Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 39

The Russian government and some of its supporters have declared the Nalchik raid a defeat for the Islamist rebels, contrasting it with the June 2004 rebel raid on law enforcement and government buildings in Ingushetia in which the attackers killed dozens of law enforcement and other officials while suffering minimal losses. Indeed, on October 14 speculated that the Nalchik raid was an “act of desperation” by the insurgents that sought to take the pressure of the security forces off some of their comrades or even Shamil Basaev himself, who was erroneously reported to have been killed in the Nalchik raid (see Chechnya Weekly, October 13).

On the other hand, a Russian army spetsnaz officer involved in the Nalchik fighting told Kavkazky Uzel on October 15 that 90 percent of the fighters killed and captured were “local inhabitants, mainly Kabardins, and that many of them were “very young—18 to 20 years old” and included a large number of students. The officer speculated that the purpose of the raid was to “test out the new recruits in battle.” “Everything points to this—the carefully prepared and planned attack, the choice of facilities to be attacked, the attackers’ young age and lack of experience,” the officer told the website. “The survivors got through their battle test, and their command received full intelligence on how the law enforcement agencies will react in this sort of situation. The fighters can now calmly plan a new attack in any town in the North Caucasus.”

Whatever the case, many observers say that the raid was yet another sign that the situation in the North Caucasus is spinning out of the Kremlin’s control. “The present attack on the capital of the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, most likely has one main goal, and it is not at all connected with an attempt by the bandits to free their jailed comrades or with internal political changes in the republic,” Vadim Rechkalov wrote in the October 14 edition of Moskovsky komsomolets. “The fighters once again demonstrated their tactical superiority over the numerous power structures that literally stuff the North Caucasus. The same thing happened in Nazran on June 22, 2004…The first and main failure: federal counter-intelligence does not have a serious network of informants, which means that it does not receive information about planned attacks, and this is evidence of the local inhabitants’ loyalty to the illegal armed formations. Just as during the attack on Ingushetia, the ineffectiveness of our large army formations, in particular, the 58th Army, against small mobile, well-equipped groups of fighters, became evident…The fighters did not want to seize Nalchik, because they realized they didn’t have the power to do so. And there is no doubt that the fighters’ resistance will soon be suppressed. And yet the bandits nevertheless seized Nalchik. And while this lasted only several hours, this operation by the terrorists received international resonance and once again demonstrated that the North Caucasus is far from being fully controlled by the Center.”

Nezavisimaya gazeta, for its part, noted on October 17 that Dmitry Kozak, the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, said that law enforcement agencies were prepared for the Nalchik attack and had handled it well. “The spetsnaz did indeed operate quite well, particularly the military spetsnaz (they were brought into Nalchik a few hours after the attack on the city). But there can be no question of any preparedness: Interior Ministry, Internal and Border Troop sub-units and army units were not placed on increased alert. The police calmly came to work in the morning, conducted morning meetings and guard duty, and not a word was said during any of these events about the planned assault.” Similarly, Gazeta wrote the same day that while the rebel gunmen do not have sufficient forces to “hold a major city for a long time once they have entered it,” and while the Russian security agencies performed more professionally in Nalchik than in Nazran last year, “we should not flatter ourselves with these arguments in the hope that it will be possible to keep instability there at a safe level for the Russian state merely by improving and building up security resources in the North Caucasus region and without changing the nature of the policy pursued regarding it. The trouble is that radical Islamist and separatist movements have quite a significant base of support in the North Caucasus, and, judging by the geography of the raids, it is expanding.”

In an interview with published on October 17, Murad Esenov, director of Sweden’s Center for Central Asian and Caucasus Research, said that Shamil Basaev’s connections with the radical Islamic underground in Kabardino-Balkaria are even closer than with Ingushetia’s, and that the Yarmuk Jamaat was created in 2002 at Basaev’s initiative and is the only organization in the North Caucasian republics outside Chechnya that is subordinated directly to him. While thought to be very small, the Yarmuk Jamaat “enjoys a definite influence among young people,” Esenov said. He also said that despite Kabardino-Balkaria’s “outward stability,” the “very complex socioeconomic situation” in the republic is no better than the situation in Dagestan, and that unemployment in Kabardino-Balkaria is even higher than in Dagestan. Esenov said that in all the North Caucasian republics “without exception,” the official leaders have “some degree of influence” on the extremist underground and can even control its actions. Thus he speculated that the replacement of Valery Kokov with Arsen Kanokov as Kabardino-Balkaria’s president had “some connection” to the Nalchik attack “that will soon become clear.”

Shamil Beno, Vice President of the Russian Islamic Heritage movement, said in an interview published in Novaya gazeta on October 17 that the reason for the rise of what he calls a new “Hamas” in the North Caucasus is the region’s low living standards and extremely high levels of unemployment and official corruption, which favor the creation of parallel, alternative institutions of the kind offered by the Islamists. Adding to this is the fact that the historical experience of the North Caucasus includes only the Communist Party and Islam. “There is no other historical background for political or social actions,” Beno said. “It’s not their fault; it’s a calamity…Under the conditions of mistrust of the authorities and the need for action, the people turn to their historical practice. That practice is Imam Shamil, jihad. Today, the degree of religiosity of the youth is progressing geometrically. According to estimates by the Chechen Republic’s youth affairs committee for 2003, more that 30 percent of young people trust religious literature and the religious authorities more than their parents. This was practically impossible in the North Caucasus ten years ago!”

Nezavisimaya gazeta made similar points. “The most frightening thing is that more and more young people are going off to this war,” the newspaper wrote on October 17. “Most of the dead gunmen in Nalchik were young people aged 20–30. Despairing of finding the truth, having no work or chance of combating the corruption and clan system that have affected the ethnic republics, these young people see no option other than to take up arms. This happened in the late [1990s], for instance, in Dagestan when whole ‘Wahhabi’ settlements arose there ‘unexpectedly.’ Nothing seems to have changed since then. Except for the fact that the guerrilla war has spread throughout the North Caucasus.”