Putin's Spreading War
By Masha Lipman
Post" -- -- MOSCOW -- The attack on
Nalchik, capital of the north Caucasus republic of
Kabardino-Balkaria, was a carefully planned guerrilla operation
carried out in broad daylight in a big city. The estimates of
the fighters' numbers have varied from 50 to 600 (as of Sunday,
official figures and news service accounts cited more than 130
people dead, including 94 attackers, and 15 arrested), but the
important fact is that they were able to penetrate the city
unnoticed and unhampered, thus demonstrating a clear advantage
over numerically far superior federal forces in planning,
intelligence and organization.
Vladimir Putin inherited the problem of Chechnya when he came to
power. He pledged to make Russia safer, but during his tenure,
terrorism and subversive activity have steadily expanded. His
launching of the second atrocious war in Chechnya soon after he
took office as prime minister in 1999 led to a vicious circle of
guerrilla attacks, followed by retaliation by federal forces,
which in turn brought out increasing numbers of young Chechen
men seeking revenge. Later Putin opted for a Chechenization of
the crisis and ended up with a pro-Moscow Chechen leader with a
reputation as a butcher; his armed followers are reported to use
abductions, hostage-taking and torture against their enemies.
This man was granted the highest state award and was personally
befriended by Putin, who received him in the Kremlin.
Terrorist attacks under Putin have included the Moscow theater
siege in the fall of 2002, in which more than 800 people were
taken hostage by Chechen terrorists; a botched rescue operation
left 120 hostages dead. After that, terrorist attacks followed
in a quickening succession that climaxed in the terrible tragedy
at the Beslan schoolhouse in northern Ossetia in September 2004.
The terrorism problem was no longer confined to Chechnya; it had
spread all over the north Caucasus and was making plain the need
for a major rethinking of policy.
But instead of rethinking things, Putin seized on the Beslan
tragedy as an excuse to launch a political crackdown and to
further curb democratic practices. The information about the
situation in the north Caucasus, as well as anti-terrorist
operations, became even more tightly filtered by
state-controlled TV networks. The investigation of Beslan, like
that of the theater siege before it, has been much more about
helping high-ranking officials avoid accountability than about a
careful probe of the government's policy flaws.
When Putin took over as Russia's president, Kabardino-Balkaria
was quiet. But Putin's use of brutal force in Chechnya has
backfired, producing growing numbers of revenge-seekers. Further
centralization of power has led to deeper problems of the kind
inherent in a heavily bureaucratic system: poor performance,
lack of accountability, failure to coordinate efforts because
each official seeks first and foremost to avoid responsibility
at any cost. A local leader with an independent source of
authority is regarded with suspicion -- loyalty to the Kremlin
is valued above all. This breeds incompetence and powerlessness
among local officials.
Putin and those around him routinely attribute violent attacks
in the north Caucasus republics to international terrorism. In
fact, what is in common to all these predominantly Muslim
regions is the abominable corruption of the local elites, awful
social conditions and disenfranchised populations that become
easy prey for radical underground groups.
In addition, each of those territories has its own problem. For
instance, in Dagestan, where there is a complicated entanglement
of dozens of ethnic groups, the balance among clans is cracking,
leading to intense feuding. As a result, some 100 subversive
attacks and shootouts have occurred there over the past 10
months. In Kabardino-Balkaria, one of the causes of trouble
appears to be a fierce crackdown on Muslim believers; the
closure of most mosques and brutal police treatment of those
suspected of ties with Islamists have pushed young men to
organize against the police.
So far the government's social policy has been largely limited
to pouring more money into the troubled regions -- money that
mostly ends up in the pockets of the corrupt.
Rather than masterminding a strategy to address these problems,
Putin has allowed them to build; he blamed terrorism in the
north Caucasus on evil outside forces seeking to weaken Russia
because they regard it as a "threat that needs to be
Back in the mid-1990s, when the first Chechen war began, there
was talk of a nightmarish scenario in which the nations of the
Caucasus would join the Chechen rebels in their secessionist
cause. This threat was never realized and still does not seem
imminent, but the specter of a Caucasus war is closer today than
it was in the Russia that Putin inherited.
The Kremlin is hardly unaware of the gravity of the north
Caucasus problem. One year ago Putin put one of his most
efficient men in charge of this troubled region. But even if
good decisions are made, a huge hurdle will remain: the
irresponsibility and inefficiency of Putin's bureaucracy. Taking
that on is a task Putin is not ready for.
Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et
Contra journal, writes a monthly column for The Post.
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