MOSCOW – Three insurgents and one policeman were killed in a gun battle in the southern Russian region of Dagestan, the latest in a wave of attacks rocking the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region.
The shoot-out took place after police stopped a car for a document check in Dagestan’s capital Makhachkala last night, state television reported today. The number of violent deaths almost tripled this summer as the fight between the authorities and Islamic militants in the North Caucasus also cost the lives of civilian bystanders and human rights activists.
The explosion of violence is the result of poverty, corruption and government neglect, according to both officials and their critics. Those factors combined with a militant brand of Islam that has replaced communism as an ideology means Prime Minister Vladimir Putin faces the worst instability in the region since he sent troops to subdue a rebellion in Chechnya a decade ago.
“One of the most dramatic results of that war is a joint insurgency operating under central command,” said Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Russia office. “It’s not separatism anymore, it’s a jihadist insurgency.”
By the middle of September, 424 people had been killed in attacks in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan this summer, almost three times the number of violent deaths in the same period last year, according to state-run news agency RIA Novosti. Those killings include an August suicide truck bombing at an Ingush police station that killed 25 and the July murder of Chechen human rights activist Natalya Estemirova.
Putin pledged to continue supporting the region in a meeting with Dagestani President Mukhu Aliyev in Moscow today. “Attempts to destabilize the situation continue to this day,” Putin said on state television. “I’m sure that nobody will succeed in doing that.”
Alexei Malashenko, an Islam expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said heavy-handed security operations cannot undo the root causes of the “latent civil war” and will only exacerbate grievances.
“Moscow still hasn’t worked out a strategy on the North Caucasus and hasn’t even tried,” he said. “The Kremlin doesn’t want to recognize there’s a real Islamic opposition.”
Response Is Insufficient
While President Dmitry Medvedev has conceded that the government’s response to the violence is insufficient, he has also called on law enforcement to eliminate terrorists “without emotion or hesitation.”
Even as young people in most of Russia embraced western lifestyles and culture after the fall of communism, their peers in the North Caucasus gravitated toward the “active, militant” Islam of the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, Malashenko said. Protest against social ills, poverty and bad governance inevitably took on a religious character.
“The radicalization was a gradual process. Now it’s matured and become critical,” said Adam Gazdiyev, the spokesman for Ingushetia’s representative office in Moscow. “It’s a law of physics: there was an ethical-moral vacuum, and the radicals began to fill it.”
The North Caucasus region, 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) to the south of Moscow, is largely agricultural, with its economy crippled by two wars in Chechnya, a lack of investment and post-communist decay. In May, Ingushetia had Russia’s highest unemployment rate, 50.3 percent, with Chechnya following at 33.9 percent, according to the Federal Statistics Service.
Money that does flow from the central government in Moscow rarely reaches its intended beneficiaries.
“Over a long period of time, corruption grew to unbelievable levels,” Gazdiyev said. “The government existed for itself, apart from the people. It was impossible for them to count on the local government to solve their problems.”
Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the survivor of a June assassination attempt, has won praise for his efforts to tackle the roots of extremist activity. Yevkurov, who took power last year, told state television last week that “the use of force is only 1 percent to 2 percent of the process. The rest consists of social and economic efforts.”
Yevkurov’s engagement of local human rights groups should be a model for neighboring Chechnya, Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg said on a visit to Moscow this month. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov must also solve Estemirova’s murder and address the lack of discipline among law enforcement bodies, Hammarberg said.
Kadyrov, the son of a former separatist spiritual leader, has used Kremlin subsidies to give a semblance of normalcy to Chechnya after two wars against Moscow. Estemirova researched abuses by his security forces before she was killed.
“There’s been an unspoken agreement between the center and the North Caucasus: we give you money and you guarantee us total loyalty,” said Islam expert Malashenko. “This didn’t solve any of the underlying problems. It’s feudalism.”
Violence flared up in Chechnya even after the Russian government in April lifted a decade-long “counter-terrorism” operation in the province, less than the size of Wales.
Rooting out the causes of terrorism is a process that will take many years, as the authorities have to rebuild trust and convince fighters to return to civilian life, Yevkurov said on state television.
“Kadyrov was so popular with the Kremlin because he seemed successful in stamping out the insurgency. Today there may be growing discontent with him,” said activist Lokshina. “The Kremlin needs to realize that what Yevkurov is doing is much more sustainable.”
Simply dumping money on the region isn’t a long-term solution, she said, as young people in the North Caucasus are alienated because of a lack of educational opportunities and social mobility.