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Contents Introduction Impact of the August 2008 Russia-Georgia Conflict Recent Developments in the North Caucasus Chechnya Ingushetia Dagestan Other Areas of the North Caucasus Contributions to Instability Implications for Russia International Response Implications for U.S. Interests
April 3, 2009
In recent years, there have not been major terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus (1) on the scale of the June 2004 raid on security offices in the town of Nazran (in Ingushetia), where nearly 100 security personnel and civilians were killed, or the September 2004 attack at the Beslan grade school (in North Ossetia), where 300 or more civilians were killed. This record, in part, could be attributed to government tactics. This record, in part, might be attributed to government tactics, including over a thousand sweep operations ("zachistki") carried out in the North Caucasus. During these operations, security forces surround a village and search all the citizens, ostensibly in a bid to apprehend terrorists. Critics of the operations allege that the troops frequently engage in pillaging and gratuitous violence and are responsible for kidnapping for ransom and "disappearances" of civilians. Through these sweeps, as well as through direct clashes, most of the masterminds of major terrorist attacks have been killed.
For the past two years, however, there reportedly have been frequent smaller-scale attacks in several regions against government targets. According to the State Department, "complex and interlocking insurgencies caused continuing instability in the North Caucasus. These included the remnants of a nationalist separatist insurgency in Chechnya, a widening Islamist insurgency throughout the North Caucasus, violence committed by both government and nongovernment actors in Ingushetia, and continued clan warfare among elite groups struggling for power.... Unrest continued in and around the Chechen Republic and worsened considerably in ... Ingushetia." (2) Such unrest also reportedly has increased in Dagestan. Additionally, many ethnic Russian and other non-native civilians have been murdered or have disappeared, which has spurred the migration of most of the non-native population from the North Caucasus.
Some observers warn that rising popular discontent might contribute to growing numbers of recruits for terrorist groups and even the re-emergence of major terrorism in the North Caucasus. According to analyst Gordon Hahn, "the abandonment of attacks on civilians suggests the Caucasus jihadists have learned that excessive violence can be counterproductive to their cause. Instead of the earlier indiscriminate, then intentional operations on civilians, they now emphasize, formally, that they are not about killing civilians [and] are purposefully organizing teaching to civilians the proper Islamic life." Hahn warns that such efforts recently may be winning support from the population, as well as volunteers for jihad, after a period when such support and volunteers had been in decline. (3)
While most observers consider that the incidence of violence in the North Caucasus is at a troubling level, the question of whether it has been increasing in recent years is controversial. Some Russian officials have stated that violence has been increasing. In February 2009, President Medvedev stated that "the situation in the North Caucasus remains strained. Extremists are stepping up their subversive terrorist activities and at the same time are trying to conduct a campaign to discredit the government bodies of the North Caucasus republics." (4) Anatoly Safonov, the presidential representative for international cooperation on combating terrorism and organized crime, warned in February 2009 that al Qaeda and its affiliates were increasing their influence in the North Caucasus. (5) The Interior Ministry reported that the rising violence in the North Caucasus in 2008, particularly in Ingushetia, contributed to a decision that it would not reduce its force levels in the North Caucasus and would increase the supply of equipment for its forces. (6) In summing up its work in 2008 across Russia, the National Anti-Terrorist Committee (NAC; an inter-agency directive body, headed by the Federal Security Service, with branches in the regions) hailed the elimination of several notable terrorist groups and the prevention of terrorism, but also warned that in the North Caucasus, "bandits" and Islamic extremists continued to constitute the main terrorist threats to Russia. (7) The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think tank, has estimated that violence started to increase in the North Caucasus in early 2007 and was at an even higher level in early 2009. (8)
Other Russian officials have stated that violence has been decreasing, while still cautioning that the area remains unstable. Russia's First Deputy Prosecutor General, Alexander Bastrykin, claimed that the rate of terrorist and extremist crimes in the North Caucasus had declined sharply during the first two months of 2009 as compared to the same period in 2008, although he acknowledged that such crimes were increasing in Russia as a whole. (9)
Seemingly at variance with his February 2009 statement (see above), on March 27, 2009, President Medvedev ordered the NAC to examine whether the counter-terrorist operations regime in Chechnya (declared nearly 10 years ago and later extended to other areas of the North Caucasus) might be lifted. He argued that "given that the situation [in Chechnya] has to a substantial degree normalized, life there is becoming normal, modern facilities are being built, social issues are being addressed, I think that it is necessary to consider the issue of the legal regime." Perhaps indicating that the formal lifting of the regime may not substantially alter the human rights situation, he specified that security agencies could still impose "if need be individual provisions of the counter-terrorist operation regime, and tak[e] the necessary action in Chechnya and the other republics in southern Russia, where there is still a threat of terrorist attacks." (10) Reasons for Medvedev's reassessment might have included budgetary pressures associated with keeping sizable forces in Chechnya and Prime Minister Putin's support for force reductions, according to some observers. Kadyrov had been calling for lifting the counter-terrorist operations regime, claiming that it would facilitate the building of international trade ties and otherwise boost economic development in the region. As part of his argument, Kadyrov disputed estimates given by the operations headquarters attached to Chechnya's anti-terrorism committee that there were about 480 insurgents in the region in early 2009, stating that "I say there are no more than 70. And they will be finished off within a month." (11) According to media reports, there remain about 50,000 troops and police deployed in Chechnya.
At a meeting of the NAC held on March 31, 2009, chairman and director of the Federal Security Service Aleksandr Borotnikov stated that the NAC would postpone a decision until it had worked out how to "secure reliable control over the situation in the region and the necessary level of citizens' safety.... [The] operations headquarters ... will step up ... actions aimed at exposing and intercepting the activities of the remaining gangs [and] foreign mercenaries." (12) According to one media source, one factor hampering an immediate decision was NAK concerns that terrorism could be on the upswing in the North Caucasus. Another factor, according to the source, was the reluctance of military forces in Chechnya to give up their combat pay and privileges if redeployed. (13)
Impact of the August 2008 Russia-Georgia Conflict
Several Russian policymakers and others have suggested that the August 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict contributed to increased instability in the North Caucasus. In February 2009, President Medvedev stated (as mentioned above) that terrorism had increased. Similarly, Russian analyst Viktor Nadein-Raevsky has claimed that "external forces and the so-called Wahhabi underground ... aiming to weaken Russia and to sever the Caucasus from it laid great hopes on Georgia's attack." These groups "had planned a large-scale offensive in the Russian Caucasus in the wake of Georgia's aggression. When it proved to be a failure these forces changed tactics," and launched terrorist attacks instead. (14) According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, there was a "lull in violence" in the North Caucasus during the Russia-Georgia conflict, but "following the conflict, the level of violence in the North Caucasus rose sharply, particularly in Ingushetia." (15)
Several observers have accused Russia of hypocrisy in recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia while suppressing …