Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 42

Ever since the September 11 attacks, the Kremlin leadership has been going out of its way to cast Russia as a frontline state that, in its North Caucasus region, valiantly defends Europe and the world from the lethal threat of global terror. Yet most international experts as well as Russia’s independent analysts note that the root causes of terrorism are almost always local. It is only when the aggrieved and alienated segments of Muslim populations cannot make themselves heard through formal institutions that radical Islamism emerges to provide them with a new, mostly militant, religious and political agenda. Russia’s decade-long crisis in Chechnya and the flawed policies in other North Caucasus republics are a sad illustration of this vicious cycle that goes through the phases of alienation and radicalization, finally culminating in extremist and terrorist violence.

The Kremlin appears to have recently launched a well-coordinated PR campaign aimed at raising Russia’s profile—both inside and outside the country—as the key force in the worldwide anti-terrorism fight. Last week, during his visit to the Netherlands, President Vladimir Putin used all his eloquence to convince European counterparts that in the south of Russia there unfolds a crucial episode of the ongoing global war between civilization and barbarism. “We are fighting very cruel people – beasts in the guise of human beings,” Putin said, adding that in the Caucasus and in Chechnya, Russia is protecting both its own interests and those of Europe. To succeed in this struggle to the death, the Russian leader strictly told his Dutch hosts, one has to be extremely resolute and tough: “Our response must be equal to the threat” the terrorist networks “present to modern civilization,” Interfax on November 2 quoted him as telling reporters. There’s little doubt that what Putin’s tirade really meant was that all European criticism of Russian military’s numerous human rights abuses in the North Caucasus is out of place.

Simultaneously, the Kremlin is seeking to stress the international character of Chechnya’s rebel fighters in its propaganda that targets the domestic audience, a leak from the presidential administration suggests. On November 3, the Moscow-based political website gazeta.ru posted a remarkable “concise glossary” that was handed out to Russian TV bosses at the recent weekly briefing in the Kremlin. At these gatherings, usually held on Fridays, members of the presidential staff give instructions as to what they want covered and how it should be covered. This time, the administrators of the electronic media were given a list of the “wrong” terms that are used in current broadcasts and the “right” terms that should be used instead. From now on, the instruction stipulates, the term “Chechen terrorism” should be taken off the air and replaced with “international terrorism.” Another noteworthy linguistic correction pertains to the word “jamaat” (local Muslim community) which has to be replaced with “terrorist organization or gang.”

To be sure, the parliamentary elections in Chechnya scheduled for November 27 are designed to serve a PR coup. The establishment of the Chechen legislature, the Kremlin strategists argue, will symbolize the full restoration of the republic’s system of power and successful completion of Moscow’s “Chechenization” policy. The local cadres in all the branches of power will take the management of republican affairs into their hands, the argument goes, and this process will mark the “return to normalcy.” The remaining task, then, will be to carry out a comprehensive mopping up operation to clear the Caucasus highlands of the pockets of “international terrorists.”

The real situation on the ground, however, differs markedly from the picture painted by the Putin’s political technologists. Ironically, the “Chechenization” strategy pursued by the Kremlin is reproducing the vicious system of the ethnic clan structures so characteristic of the other North Caucasus republics. This system of thoroughly corrupt clan rule keeps local resources and access to power under its total control and, as a result, causes widespread popular discontent and violence throughout the entire region. As some respected analysts note, at the heart of Moscow’s policy in the North Caucasus lies not the principle of the rule of law or efficient management but a primitive bargain: loyalty in exchange for federal subsidies. As Valery Tishkov, director of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, noted in an interview with Nezavisimaya gazeta published on November 9, federal tranches have become the “main source of criminal money,” further feeding corruption in the region.

This same formula—loyalty in exchange for significant financial and political privileges—is behind the final phase of the “Chechenization” policy: whatever its “democratic” façade, the republic will be run by the powerful Ramzan Kadyrov clan. Most independent commentators agree that Kadyrov’s people will likely control the parliamentary polls, making sure that their clan and its political clients are well represented in the republican legislature.

Developments in Chechnya under the Kremlin’s guidance reflect patterns prevalent in the North Caucasus, namely an admixture of two inter-connected processes that steadily undermines Russia’s sovereignty over the whole region. The regional authorities and, to a certain extent, the federal center, are experiencing an acute crisis of confidence caused by the clannish and, in many cases, outright criminal nature of the local system of power. This crisis de-legitimizes both tiers of government in the eyes of the local populace. Against this backdrop, a parallel socio-political structure in the form of the Islamist jamaats starts cropping up. Although not every such community necessarily leans toward terrorism or religious fundamentalism, they create a social space in which Russian legal norms are simply ignored. This means, as some analysts persuasively argue, that Russian sovereignty in these territories has effectively ceased to exist.

In the worst-case scenario, disgruntled members of these Islamist jamaats take up arms and attack the state institutions – in particular, the law enforcement and security agencies—which they despise. And this is exactly what is increasingly happening across the North Caucasus region. The October 13 attack in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, and its suppression by Russian security forces were discussed by the Kremlin-connected pundits and the state-controlled media outlets within the context of the war against international terror. Yet Arsen Kanokov, the new president of Kabardino-Balkaria, was surprisingly candid in his assessment of the incident. “It was the expression of [popular] protest,” said he in an interview published in the October 31 issue of Novaya gazeta. “There’s no dialogue between the authorities and the people… People have to let off steam.”

So long as the Kremlin policies in the North Caucasus remain unchanged, Russia will likely continue to be a breeding ground for Islamist terrorists.