At recent summits with Russian leaders, European and US leaders have largely been mute about the spread of terrorism, insurgency and Islamic radicalisation across Russia’s North Caucasus. At the EU-Russia summit on 31 May and 1 June at Rostov-on-Don, European leaders should speak up.
Last year saw more than 900 violent deaths. Last week, nine died in Dagestan. Some killings lie far beyond the North Caucasus. In November a Moscow-St Petersburg express train was bombed, as were Moscow’s subways in March. The Kremlin’s strategy of meeting force with force shows no hope of bringing a stable peace.
Resistance to Russian rule in the North Caucasus runs deep. In the 19th century, Russia surrounded and subdued the Muslim North Caucasus, at appalling human cost. Wary of resistance, Russia ceded regional autonomy. In the Second World War, repression returned when Stalin deported half a million Chechens and Ingush to the east. Many perished.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, violence surged. Chechen fighters helped Abkhazia and South Ossetia win de facto separation from Georgia, and then turned their guns against Russian forces in Chechnya. In 1994, Moscow launched the first of two brutal wars there. In 2007, the Kremlin outsourced rule in Chechnya to a vicious warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov, and boosted subsidies. Chechen rebels once wanted separatism; now they and others seek jihad across the North Caucasus.
Terrorism and inept Russian responses have frequently led to innocent deaths. In 2002 at a Moscow theatre and in 2004 at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, suicide terrorists took hundreds of hostages. Many died when Russian forces stormed buildings.
Murders of human-rights activists and journalists who report on abuses, such as Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 and Natalia Estemirova in 2009, have deterred others from uncovering the truth.
Islamic extremism in the North Caucasus is radicalising young people and reviving suicide attacks. After the subway bombings, President Dmitry Medvedev called for “cruel” measures but also for “economic and social progress”. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin emphasises only force.
To solve its dilemma in the North Caucasus, Russia needs a more enlightened strategy, guided by several principles.
First, Moscow must make clear that brutality is unacceptable. Kremlin support for Kadyrov is an insult to all North Caucasians. Chechens should be allowed to choose their own leaders, and Russian security forces ought to be held accountable for excesses, which are common.
Second, Russian media should be more open about events in the North Caucasus. This will foster public understanding and improve decision-making.
Third, Russia’s military needs a better doctrine and training. The current doctrine, issued in February, claims NATO is the main threat and has lost credibility.
Fourth, Moscow should devolve more power to regional authorities, but with accountability to forestall new Kadyrovs. The 1994 power-sharing treaty with Tatarstan, which allows much autonomy but accepts some central authority, is one model.
Fifth, Russia should improve relations with its southern neighbours, Georgia and Azerbaijan. This might discourage them from exploiting unrest, as Georgia is doing by broadcasting TV into the region and vocally backing Circassian claims of Russian genocide in the 19th century. Improved relations would also diminish the risk of violence spreading southward, as nearly happened in the second war in Chechnya.
Such changes are vital if Russia wants a stable peace. Risks rise with delay. For example, suicide bombers could turn the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, on the edge of the North Caucasus, into a tragedy.
With its strategy failing, Russia should not continue rebuffing outside help. Moscow has little experience of leading peaceful change, and might turn for counsel to Europe, including the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the EU and the Council of Europe.
Former European Commission ambassador to Georgia and Armenia; director, Caucasus Policy Institute, King’s College London
Former US ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia
Former US ambassador to Belarus and Georgia; director, Dickey Center for International Understanding, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire
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