On July 5, President Dmitry Medvedev took part in a meeting of the presidential council for the development of civil society and human rights, which was held in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria. The activities of the law enforcement agencies in the North Caucasus came under severe criticism by the council members. Kirill Kabanov, chairman of the Moscow-based National Anti-Corruption Committee, stated that it was plausible to suggest that “escalation of the terrorist extremist threat in Russia was advantageous for some government employees, including the law enforcement agencies,” because of the resources and influence these organizations and individuals gain. Just a single day of a counterterrorist operation regime costs $100,000 or more, Kabanov said. According to Kabanov, political extremism is an unimportant factor in the current instability in the North Caucasus as the vast majority of the insurgents are driven by “personal vengeance, fear that they may be linked to terrorists, a disturbed feeling of justice.” Kabanov called on the government to create “negotiation spaces” to lower the terrorism threat in the North Caucasus (https://kremlin.ru, July 5).
Kabanov’s frank statements may signal how official thinking in Moscow might evolve. In the past, Kabanov himself was a member of the Federal Security Service (FSB). So his declarations made at the beginning of the meeting with Medvedev could potentially have a real impact on the policymaking process. Whether Kabanov is the mouthpiece of some political forces inside the Russian government or a genuine proponent of the rule of law, the tone of the discussion in the government about the North Caucasus appears to be shifting.
The well-known Russian rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina complained that since seven North Caucasians were abducted by the security services in Moscow last September, the rights activists had not been able to establish their whereabouts. Only vague information was obtained that the abducted people were terrorist suspects and were transferred to the FSB’s facilities in the North Caucasus. Gannushkina reiterated that the law enforcement agencies in the North Caucasus enjoy “practically total impunity for flagrant violations of human rights: kidnappings, disappearances of people, torture, extralegal executions.” The rights activist provided a glimpse of what is happening behind the shiny picture of restored Chechnya. In the republic in the past month 40 young people reportedly “went to the forest,” which is a euphemism for joining the insurgency. According to Gannushkina, the exodus took place after four young men were acquitted by a jury in Chechnya on May 31, 2011. Chechen officials, furious over the acquittal, took the jury members to the forest and forced them to search for the acquitted four people. Two of the four suspects were detained eventually and two managed to escape from Chechnya and probably even from Russia. The father of one of the suspects was also detained (https://kremlin.ru, July 5).
At the meeting with Medvedev, Russian rights activists raised the issue of Natalya Estemirova’s kidnapping and murder in 2009. A renowned human rights activist and journalist, Estemirova was kidnapped in Grozny on July 15, 2009 and several hours later was found dead in neighboring Ingushetia. The rights activists plan to unveil a comprehensive investigative report on the anniversary of Estemirova’s murder, but in advance they handed it to President Medvedev, expressing their hope that revealing the report personally to the Russian president would “serve the purpose of providing its authors’ safety to some degree” (https://kremlin.ru, July 5). The reference to the safety of the report’s authors may signal that Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov is likely to be implicated in the journalists’ investigation of Estemirova’s murder.
The striking feature of Medvedev’s meeting with the rights activists in Nalchik was that he hardly defended his government or denied the abuses that law enforcement agencies regularly and unabashedly commit in the North Caucasus. Medvedev not only silently listened to the accusations; he also did not make any promises to change the situation. Is Medvedev trying to use the chorus of criticism to put pressure on Putin and his security services? Or is he simply allowing steam to be let off in order to help Putin? It appears that there will neither be answers to these questions nor changes in the North Caucasus realities before Russia’s presidential elections in 2012.
Emil Pain, a prominent Russian expert on ethnic politics and former Russian government official, warned the president that the situation in the North Caucasus is explosive and the government has to provide legal ways for civil expression in the region. Pain bemoaned the fact that in 2011 “for the first time for all the years of surveys” over half and up to 60 percent of the Russians agree with the slogan “Get rid of the North Caucasus!” In Pain’s words, the North Caucasus is a “painful problem that Russian society does not understand, but perceives just as a wound” that does not seem to be going away. The expert on ethnic relations noted that very different Russian political forces, like nationalists, liberals, conservatives and imperialists, are united in the idea of Russia’s withdrawal from the North Caucasus (https://kremlin.ru, July 5).
Even though Pain called this change in the Russian public’s attitude toward the North Caucasus “a horrible picture,” the alternative that has been in place in the region for the past two decades is probably much more awful. The expert’s speech also indicates that the government in Moscow is increasingly aware of the profound changes in ethnic Russian public opinion and will have to do something about it sooner or later.
The governor of Kabardino-Balkaria, Arsen Kanokov, admitted at the meeting with Medvedev that he and his government have had little success in returning insurgents in the republic back to civilian life. The official unemployment rate in Kabardino-Balkaria is 15 percent, of which, according to Kanokov, 70 percent are young people (https://kremlin.ru, July 5). Even these estimates may be relatively low, as many unemployed people are reportedly not registered (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 5).
While in Nalchik on July 5, Medvedev also met the Muslim leaders of the North Caucasus and urged them to help ethnic Russians return to the region (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 5). The Muslim clerics that are close to the government rarely enjoy authority over sizeable Muslim communities in the North Caucasus. It is also unclear what incentive a Muslim leader would have to help Moscow in resettling ethnic Russians in the North Caucasus. With high unemployment in the North Caucasus and growing xenophobia in Russia, it would be hard for Moscow to find many ethnic Russians willing to resettle in this volatile region. This raises the question of whether the Russian government not only lacks a strategy in the North Caucasus, but does not even have rational, clear and achievable objectives.