The Caucasus region of Russia hasn’t been very newsworthy since the fracas between Russia and Georgia, has it?
But much has festered below the surface, and that boiled over with the Monday attack on two subway stations in Moscow that left 38 dead.
The Russian government, which will be hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics on the edge of this region, has repeatedly reassured citizens and reporters that the wars, slayings and terrorist attacks that spilled from the North Caucasus in the last decade are a thing of the past.
But the female “black widow” bombers who killed at least 38 people Monday in a pair of co-ordinated suicide attacks on the Moscow subway are the latest signs that a second generation of nationalist and Islamic resistance, much wider in scope and less interested in political goals, has spread beyond its base in Chechnya to embrace the entire Muslim-dominated region on Russia’s southwestern frontier.
“Many people in Moscow and the West regard this attack as an extraordinary thing, but don’t forget that this sort of violence has become a daily thing in the Northern Caucasus,” said Andrei Piontkovsky, a Moscow-based analyst.
Just four days ago, Russian soldiers announced that they had killed a senior rebel leader, Anzor Astemirov, in the Northern Caucasus district of Kabardino-Balkaria. He was said to have been the top ally of Chechen leader Doku Umarov, who has become the unchallenged “emir,” or warlord-governor, of southern Chechnya and has been spreading his Islamist rule across the neighbouring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan.
A few weeks before that, Russian soldiers killed 20 insurgents in retaliation for a November bomb attack on the Moscow-St. Petersburg express train carried out by Mr. Umarov’s forces.
This month alone has seen two assassination attempts on Russian officials in Ingushetia and at least six bombings in Dagestan, all of them considered linked to Mr. Umarov. In exchange, Russian forces claim to have killed 35 nationalist and Islamist leaders in Ingushetia and Dagestan this year, under increasingly warlike conditions.
Here’s a BBC primer on the North Caucasus. A 2008 CTV.ca feature I wrote on the Georgia crisis (referenced in this blog post) also has some useful background on the geopolitical fault lines in the region.
This BBC analysis also offered some useful insights:
The main commentator in one of Russia’s most outspoken patriotic tabloids, Den, said: “When the head of the federal security services, the FSB, came to see the president about the attacks, why did he not hand in his notice?
“Why indeed did President Medvedev let him over the threshold?”
He added: “The terrorists have made fun of the security services, letting off not one but two bombs in the heart of the capital and under their very nose – the Lubyanka Metro station right by their headquarters.”
A columnist in another popular daily, Moscow Komsomolets, was just as damning, saying: “This is about the failure of the security services to intercept terrorist plans, and a failure to stop them carrying out their operations.
“We lack respect for this enemy… better to overestimate them than underestimate them and pretend, as we have until recently, that everything in the Caucasus is calm and peaceful.”
This sounds like a sharp dig at President Medvedev, who last summer publicly claimed victory against Chechen insurgents and declared the military campaign over.
But it is also at a deeper level a criticism of Mr Putin, whose first presidential election campaign in the year 2000 was fought on the back of a nationalist revival fuelled by the second Chechen war he had launched six months earlier.
For the next eight years, this determination to counter insurgents in the North Caucasus through brutal force was a hall mark of his presidency, arguably helping to transform and radicalise the insurgency.
It had seemed President Medvedev was trying to redress this policy. In January, he appointed a new emissary in the Northern Caucasus, Alexander Khloponin, instructing him to put new emphasis on tackling the region’s endemic poverty and high youth unemployment.
He hoped this might address some of the grievances that made the region such a fertile breeding ground for militants.
But some are wondering if this “softly softly” approach might now be edged out before making an impact, crushed under the weight of calls for the security forces to clamp-down hard on any perceived threats to national security.
Not to end the night on a downer note, but this has the potential to be very destabilizing for Russia.