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Russia Copes with Terror - 2004-09-30

Hundreds of civilians died last month in a series of attacks by Islamist terrorists. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin responded by strengthening the central government’s powers. Recently, a group of experts debated the issue of terrorism and democracy in Russia at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. VOA’s Jaroslaw Anders was there.

Few analysts doubt that the recent surge of terrorist attacks in Russia is linked to the festering conflict in Chechnya, a separatist region in the northern Caucasus. But Leon Aron, Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, says the terror has a logic of its own, which poses a tough dilemma to Western leaders.

“On the one hand we must persuade Russia to change its policy in Chechnya,” he says, “because it is the Chechnya based terrorism that is causing deaths in Russia and, I am convinced, will expand beyond Russia to Europe. But at the same time, we ought to try to help Russia as much as we can in the war on terrorism itself. This is a dual policy of tremendous intricacy and the United States is not very good at pursuing dual track policies of this type of delicacy and stakes.”

Nicolas Gvosdev, a senior fellow at the Nixon Center and the executive editor of The National Interest, points out that the Chechen issue has more sides than is usually acknowledged. He says many of Chechnya’s Caucasus neighbors see Russian domination as preferable to the chaos and violence that could erupt if Moscow withdrew its forces.

“There is a kind of three-sided dynamic where the conflict in the region is not simply between a federal center and a separatist province seeking independence,” he says. “It also has features of a civil war within Chechnya between different clans, because there are several very pro-Moscow clans within Chechnya that see their own interest as remaining within the Russian Federation. And then there is the question of other regional leaders who have an interest in either containing Chechnya or seeing it not become independent.”

Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who visited Russia after the school massacre at Beslan in Ossetia, points out that the Chechen conflict is only the most obvious sign of a much larger crisis:

“The situation in the North Caucasus as a whole, all of this broader region, which in fact in Russian parlance, extends not just to the ethnically designated autonomous republics of the North Caucasus but also to Stavropol, Krasnodarski Krai, and as far as Rostov-on-Don -- this whole region is becoming increasingly desperate on the social, economic and political levels, as well as on the security level. So this is not simply the question of Chechnya that we are talking about here. Russia has much bigger problems.”

Responding to the terrorist threat, President Putin increased the powers of his security apparatus and limited the scope of local self-government. Some analysts believe he simply used terror as a pretext to consolidate his grip on power.

A former Polish Deputy Foreign Minister and an American Enterprise Institute scholar, Radek Sikorski, says that after the terrorist attacks in Russia, there was a swell of international solidarity with the Russians similar to the pro-American reaction after the attacks of September 11th. But in Mr. Sikorski’s view, the honeymoon was short-lived, especially in the countries of the former Soviet bloc because some measures used by Moscow reminded Eastern Europeans of old Soviet policies.

But Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution says fear of Russian imperialism and autocracy may be premature. In her view, President Putin’s recent anti-democratic moves are proof of weakness and desperation rather than a consolidation of power.

“He is again back to where he was when he first came to power,” she says, “talking about these fears of rozpad, rozval, meaning ‘collapse,’ ‘disintegration.’ And I feel what we are going to see now is a hollow, watered down state rather than a strong one as the result of those governance changes.”

Many western analysts say all of that does not promise a quick solution to the Chechen problem or the terrorist threat. Some analysts suggest that international intervention could break the impasse. But they doubt whether the world community is ready to take on another volatile region or whether President Putin will allow foreign involvement within the Federation’s borders.