On October 18 Russian President Vladimir Putin held his annual TV call-in show in the Kremlin. Questions came from teachers, students, scientists, farmers, and doctors from across Russia’s 11 time zones. Two questions came from the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan, which prompted him to talk about his current policy toward the most unstable region of Russia.
A commander from the 33rd Motorized Brigade located in Botlikh district, a mountainous area of Dagestan, asked Putin when new apartment buildings would be built at the local military base, so that all officers would have private apartments. A civilian from Botlikh village asked the president when living conditions and infrastructure in the district would improve.
Putin promised both men that all their problems will be solved soon, and then he expressed his views on the current situation in the North Caucasus. He noted the events of August 1999, when rebels from Chechnya occupied two mountain districts in Dagestan, including Botlikh. Putin recalled that at that time ordinary Dagestanis and Russian soldiers fought together defending Russia. He promised to give a “special status” to the Dagestanis who had helped Russian troops push the rebels back to Chechnya.
Explaining the need to settle a brigade in Botlikh district, Putin said, “The deployment of the 33rd Motorized Brigade in Botlikh is necessary to defend the Russian southern frontier. …In 1999 it took days to send marines from Kaspiisk [a city in Dagestan on the Caspian Sea coast] to the battle scene in the mountains and now we have a brigade just in the area.” He added that the development of the military base in Botlikh should continue in parallel with the development of the local civilian infrastructure. He promised to build a highway that will run from the district to Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. “I hope that relations between the military and the local population will be friendly and fraternal,” he added.
It is no accident that Putin focused on Dagestan. The security situation in that republic is the main concern of the Russian authorities in the North Caucasus, and the Kremlin hopes that well-prepared mountain units of the Russian army, like the brigade in Botlikh, will prevent large-scale rebel attacks in the republic.
After discussing Botlikh, Putin addressed the broader situation in the North Caucasus. He wanted to sound optimistic and did not hide his expectations that the local population would support the Russian government, but not the Caucasian insurgents. “The situation is far from being trouble free, but has radically changed since 1999. The main reason for it is that people are sick and tired of the instability. Terrorists have no chances. We will continue to increase forces from the federal center [i.e., sending more troops to the Caucasus], but the attitude of the locals is the key point to defeat this disease [insurgency]. We will achieve such an attitude in the North Caucasus that people will reject any extremism or terrorism” (ORT, October 18).
The question is how Putin can entice the locals to stop supporting the rebels. He is not planning to improve human rights in the region or grant political concessions; instead, he just wants to buy the loyalty of the population.
On October 6, Vladimir Putin appointed Grigory Rappota, a former deputy chairman of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and secretary-general of the Eurasian Economic Community, as his new envoy to the Southern Federal District. Rappota, who could be described as a security official in civilian clothes, declared that his main task will be to strengthen both the economy and the security in the North Caucasus. Rappota declared, “There will be no security without economy” and added that efforts to attract more private investments to the region should be increased (Vesti.ru, October 12).
In 2003, during his visit to Moscow, Lord Frank Judd, then the Council of Europe rapporteur on Chechnya, tried to persuade Russian officials to start a political dialogue with Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov. He argued that there could be no talk of stabilization or elections so long as the rebels were still fighting. Recent years have proved that Judd was right. A pro-Russian president of Chechnya was elected, Akhmad Kadyrov, but he was assassinated by militants, and the hostilities continue.
The Kremlin is following a similar approach toward the Caucasus, hoping funding can solve the problem. But money cannot buy security if not accompanied by political change. The easiest way to solve the security problems in the North Caucasus would be to ask Doku Umarov, the current rebel leader, about his proposals to bring peace to the region. However, it is evident that it would be easier for Putin to shoot himself than to negotiate with the insurgents on an equal basis. Political autonomy of the Caucasian regions within the Russian Federation is non-negotiable. In this case, money and guns are the only two options that the Kremlin is ready to use to pacify the volatile North Caucasus.