On February 22, Dmitry Medvedev made a surprise trip to North Ossetia. In Vladikavkaz, the Russian president chaired the first meeting of the Russian National Anti-Terrorist Committee (NAK) ever held outside of Moscow. Attacks in Kabardino-Balkaria the previous several days may have prompted Medvedev’s extraordinary visit to the North Caucasus. On February 18, a group of Russian tourists from Moscow was attacked in Kabardino-Balkaria and three of them were killed. On February 19, attackers blew up a cable-car support pole near Mount Elbrus, killed the head of administration of the suburban Nalchik village of Khasanya, and loaded a car with explosives near a tourist hotel (www.gazeta.ru, February 22). Moscow Carnegie Center expert on the North Caucasus Alexei Malashenko said the effect of this series of attacks was comparable to the suicide attack at Domodedovo airport in Moscow earlier in January (www.gazeta.ru, February 19).
The Kremlin may have been especially upset by the wave of attacks in Kabardino-Balkaria because they appeared to be well-coordinated and specifically targeting the government’s cherished plan for developing ski tourism in the North Caucasus. Some reports claimed that the attackers thought that one of the slain tourists, named Irina Patrusheva, was the daughter of former Federal Security Service (FSB) head Nikolai Patrushev.
The situation in Kabardino-Balkaria became very tense in the past year, with Kabardinian militants launching a number of attacks in the republic and becoming increasingly influential. The government’s response to destabilization combined harsh retaliatory measures, wishful thinking and empty declarations. The security situation in Kabardino-Balkaria now is apparently so bad that even the meeting of the Russian NAK, prompted largely by the rapidly worsening situation in the republic, had to be held in neighboring North Ossetia.
According to investigators, the Baksan jamaat and its leader Kazbek Tashuev were behind the attack on the tourists from Moscow and the cable-car line explosion. Even though Asker Jappuev is formally the leader of the united insurgent jamaat of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, experts say that Tashuev is the real leader of the militants in this region (www.gazeta.ru, February 21). Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Aleksandr Khloponin, visited Kabardino-Balkaria in the wake of the attacks and stated that the assaults were a major drawback for the government’s plans to develop tourism (RIA Novosti, February 21).
In an article published on the Kabardino-Balkarian insurgency’s website, the rebels insisted that the Russian government’s strategy to invest in tourism in the republic was unfavorable for the local Muslim population. The author deplored Moscow’s proposal to resettle unemployed North Caucasians throughout Russia and bring in more ethnic Russians into the region. The article warned that attacks on Russian tourists were legitimate since there was a war going on between Russia and the Caucasus Emirate (www.islamdin.com, February 20). The article indicated that the insurgents in Kabardino-Balkaria are not void of nationalist sentiment or, at the very least, have to appeal to it in order to justify their actions.
On February 20, Russian security forces imposed a counterterrorist operation regime in two districts of Kabardino-Balkaria. Counterterrorist operation regimes are habitually imposed in Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya, but for the previously quiet Kabardino-Balkaria it is a major setback because it places the republic on the same row with its unstable neighbors. On February 22, security forces reported they found a group of insurgents in the tourist area close to Mount Elbrus. One serviceman died in the operation and six more were injured. The security services claimed to have killed “up to five” rebels, possibly including those who had killed the tourists from Moscow (Interfax, February 22).
President Medvedev recognized the gravity of the issue Moscow faces in the North Caucasus, saying that the government should be prepared to deal with instability for many years to come. The Russian leader said the government should not look for simple solutions, concentrating instead on economic development, preventative strikes on the insurgents, and adopting legal reforms to make it easier to put extremists on trial. Medvedev evidently tried to emulate Vladimir Putin’s toughness when dealing with the insurgents, urging the security forces not to hesitate to strike terrorists. Medvedev drew a parallel between the revolutions taking place in the Arab world and the situation in the North Caucasus. “Such a scenario [as in the Arab countries] they were preparing for us and now they will try to implement it even more eagerly,” Medvedev said, hinting at unknown hostile foreign forces. “In any case this scenario will not come true [in Russia]” (www.kremlin.ru, February 22). Khloponin pointed to a possible “Turkish-American conspiracy” in the North Caucasus, a notion that Medvedev vaguely supported by saying all versions should be examined (www.gazeta.ru, February 22).
FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov officially admitted that in Kabardino-Balkaria the insurgents extort money not only from businesses, but also from governmental authorities. Bortnikov vowed to provide more support for the government of Kabardino-Balkaria to reverse this trend, although he provided few details (www.kremlin.ru, February 22). Kabardino-Balkaria’s head, Arsen Kanokov, said a list had been compiled of most important sites that would be put under the protection of special government forces. Kanokov requested the formation of a locally manned armed unit that would fight the insurgents “as in Dagestan.” In addition, he asked President Medvedev to provide personal armed protection for republican officials (Kommersant-Online, February 22).
Kanokov’s requests betray perhaps most eloquently the glaring failure of the pro-Moscow authorities in Kabardino-Balkaria to maintain control over the situation. It appears that a creeping but astonishingly swift takeover of power by the militants has occurred in Kabardino-Balkaria and it is hard to predict how the secular authorities will reassert themselves. The issue is aggravated by the fact that regional governors are appointed by Moscow, so they have little populist political skills and are thus prone to rely on crude force to suppress their enemies rather than on calculated political maneuvering to win over the hearts and minds of the population.