The North Caucasus Remains Combustible

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 10 Issue: 19

Events in the North Caucasus today are still closely tied to the boundaries established in the 19th century, when the natives’ resistance to the Russian Empire was channeled into two essentially independent movements – one in the northeast Caucasus (Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan) and one in the northwest Caucasus (Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Adygeya and Ossetia).  Today, as in the past, Chechnya holds the key to Russia’s victory in the North Caucasus, and serves as the catalyst for the entire regional armed resistance movement. In the 19th century, all military commanders of Russian armies in the Caucasus charged with subjugating the rebellious mountain-dwellers of the North Caucasus believed that the conquest of the region had to begin in Chechnya. Similarly, Chechnya today remains a special concern in the eyes of the heads of Russia’s law enforcement agencies (siloviki) who, unlike the politicians, do not believe that the pressure on Chechnya and its people ought to be relaxed.

As the influence commanded by the once powerful Karachai Jamaat, one of the oldest regional jamaat groups, began to wane, so did the focus on the northwestern part of the North Caucasus. Another regional group, the Yarmuk Jamaat, led by one of the most prominent ideologues of the armed resistance, Anzor Astemirov, is mentioned in the news less and less often, perhaps because its leader is preoccupied with constructing the ideological foundation of his brainchild, the Caucasus Emirate (North Caucasus Weekly, March 20). In truth, Astemirov looks more like a politician than a warrior.  Despite that, the Yarmuk Jamaat has been in the news lately, in connection with the alleged assassination of one of the first leaders of Kabardino-Balkaria’s jamaat, Musa (Artur) Mukozhev. According to new reports on May 10, Mukozhev was gunned down that day during a special forces operation in the village of Dugulubgay in Kabardino-Balkaria’s Baksan district (http://lenta.ru/news/2009/05/10/kbr/). If it is confirmed by the jamaat, Mukozhev’s death will be one of the most significant losses suffered by the organization in the last few years.

Musa Mukozhev was known to radical Islamists as an advocate of cooperating with the government to reach political solutions to all the issues.  He returned to his hometown of Nalchik in 1993 after graduating from the Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and established the Islamic Center of Kabardino-Balkaria together with a group of fellow BSIU graduates.  An excellent administrator with an agreeable personality, he established a number of various departments and sections within the Islamic Center structure, as if he were preparing it as a replacement to the current administration of Kabardino-Balkaria’s president.  Mukozhev was open to dialogue; the government, however, did its best to drive him underground.  

The jamaat was split into one faction that called for armed participation in the overall North Caucasus jihad and another that insisted on using a public platform to attract new supporters. The division made it impossible for Mukozhev to exercise control over the entire organization and became another important factor in his decision to go underground.  In 2005, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya referred to him as the “Sheikh Yassin of Kabardino-Balkaria” [a reference to Hamas co-founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin] (http://www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2005/84/11.html). His reputation as a spiritual, non-military leader was so strong that, according to the Russian researcher Akhmed Yarlykapov, he was not initially blamed for the Nalchik attacks of October 13, 2005 (http://www.islam.ru/pressclub/gost/yrlikav/).  In contrast to his associate Anzor Astemirov, who wanted to build an Islamic state in the North Caucasus and institute Sharia law as the only source of legislation, Mukozhev believed that this would not happen during his or his children’s lifetime. He understood that Kabardino-Balkarian society is far removed from Islamic values, and that it would take a long time before people would begin to see the need to establish Sharia law in their republic (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/analyticstext/analytics/id/1122801.html).

In contrast to the lull in the northwest Caucasus, the governments in Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan are gripped by constant and unrelenting anxiety caused by attacks staged by the armed underground forces.
To cite a few examples, there were reports of several explosions and assassinations in Ingushetia in early May. A Muslim, clergyman, Said-Ibrahim Kalimatov, was killed in the village of Troitskaya in the early morning of May 1. Two people were wounded and one was killed when their car was shot at on May 5. On May 7, a policeman by the last name of Kostoev was hospitalized after being shot and wounded. An hour and a half later, a resident of the village of Arshty named Khatsiev was killed when unidentified attackers broke into his house, took him outside and shot him in the head (ingushetia.org/news/19296.html). On May 8, an explosion targeted the deputy head of the Cossack Service of the Southern Federal District, Ramzan Tatrashvili, who was hospitalized in critical condition with shrapnel wounds (http://www.nakanune.ru/news/2009/05/08/2155880).  On May 9, the parents of Zaurbek (Abdul-Malik) Aliev, 54-year old Magomed Aliev and 46-year old Leyla Alieva, were killed in their house in the village of Ordzhonikidzevskaya by unidentified attackers. In all likelihood, the killers were targeting the parents of a rebel fighter.  
The situation in Ingushetia was the subject of an interview with one of Ingushetia’s opposition leaders Magomed Khazbiev, on Ekho Moskvy radio. In it, Khazbiev said that the republic is sinking into a spiraling civil war as a reaction to the government-sponsored terror (http://echo.msk.ru/programs/oneword, May 10).  He also said that those responsible for the shootings of young men in Ingushetia have to be punished and that the guilty party is the government, which is committing crimes against its own people.

In another intriguing statement, Khazbiev alleged that the erstwhile opposition website Ingushetia.org has become a tool of Russia’s special services, and that this change is the result of an agreement reached between Kaloi Akhilgov  – the attorney of Magomed Yevloev, the website’s founder who was assassinated last August – Yevloev’s brother and the president of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov. Thus, one can say that Ingushetia’s opposition forces have split along the dividing lines of loyalty to the current president of Ingushetia before reaching complete maturity.

In the meantime, the Kavkaz Center website, which is the ideological center of the armed underground resistance, reported that on the night of May 8, 100-150 rebel fighters entered the villages of Arshty and Muzhichi, two densely populated settlements in the eastern part of Ingushetia near the border with Chechnya.  The report, if true, would indisputably indicate that the armed opposition is trying to show off its capabilities, given that no other recent actions have involved that many men.  However, the report has not been confirmed by independent sources in the region, which raises doubts about the reported number of rebel fighters, if not the fact of their entry into the village.
Meanwhile, the reports of assaults against the government forces or arrests of those suspected of aiding the rebels in Chechnya have been overshadowed by the news of restructuring of the Unified Group of Forces, which will serve as the foundation for the new entity known as the Committee for Ensuring Security in the Region (www.regnum.ru/news/fd-south/chechnya/1160579.html).  The new committee will report either to Russia’s Security Council or to the central command of Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops.  

In reality, little will change beyond the rhetoric.  The end of counter-terrorism operation in Chechnya did not change the methods of the Russian police forces operating in Russia’s regions. Flights arriving at Moscow airports from Grozny continued to be inspected in separate areas, and arriving passengers are examined on par with foreign nationals. Rail transport is treated similarly; trains arriving in Moscow are met as a public health threat and quarantined by the police, who clear arriving passengers only after a personal inspection. As for Chechens going on foreign trips, almost all of them are subjected to a brief interview with the Federal Security Service (FSB) to ascertain the purpose of their trip and any planned meetings in the West.

In Dagestan, the Khasavyurt sector of the Dagestan Front released a statement asserting its leading position in the armed resistance moment (kavkaz.tv/russ/content/2009/05/07/65487.shtml). The claim is difficult to contest; however, the Makhachkala sector is not falling far behind its Khasavyurt comrades-in-arms.

Therefore, the North Caucasus armed opposition forces are neither slowing down their attacks nor showing any signs of decline in their activities, despite the pressure imposed on the immediate families and relatives of the muhjahideen.