Russia’s Iraq
Deutsche Welle

Russia’s Iraq

Russia has been increasingly frustrated by the situation in the volatile northern Caucasus, where neither warfare nor economic investment has proven effective. Instead, the violent separatist insurgency has spread.

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With Moscow investigators reportedly searching for a trio of Chechens in connection with Monday’s suicide bombing at Domodedovo airport, attention has once again turned to the volatile North Caucasus, where Russia has been battling a stubborn insurgency for years.

The area has been troubled since Russian troops marched into Chechnya in 1994 following the state’s unilateral declaration of independence. After the initial war and reoccupation of the capital city Grozny, the soldiers returned in 1999, starting what has become known as the second Chechen war, which ended with Russia’s unstable military occupation of the province.

Guerrilla war ensued, and Russia frequently referred to its own “war on terror” – against an insurgency that became increasingly Islamist as the past bloody decade wore on. Finally, in April 2009, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared that that the trouble in Chechnya was over. He appointed the former businessman Alexander Khloponin as a new plenipotentiary to the North-Caucasian Federal District a year later, a new man who arrived offering to give the region an image overhaul.

“The Caucasus is not a nuclear bomb and not a powder keg, on which we sit. It is a strategic territory for Russia,” Khloponin told journalists in May 2010. This explained why “that amount of money is invested into Northern Caucasus; and so many armed forces are kept there.”

Putin’s ‘mission accomplished’ moment

But the army has remained, and troops have kept getting killed one by one. Analysts say the carrot and stick policy of economic investment and targeted attacks on separatist leaders has merely suppressed rather than eradicated the insurgency.

“I think that over the past year the Kremlin has been experiencing something akin to Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment in Iraq,” Ben Judah, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told Deutsche Welle.

While Chechnya itself has become relatively peaceful compared to five years ago, violence has stirred in the neighboring regions of Ingushetia, Dagestan, North Ossetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. “The situation has clearly been increasing in intensity, but also in scope,” said Judah. “This has taken the Kremlin by surprise.”

As a whole, the region is far from pacified. The Russian military has said they’re losing as many as six interior ministry troops a day, and last year Russia lost more of her security forces in North Caucasus than the US lost in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in the first nine months of 2010 the number of attacks linked to separatist violence quadrupled to 352 compared to the previous year.

Economic investment lost to bribery

Khloponin’s drive to promote investment in the region is therefore coming under increasing doubt. Uwe Halbach, researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), thinks the airport bombing will not do his cause much good. “This well-meaning reform strategy is being questioned more and more,” he told Deutsche Welle. “In the light of the precarious security situation in the region, companies that support tourism in North Caucasus will lose confidence.”

It is almost impossible to say which of Russia’s many problems is the worst. On a basic level, Judah believes Russia’s endemic corruption is compromising security for its population. “According to Transparency International, Russia is as corrupt as Congo or Papua New Guinea,” he said. “The fact that the state is increasingly corrupt means that the state isn’t functioning efficiently, and is exposing normal Russians to dangers.”

“The latest estimate is that bribes swallow up to 20 percent of the entire Russian GDP,” Judah added. This is clearly also affecting North Caucasus. “The Russian government is always announcing that large amounts of funds will be dispatched to the region,” said Judah. “But the question is, with corruption, how much is actually getting there?”

“Even though corruption is such a problem in Russia anyway, there’s almost no region in Russia that is so affected by corruption as North Caucasus,” agreed Halbach. But this is just one of many problems. “It’s everything,” the researcher continued. “It’s the state of the regional authorities, the official security organs and the government organs. There’s Islamist mobilization, there are mafia organizations. There are just so many different sources of violence.”

All these factors fuel separatist groups. “Human rights abuses, poverty, economic difficulties, and the fact they don’t see themselves as being control of their own destiny. All these things foment separatism,” said Judah. On top of this, “there are large ethnic tensions in Russia, which cause a lot of discontent in the Caucasus region. People in Moscow call people from the Caucasus ‘blacks.'”

Degrees of separatism

The complexity of the discontent in the region is reflected in the way separatist impulses are expressed. The situation in North Caucasus is a lot more complex than is perhaps appreciated in the rest of the world, or even in Moscow. No single separatist group holds sway – while jihadism has certainly grown over the past few years, Islamic extremism is far from being the dominant rallying point for disgruntled people in the area.

“It depends who you mean by separatist,” said Judah. “There are people who would like the region to have more autonomy, but are not willing to risk their lives or their livelihoods for it. Then you have people who used to be separatist, when they were young, or when the situation was different, but who are now making money out of Russian investment in the region. Then you have people who will help separatists without being directly involved, then you have a variety of separatist splinter groups – some Islamic extremist, some more nationalist.”

The two civil wars in Chechnya have left a legacy of hatred that Russia’s economic policies in the region, hamstrung by corruption, have done little to assuage.

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