The Crime-Conflict Nexus in the Caucasus: Some Rocky Mountains
Hello dear readers. To introduce myself: I’m a journalist working in Russia. I’ve just joined the team at the Crime-Conflict Nexus Blog and will be contributing posts on Russia and the post Soviet space, though I won’t rule out trampling elsewhere if I deem it useful and interesting!
This post is an introduction to the Crime-Conflict Nexus in an area that well deserves such a label: the Caucasus. A deeply complex region with many different ethnic groups, and national loyalties of various strengths; Islam meets Christianity here, thrown in with old Communist Atheism and even Buddhism in nearby steppe regions. Many call the Caucasus the cradle of civilisation, and the history of loyalties and antagonisms here is a long and convoluted one. The search for power in the mountains has long been spun amidst a web of clan, religious, ethnic and national groupings. It makes for some bewildering, and markedly uncivilised behaviour.
When writing about Russia and the post soviet space at this time in its history, the Caucasus is the place to start. Earlier this year peace seemed outwardly to be returning to the Caucasus. On the 16th April 2009 President Dmitry Medvedev announced the end of a ten year anti-insurgency operation in the Russian republic of Chechnya.
More correctly perhaps, the open warfare is over. It may resume. But the time since the ‘end of violence’ in the region has been riddled with evil. Corruption, terror, murder, mudslinging and more. None of the dark arts of ‘peacetime’ seem taboo in the Caucasus.
The death toll in this ‘peaceful, developing territory’ tells another story. A short chronology to refresh the mind may help. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
16th April- Russia ends its ten year long ‘counter terrorism’ operation in Chechnya, the southern Russian Republic that borders the other Russian republics of Ingushetia, and Dagestan in the west and east and the country of Georgia in the south. According to Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s president, the Russian republic is, “a peaceful, developing territory, and cancelling the counter-terrorism operation will only promote economic growth in the republic.” They will prove to be foolish words.
5th June- Dagestan’s interior minister is shot dead by a sniper.
10th June- One of Ingushetia’s top judges is shot dead whilst dropping off her children at school.
22nd June- The President of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yukurov, is taken to hospital after a suicide car bomb attempt. The Kremlin puts Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov in charge of security there in the mean time. Yukurov returned to his post on August 22nd.
24th June- Chechnya’s president Ramzan Kadyrov promises ‘cruel revenge’ on those who attacked Ingushetia’s president, Yunus-Bek Yukurov. He also says Moscow has allowed him to take charge of Ingush security until Yukurov gets better, a claim disputed by some Ingush politicians.
4th July- Nine Chechen police are killed inside Ingushetia and another nine are wounded in two separate gun and grenade attacks on police vehicles. The Chechen police were helping Ingushetia’s security forces as part of Ramzan Kadyrov’s promise of ‘cruel revenge’ on the militants that attacked Ingushetia’s president.
11th July- Four militants are shot dead by government forces in Ingushetia.
12th July- Five militants die in a gun battle with authorities in Dagestan.
13th July- Russian security forces shoot dead five militants in Chechnya. On the same day a policeman is killed and six others are injured by a bomb explosion in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. Three militants and a soldier die in a firefight in Dagestan. Also in Dagestan the same day, gunmen ambush a police patrol killing two officers and a sniper shoots dead a third policeman in a separate incident.
15th July- Natalia Estemirova, a prominent human rights worker in Chechnya and friend of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, is bundled into a van as she leaves her home. Her body is found in woods in neighbouring Ingushetia nine hours later with bullet wounds to the head and chest. On the same day two police officers and two soldiers are killed and six are wounded in a battle with militants in Chechnya. A court bailiff and a relative are killed in Ingushetia.
3rd August- Five policemen are killed by grenades and gunfire in an ambush in Chechnya.
10th August – Zarema Sadulayeva, a children’s charity worker and friend of Natalia Estemirova is taken with her husband from her office. They are both shot and their bodies are found in the boot of a car near Chechnya’s capital, Grozny.
12th August- Ingushetia’s construction minister is shot dead at his office in the town of Magas.
17th August- Twenty five people are killed and 160 wounded as a bomber rams his explosives packed car into the gates of a police station in the Ingush city of Nazran.
21st August- Four policemen are killed and more wounded in five separate bicycle suicide bomb attacks in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny.
This is crime, this is nationalism, this is religious extremism and this is state brutality. The militants are thugs, and so is Ramzan Kadyrov. He used to be a separatist rebel himself but was enticed into running Chechnya by the Kremlin. This is a low level insurgency with high costs in an area where order is notoriously difficult to enforce.
In fact, the point to remember here, your ‘pinch of salt’ perhaps, concerns image and reality. Rewind briefly to the start of our small chronology. The day after the end of the counter terrorism operation was triumphantly announced, police in Ingushetia released their own insurgency related casualty figures (see 9th paragraph) from January to March 2009. They estimate that 27 militants, 18 policemen, and 2 civilians were killed and 44 injured in gun attacks and explosions.
That doesn’t sound like peace to me. Even before the ‘new’ insurgency the killing was continuing at a merry pace. Few areas of the world fit the model of a ‘crime-conflict nexus’ better than the Caucasus. It is difficult and often fatally dangerous to try and glean reliable information about what is going on there. The politics of hate and ethnic brutality mix so incongruously with seemingly unthinkable political accommodations that the whole situation seems baffling to most people not up to their necks in it.
Its difficult to know what kind of Russian forces are there but some are still likely to be underpaid, frustrated conscripts. Government corruption involving the money thrown at the region has wasted vast sums and bolstered a dictatorial regime. Crime funds militant activities there (go to the question ‘which terrorist groups operate in Chechnya?’), who are also linked to international Islamic extremist networks. Violence is the question, and force the answer of choice.
There are a few things we can say about the Caucasus with reasonable surety. Russia’s hold on the region has always been tenuous and has involved periodic floods of troops. Power struggles between local warlords have always ground on regardless of who is nominally in control. Few tools in the sordid kits of the power seekers are off limits.
Unfortunately, there’s one word I think describes the region best, messy.
I’ll finish by linking this on to an anniversary which demonstrates just how messy and upsetting it can get. On the 1st of September it was the start of the Russian school year. Thousands of nervous, excited, blubbing and laughing Russian kids were singing songs, bringing in flowers for their teachers, welcoming in a year of discovery and saying goodbye to mummy for their first day at school.
It was also five years to the day when Caucasian (meaning in this instance ‘from the Caucasus’) Muslim terrorists herded more than a thousand children with their teachers and parents inside the gym of School Number One in Beslan. This is in the Caucasus region of North Ossetia, with strong ties to Russia. The terrorists were most probably from the regions covered above. In the botched storming that was never supposed to have happened three days later, over three hundred of the hostages, over half of them children, died. Here’s the link to Channel Four’s Dispatches programme on it, first transmitted just under a year later. It’s not the only one, but it lets the story do the talking. Try not to cry.