Medvedev Seeks Balance Between Fighting Islamists and Stemming Rising Xenophobia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 64

On April 1, President Dmitry Medvedev paid an unexpected visit to Dagestan, where he presided over a meeting of the National Counterterrorism Committee (NAK) in the republic’s capital, Makhachkala. The visit was dedicated to fighting terrorism following the twin suicide bomb attack in the northern Dagestani town of Kizlyar on March 31, which claimed 14 lives, including 9 policemen. The attack in Kizlyar came only two days after the two suicide bombings that hit the Moscow metro on March 29, killing 39 people (www.riadagestan.ru, April 1).

Medvedev demanded that the NAK develop a public warning system with a differentiated scale indicating the danger of a terrorist attack (RIA Novosti, April 1). According to many reports, the authorities had prior knowledge of possible attacks in Moscow, but chose not to alert the public, instead trying to prevent the operation by stepping up security. The government may have been embarrassed to give too much significance to a threat from North Caucasus separatism which, according to the official Kremlin line, had fatally been weakened.

Medvedev stated: “The range of measures to fight terrorism should be expanded; they should be not only more effective, but also tough, merciless and preventative. We must punish.” He added that legislation regarding the investigation and court trials of terrorism cases may be changed (www.gazeta.ru, April 1). Medvedev’s rhetoric, which included expressions like “dagger strikes” against suspected terrorists, indicated that little has changed in the government’s thinking about the terrorist threat. Yet, it is hard to see how the present freedom to apply force that the security services enjoy in the North Caucasus could be further expanded without completely dumping the Russian constitution and creating a zone of special legislation for the North Caucasus. Local, Russian and international rights activists have argued that when the law enforcement authorities deviate from laws and kill innocent people they further fuel destabilization in the region.

Tatyana Lokshina, the Deputy Director of the Russian branch of Human Rights Watch, said in an interview with the Polit.ru website on April 1 that the terror attacks demonstrated the failure of the oppressive policies Vladimir Putin had pursued in the North Caucasus. Lokshina stated that if Moscow allowed blatant breaches of human rights to go unpunished in the North Caucasus and did not stop unlawful counterterrorist operations in the region, locals would not support Moscow and the situation would not improve “nor would the terror disappear from Moscow’s streets.”

President Medvedev also offered to support moderate Islamic clerics in the North Caucasus and attract investment to the region to improve living standards. There is not much novelty in these measures, either, as Moscow has tried to control all official Muslim directorates in the region, which effectively led to antagonizing alternative Muslim leaders.

While using harsh words to condemn terrorism and vowing to use all available forces to combat it, Medvedev reprimanded the Russian mass media for stigmatizing Russian citizens on ethnic and religious grounds following the bomb attacks in Moscow metro, but offered no additional solution for defense of those categories of citizens (www.gazeta.ru, April 1).

Meanwhile, the Russian blogosphere has reported that the number of attacks by ethnic Russians on non-Russian individuals is on the rise in Moscow. Reportedly passengers on the Moscow metro assaulted men and women who they thought were Muslim or Caucasian (www.ferghana.ru, March 3). The well-known Orthodox priest Yakov Krotov, in a blog entry titled “how to behave during a pogrom,” mentioned several such assaults. He concluded that it was advisable for those members of minorities who cared about their health and children to leave Russia (http://yakov-krotov.livejournal.com/552906.html, April 1). Ramazan Abdulatipov, the head of an organization uniting Russia’s minorities, denied such attacks, saying that Moscow diasporas had not faced extra pressure in the wake of the explosions in the metro (RIA Novosti, April 1).

Even though the head of the Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov, took responsibility for the attack on the Moscow metro, there are still some observers who doubt his involvement in the attacks, referring to previous denials by Umarov’s representatives. Investigators stated that one of the women suicide bombers had been identified as a person of Dagestani origin. Markha Ustarkhanova, the wife of a slain Chechen militant, was announced to have been involved in the attack, but the announcement was subsequently retracted (www.gazeta.ru, April 1).

The Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) Aleksandr Bortnikov stated that the organizers and perpetrators of the attack had been identified, but did not elaborate. Judging by the conflicting reports about the attackers’ identities in the Russian media, Bortnikov may have been too eager to have solved these crimes. He warned that attacks in Dagestan were on the rise and that in 2009 the republic experienced 38 attacks, while there were another 47 insurgent attacks in Dagestan just in the first three months of 2010 alone (Kommersant, April 1).

On April 1, the Malgobek district in the north of Ingushetia was proclaimed a counterterrorist operation zone as interior ministry troops moved in to seal off the area, alleging that terrorists who committed crimes in Ingushetia and beyond were hiding in the district (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 1). This is the first massive operation making use of troops to isolate an area in the North Caucasus since the attacks on the Moscow metro. The new emerging consensus is that Moscow’s strategy will have to undergo a significant overhaul in order to deal adequately with the terrorist threat in the North Caucasus. However, the rigid political system of Russia proper makes the limits of those changes very narrow and makes it unlikely they will include the needed reforms. So, the dilemma is clear: either the overall Russian political system will evolve to provide lasting solutions in the region or other sparks of violence will follow.