitors” or “collaborators” (http://kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2012/02/03/88591.shtml, February 2).
For years the North Caucasus rebels habitually attacked civilians across Russia, mostly in Moscow and the North Caucasus, on the grounds that they were legitimate targets since they initially supported war in Chechnya and then throughout the North Caucasus. The last notorious attack against civilians in Moscow took place on January 24, 2011, when a 21-year-old man from Ingushetia carried out suicide attack in the Moscow airport of Domodedovo. The attack killed 37 people and left 170 people injured. Doku Umarov took responsibility for the attack and Russian investigators confirmed his responsibility (http://newsru.com/russia/24jan2012/dvo.html, January 24).
According to Avram Shmulevich, an Israeli expert on the Caucasus, if the North Caucasus’ insurgents abstain from targeting the civilian population, it would have a “radical impact” on the course of insurgency war in the region. Terror attacks against Russian civilians did not benefit the “Islamist underground,” writes Shmulevich, while the Russian government benefited from them, posing as its people’s protector. “Death of the civil population cannot have an impact on the Russian government’s policies, because the Kremlin is totally independent from its population. In the Russian Federation there are no mechanisms of people’s influence on the government; precisely because of that, this type of terrorism cannot lead to political changes,” Shmulevich warned. To improve their international standing and their acceptance in Russia, the North Caucasus insurgency should abide by the policy of not targeting the civilian population, Shmulevich concluded (http://avrom-caucasus.livejournal.com/155725.html).
Doku Umarov’s statement arrived two days before the loose coalition of the Russian opposition forces scheduled a protest march in Moscow. The march For Fair Elections is scheduled to take place on February 4 in central Moscow. As of February 2, over 27,000 people indicated they would come for the march and another 6,000 showed they might attend it on the event’s page in Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/events/212286018856867/).
The Russian public is unlikely to change its negative attitude toward the North Caucasus insurgents as the result of Umarov’s statement to stop targeting civilians. Official Moscow may even try to portray the Russian opposition as “terrorists’ allies.” Still, this statement neutralizes possible plots of the Russian government officials to ban public protests under the pretext of “terrorism threat.” Also if an attack against civilians still takes place in the run up to the presidential elections on March 4, it will be harder for the government to blame it on the insurgents, while the latter also will be dis-incentivized to assume responsibility for it. In his statement, Umarov said that if an attack against civilians takes place, it should be regarded as “a provocation of an agonizing Cheka regime” (http://kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2012/02/03/88591.shtml, February 2).
The situation in Russia quickly changes, opposition figures get access to the state controlled TV, Vladimir Putin offers “coalition government” for the opposition, but it is still unclear what the outcome of the March 4 elections will be. One of the most prolific Russian nationalist commentators, Alexander Prokhanov proclaimed that an “orange revolution” in Russia already started (http://echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/854232-echo/#element-text, February 1). Putin’s political maneuverings with proposals to return direct governors’ elections, form a coalition government, ascribe to ethnic Russians a special role of “state-founding people” to appease Russian nationalists, and other initiatives have found little support so far as his popularity rating drops below 50 percent. With the Caucasus Emirate’s announcement to abstain from attacks against civilians, Putin is deprived of yet another card that he may have used to boost his popularity. The emerging situation is one of uncertainty and transition to a new political equilibrium. In the words of the political strategist who was close to the Kremlin until recently, Gleb Pavlovsky: “Putin faces a real problem with ruling the country because the old system [of governance] ceased to exist after what happened on December 10, last year” (http://www.ng.ru/politics/2012-02-03/1_trap.html, February 3).
The latest initiative of the Caucasus Emirate points to a potential peace settlement in the North Caucasus, if the government changes in Moscow result in bringing to power a new generation of Russian politicians. Neither the political change in Russia nor the peace settlement in the North Caucasus should be taken for granted. However, peaceful transition in the region becomes one of the distinct possibilities, as signs emerge of evolution of Russian politics toward a more participatory political model.