News / Europe

Russia Faces Continuing Problems in the Northern Caucasus

Up to 100,000 Chechens may have died in two wars Russia waged against Chechnya since 1990s, fueling resentment and future suicide bombers

Peter Fedynsky

Authorities in Russia suspect a connection between Monday's subway bombings in Moscow and rebel activity in the country's troubled Northern Caucasus.  The region has a centuries-long history of resistance to Russian rule.

Speaking at a televised Kremlin meeting, the head of Russia's Federal Security Service, Alexander Bortnikov, told President Dmitri Medvedev that terrorist groups from the Northern Caucasus may be behind the subway bombings.  The reason, said Bortnikov, is evidence from body parts of two alleged female suicide bombers found on the scene link them to the region, though he did not give details.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says he is convinced Russian law enforcement will do everything to find and punish those responsible.  Terrorists, he warns, will be destroyed.

Mr. Putin says only united effort can help Russia find a solution to the task at hand, the ultimate destruction of the underground and everything tied to what he called that ugly and horrible phenomenon known as terrorism.

The deputy speaker of parliament, Alexander Torshin, told the Interfax News Agency the bombings could be in retaliation for recent killings of two prominent Islamic rebel leaders in the Caucasus.  Both were allegedly linked to Doku Umarov, a militant Islamist leader in Chechnya who recently threatened to strike Moscow.  

Political analyst Nikolai Petrov at the Moscow Carnegie Center told VOA Umarov is one of many rebel leaders fighting for power in the Caucasus.

Petrov says it is difficult to fight Northern Caucasus terrorism, because it has not had a subordinated and centralized structure for a long time.  Instead, it consists of al-Qaida-like terrorist cells, which leads Petrov to conclude that talk about the influence of individual leaders is exaggerated.  As a result, says Petrov, their elimination will not stop terrorism, because each cell is autonomous.

As many as 100,000 Chechens may have died in two wars Russia waged against Chechnya since the 1990s.  Nikolai Petrov says those wars resulted in a huge number of angry people volunteering for suicide bombings.

Among them are so-called Black Widows - women who lost loved ones in violence permeating the Caucasus.  Sergei Arutunyov, head of the Caucasus Department at the Russian Academy of Sciences explains:

Arutunyov says someone may have kidnapped and tortured to death a woman's husband, brother or father, and she lives with dreams of revenge.  

Moscow's last suicide bombing in August 2004 was perpetrated by a woman.

Arutunyov notes Russia has tried to control the Caucasus since the time of Czar Peter the Great in the 18th century.  He says that during Soviet times the people of Chechnya resented such Kremlin policies as collectivization of land, atheism, and above all, the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Chechens after World War II.  

Many consider the Caucasus as Russia's strategic link to Caspian Sea oil and a conduit in influencing policy in the Middle East and Central Asia.  Arutunyov says Moscow cannot retreat from the area for domestic reasons as well.

He says granting independence to one region in the Caucasus will cause a chain reaction not only in such Muslim republics as Tatarstan and Bashkiria [on the Volga River], but could encourage Russian separatists in the Far East.  Arutunyov says Russians there are constantly dissatisfied with central authorities in Moscow and believe they could have better economic relations with China and Japan if they were independent.

Other Caucasus republics, especially Ingushetia and Dagestan, experience frequent violence, including assassinations of politicians and judges.  Prime Minister Putin told regional leaders in January that local bandits, as he put it, had been repulsed and the state must now fight against corruption and poverty that plague the region.  Many of the region's unemployed come to Moscow for work.

Putin's popularity soared during the second Chechen war, which was seen as the way to return order to the Caucasus.  But Nikolai Petrov says the problems there go beyond the personalities of Mr. Putin and President Medvedev.

Petrov says the problems are related to the entire political system, which is based not on institutions, but rather on the extensive personal popularity of the prime minister and president.  He says if that popularity declines, which is to be expected during an economic crisis and now partially because of the Chechen solution proposed by Putin, then the entire political system loses its only basis for stability.

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