Has Russia Lost Control of the North Caucasus?

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Mikhail Klimentyev/REUTERS/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev takes aim as he visits the Federal Security Service Special Task Center in Russia's southern region of Dagestan

On June 5, Adilgerei Magomedtagirov, the interior minister of Dagestan, in Russia's North Caucasus, attended a wedding at a restaurant in the center of the republic's capital Makhachkala. When he stepped outside to talk to his brother and a co-worker, they were met with a spray of bullets shot from a nearby building. Magomedtagirov, who was also Dagestan's top police official, died almost instantly; three others, including the bride's father, were wounded, one fatally.

The shooting raised few eyebrows in Dagestan, where blood feuds and gang wars punctuate daily life. Magomedtagirov's assassination was one of a handful in the volatile North Caucasus region in a week, and it was the second murder of a high-ranking police officer in Dagestan within a month. But in Moscow, the news of Magomedtagirov's death was enough to give President Dmitri Medvedev a jolt. Although murders of civilians and police have become common in the North Caucasus, the killing of a prominent state worker is a sign that the region is slipping out of the Kremlin's control.

The North Caucasus region, located between Europe, Asia and the Middle East, consists of a cluster of semiautonomous republics, many of them Islamic, arranged around the Caucasus Mountains. It's one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the world, with over 40 distinct ethnic groups. Much of the violence is carried out by Muslim militants who have declared war on police and state officials, calling them anti-Islamic for their allegiance to Russia. Other clashes are interethnic, with a century of conflict behind them. Based on the escalating levels of violence over the past 20 years, including two wars in Chechnya, an ethnic conflict between Ingushetia and North Ossetia, and a war in Dagestan, observers say the most dangerous republics in the region are Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan and North Ossetia.

"All kinds of freaks are coming here to do harm on our territory," Medvedev said to reporters when he visited Makhachkala on Tuesday. "This is a gauntlet thrown down to authority, to the state." But those "freaks" are actually most likely locals, brought up within the North Caucasus' clan system in which violence and corruption are the law of the land. "The problems for every territory are different," Alexei Makarkin, deputy general director of the think tank Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, tells TIME. "The one thing they all have in common is a culture of clans. This stops the economy from developing and also absorbs the young people. You end up with regular violence and high unemployment. If the Kremlin really wanted to, they could squash this clan system. The problem is, they have absolutely nothing to replace it with."

Medvedev told the security council of Dagestan that since the beginning of the year, a total of 235 people — 48 civilians, 112 bandits and 75 law enforcement officers — have been killed in the North Caucasus. Observers believe the real number to be much higher. Following Medvedev's visit, two policemen in Dagestan were killed by gunmen on Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday, the deputy chief judge of the Supreme Court of Ingushetia was murdered by unidentified gunmen outside a kindergarten.

"The Kremlin is absolutely powerless," says Alexei Malashenko, a scholar-in-residence at Moscow's Carnegie Institute. "They brought this situation on themselves by letting the local élite rule." After the fall of communism, Moscow, knowing that a secular or Orthodox Christian government would have little influence over the region's Muslim population, struck an informal deal with the republics: Moscow would appoint a governor who would be loyal to the Kremlin and, in return, that governor would remain in power provided no large-scale conflicts erupted.

But it's clear that system is breaking down and now leaders in Moscow are at a loss for a solution. Sending Russian troops into these areas would not be effective, as keeping track of insurgents is an almost impossible task. Blocking funds to the republics is also not an option. "It would just result in a massive social upheaval and that's the last thing the Kremlin wants," says Malashenko.

For Moscow, it's important that the violence in the North Caucasus stays simmering well below boiling point. But if the Kremlin cannot protect its own governors, such as Magomedtagirov, then Russia's leaders are faced with the fact that the tight grip they have on the rest of the country just doesn't apply to the North Caucasus. And the consequences are felt well beyond the region. With unemployment reaching as high as 50% according to some estimates, many people move to other Russian cities looking for work, while holding onto their clan alliances — and the conflicts that follow them.

Moscow has tried to put out fires in the region before, but with little success. In August 2008, Magomed Yevloyev, an opposition journalist in Ingushetia, was shot dead while in police custody. Many blamed Ingushetia President Murat Zyazikov for allowing the murder to happen, so the Kremlin replaced him in October with Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, a highly decorated career soldier. While Yevkurov struggles to cope with corruption among local authorities and attacks on officials by Muslim radicals, he seemed to have calmed the violence in the area — until the killing of the deputy chief judge on Wednesday.

But despite Medvedev proclaiming it time for Moscow to step up to the challenge of stopping the violence in the North Caucasus, many observers think the Kremlin is keen to maintain the status quo. "This is the stability that the Kremlin wants," says the Carnegie Institute's Malashenko. "In Europe or anywhere else, the regular deaths of government workers in one region would not be classified as stability. The North Caucasus are not stable; they are just in a constant state of 'not war.'" And as long as they stay that way, the Kremlin seems happy to turn its back and pretend all is well.