On May 19, President Dmitry Medvedev had a unique meeting with North Caucasian NGO’s and Russian civil society activists who work on issues involving the region. The closed-door meeting lasted for nearly three hours. The main outcome for the civil society members appeared to be Medvedev’s promise to create a public chamber in the North Caucasus Federal District, in which all the North Caucasian republics except for Adygea are included. Medvedev said he would look into the problem of numerous police checkpoints in the North Caucasus, which often contribute to the spread of corruption rather than solve security problems. Presidential envoy to the region, Aleksandr Khloponin, who had not been known for engaging the region’s civil society himself in the same way previously, was also present at the meeting (www.gazeta.ru, May 19).
Medvedev made several statements during the discussion, as the rights activists made a number of sharp invectives against the way that government agencies work in the North Caucasus. A well-known rights activist from Ingushetia, Magomed Mutsolgov, wrote in his blog that those of his colleagues who managed to get hold of the microphone conveyed their reports to Medvedev “honestly, harshly and genuinely.” Mutsolgov positively remarked about Medvedev’s surprising demeanor indicating his willingness to listen to criticism of the government (www.kavkaz-uzel, May 19).
Svetlana Gannushkina of the Memorial human rights center informed President Medvedev about widespread and manifest abuses of power on the part of the security forces in the North Caucasus, including the practice of equating rights activists to the terrorists in Chechnya. Speaking about the illegal persecution of relatives of suspected insurgents in Chechnya, Gannushkina said: “The Chechen republic’s population lives in a climate of fear that can be compared only to the fear that citizens of the USSR felt during the years of Stalin’s terror. There was nothing equal to it even at the height of war [in Chechnya]” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, May 19).
Memorial’s person on the ground in Ingushetia, Timur Akiev, stated that by their illegal actions, the law enforcement agencies undermine the efforts of the republic’s President, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, to pacify the republic. Oyub Titiev from Chechnya raised the issue of kidnappings and illegal killings, in which the victims’ relatives frequently are unable even to identify the bodies.
Zaur Gaziev from Dagestan bluntly stated: “In Dagestan an environment has formed that will provide an increasingly greater numbers of suicide bombers and shaheeds.” According to Gaziev, the torture of suspects, sometimes leading to their death, has become routine practice among the Dagestani policemen, who, in order to cover up their crimes, say that those murdered this way have been killed in action. Gaziev warned that if Moscow did not talk to moderates and “return people from the forests,” the civil war in Dagestan would carry on and its ripples could reach the Moscow metro (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, May 19). Gaziev was implicitly making reference to the shocking attack in the Moscow metro on April 29, which claimed 40 lives and was reportedly carried out by Dagestani insurgents.
The mainstream Russian news agencies practically ignored the unequivocal criticism that came from the North Caucasian activists in the May 19 meeting, focusing instead on the statements of Medvedev and his inner circle.
Perhaps to fend off mounting accusations against the government, Medvedev called on the NGO’s to raise the issue of ethnic Russians leaving the North Caucasus (RIA Novosti, May 19). Few experts see the phenomenon of the shrinking Russian population of the North Caucasus and the rising indigenous populations, which dates back to the 1970’s, as the primary cause of the worsening security situation in the North Caucasus (for example, see EDM November 13, 2009).
Ella Pamfilova, who chairs a Kremlin-backed civil society and human rights commission, stated that in some North Caucasian republics the courts had completely discredited themselves because of being utterly corrupt. Medvedev felt he had to curb this negativism, saying that statements like that were inappropriate and would lead to a “breakdown of the legal system” (RIA Novosti, May 19).
Medvedev admitted once again that Russia was facing very serious problems in the North Caucasus. According to data he provided, there were 544 terror attacks and 750 attacks on security forces in the region in 2009, in which 235 servicemen were killed and 686 wounded and 235 died. Even more stunningly, he admitted that in the period 2008-2010, more than ten well-known journalists and rights activists were killed in the North Caucasus (RIA Novosti, May 19).
The Russian president also reportedly made a harsh statement about the presidents of the North Caucasian republics. According to the Ekho Moskvy radio station, Medvedev said that those who cannot develop working relations with all the forces of the political spectrum must step down. In reality, however, there is little or no opportunity in most of the republics of the North Caucasus to be a politician out of the approved political spectrum. The lack of a democratic process and severe restrictions on freedoms verging on oppression like that of the Stalin era are problems that pop up in every open-ended discussion on the North Caucasus. However, it invariably becomes clear that Moscow does not want and cannot afford political reforms in the North Caucasus. To make decisions for big moves in the North Caucasus, Moscow should also allow more freedoms for Russia proper, and so far the powers-that-be have been fearful of such prospects.
The meeting with the NGO’s, however, indicates that Moscow is exploring other ways of obtaining information from the North Caucasus, given that the Russian, largely government-controlled media cannot be a reliable source of information about this region. Also, it indicates a certain degree of despair: Moscow does not seem to have a clear path of development for the North Caucasus or anyone it can rely on locally to implement those plans that are already in existence.