On September 9, a suicide bomber attacked the central market place in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia. Seventeen people died and 173 received injuries of varying degrees of severity as a result of the attack (RIA Novosti, September 12). The suspected suicide bomber reportedly crossed from the neighboring republic of Ingushetia into North Ossetia just before the explosion and had a forged ID bearing the name of Magomed Archakov, who had died in an accident shortly before. The suspect, described as a 25 year old man, tried to drive his car into one of the biggest market places in Vladikavkaz, but was stopped by a vigilant watchman after he refused to open his car’s trunk. The explosive device was detonated in a busy street just outside of the market but still inflicted significant damage given that it was loaded with at least 100 kilograms of homemade explosives (Kommersant, September 11).
The attack in Vladikavkaz drew international attention as the United Nations Security Council strongly condemned the suicide bombing (www.un.org, September 11). Attacks in North Ossetia differ markedly from those in other North Caucasian republics. As a rule Islamic insurgents do not knowingly attack the civilian population in the predominantly Muslim-populated republics. In the case of North Ossetia, however, its largely non-Muslim population apparently makes it a suitable target for indiscriminate attacks by the North Caucasian insurgency. Nationalism and political struggle may also play a role in the attacks against civilians in North Ossetia.
A land dispute between the neighboring republics of North Ossetia and Ingushetia has poisoned relations since at least the early 1990’s. In 1992, open armed conflict broke out between the Ossetians and the Ingush peoples that resulted in hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands refugees, mainly ethnic Ingush who had to flee their homes. The latest attack has once again aggravated relations between the two republics, which were not the best even before attack. For example, the Ossetians widely blamed the hostage crisis at the school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan 2004, because many of the militants who seized the school were Ingush.
Ingushetia’s leadership was quick to condemn the attack, stating it was aimed at derailing an improvement of relations between the Ingush and the Ossetians (ITAR-TASS, September 10). South Ossetia’s leadership, most of whose people share a common ethnic identity with the North Ossetians, called on North Ossetia to close the administrative border with Ingushetia (www.cominf.org, September 12). This opinion is also becoming popular within the North Ossetian population (www.region15.ru, September 10). On September 11, a spontaneous protest action organized through Facebook and its Russian analogue Odnoklassniki took place in Vladikavkaz. Local activists managed to gather 200 people to demand safety from the authorities and radical measures against the Ingush (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, September 12).
As of September 12, no one had claimed responsibility for the attack in Vladikavkaz, even though the leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov, promised to continue attacks in a video posted on September 9, the same day as the attack. On August 21, an Ingush jamaat claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack on August 17 that was thwarted by police at a checkpoint in North Ossetia (www.hunafa.com, August 21). The latest suicide bomber reportedly came through the same checkpoint. So, it is highly likely that the Ingush insurgency was behind the attack.
The newspaper Vremya Novostei connected the suicide bombing in Vladikavkaz on September 9 with the suicide bombing in Buinaksk, Dagestan, on September 5 and an attack on the Irganai hydroelectric plant, also in Dagestan, tagging them as a “preplanned attack by the militants against the federal authorities” similar to the Moscow apartment bombings in 1999 and a later series of terror attacks, including the 2004 Beslan hostage taking (www.vremya.ru, September 10).
Radio Ekho Moskvy’s editor-in-chief, Aleksei Venediktov, considered the attacks in a wider perspective, linking them to the struggle for political power. “Why [are there] explosions, when there is a fight going on for power, for property?” he asked, suggesting “Because there are no other mechanisms for settling [differences]. [They] do not trust Moscow” (www.echo.msk.ru, September 11).
Russian authorities were anxious to play down the ethnic component of the suicide attack in Vladikavkaz, offering few novel measures and allowing themselves some emotion. The first vice-speaker of Russia’s Federation Council, Aleksandr Torshin, stated that he did not rule out that the attack was economically motivated – (the result of the fight over the profits of the central Vladikavkaz market where the bombing took place) (RIA Novosti, September 10). Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, stated that the attack was aimed at evoking enmity between the peoples of the Russian Federation (www.premier.gov.ru, September 9). President Dmitry Medvedev dispatched his envoy to the North Caucasus, Aleksandr Khloponin, to North Ossetia, but the official statement that Khloponin made was very emotional and at the same time quite inconclusive, betraying his inability to influence the situation in any tangible way (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, September 10).
The latest attacks make Aleksandr Khloponin’s mission to attract large investment to the North Caucasus and modernize the region a distant and politically impossible undertaking. Ethnic rifts between North Ossetia and Ingushetia are likely to worsen, contributing to further destabilization of the region. The attacks also certainly worsen the prospects for a safe and secure Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014.
At the same time, as the political season of 2011 parliamentary elections and 2012 presidential elections approach, the ruling class and perhaps Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, himself may reap the political benefits from the worsening security situation in the North Caucasus, just as Putin did in 1999 with the start of the second Chechen war.