The fact that the unsolved war in the North Caucasus has come back to Moscow’s doorstep once again raises some big questions for the leadership – and these questions will not be answered by more of the same tough talk from Vladimir Putin to “destroy” the terrorists. Instead attention should be focused on having a serious conversation with the public about the Kremlin’s conflict management tactics in the Caucasus.
However this re-examination of the roots of Russia’s terror problem is going to be difficult with such a high level of public outrage. The tactics used by the suspected two female bombers are as ugly,odious, and indiscriminate as they come. Sources at the InteriorMinistry have told the press that they believe that each bomber carriedsome 1.5 kilograms of explosive on their belts, packed with nails andmetal fragments. The first bomb detonated shortly before the8:00AM rush hour at Lubyanka, followed 40 minutes later by the ParkKultury bomb, achieving their goal of causing a gruesome level of carnage and injury.
The calls for revenge are many, and the government’s promises to crack down violently on the terrorists are resounding popularly with the frightened citizens … who only a week ago were staging protests of thousands every weekend across multiple cities. War, unfortunately, is a politically comfortable position for a government, and even more so for the siloviki, who have used terror as a pretext to seize expansive powers, cancel direct elections for governors, and even ban jury trials for certain cases.
I am not one to buy into the current round of false flag conspiracy theories – even if past government conduct has encouraged such speculation, and I don’t believe that taking potshots between opposition and regime apologists is advancing the debate. However if we cannot even consider the possibility that the Kremlin’s policy for the North Caucasus has failed, and that new approaches should be explored and implemented, then we are not dealing with the problem in an intelligent manner.
It is evident that the bruising methods of the mini-fiefdom conceded to Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, with Vladimir Putin’s oft-expressed personal endorsement, is failing. The victims of his regime, numbering in the tens of thousands by this point, are an embarrassment to the Russian Federation, and it is no longer an excuse for the Kremlin to claim they are powerless to remove him – especially when the consequences of his human rights abuses begin claiming the lives of innocents in Moscow.
The vacuum of rule of law is also contributing to the proliferation of terror entrepreneurs in Russia. The FSB and other organs of the security services are acting with wide impunity, and carrying out programs in open violation of the people’s rights – such as the brutal filtration camps. Filtration was just one atrocity uncovered by human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who was later assassinated in broad daylight upon leaving a press conference concerning the early release of the military officer Budanov, who was guilty of murdering and raping an 18-year-old Chechen girl. Human rights activists like Natalia Estemirova, who specifically tracked the abuses of Kadyrov, is savagely murdered and then forgotten without anyone being brought to justice. How can the Russian authorities talk about any serious security and anti-terrorism policy when this is the environment which has been created and maintained?
In foreign policy, big miscalculations have made things worse. Russia should never have recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia independence while at the same time trying to convince their own separatists that the preservation of constitutionalism would solve the conflict. The latest national security doctrine has made it clear that the Kremlin considers the United States and NATO as their primary enemies as though invasion were imminent, while much less is written about the domestic terrorism issue and almost nothing about the rise of China in its backyard.
Lastly there is the shameful complicity and silence of Western countries, who have always been able to look the other way despite the mounting evidence of something approaching genocide happening on the continent. They have stayed silent on the murders of Politkovskaya, Estemirova, and so many others, and have ignored the fact that the European Court of Human Rights is currently investigating almost as many disappearances as the Argentinean military junta of the 1970s.
The primary failure of the Kremlin’s Caucasian strategy is the resolute absence of governance, and the tolerance of local clan politics above the institutions of state. Where is Chechnya’s program for economic modernization? Where are Ingushetia’s social services? What is the plan for a reconciliation process and de-militarization of the region?
It is certainly not that some talented individuals within the Russian government haven’t also come up with good ideas for a new direction in the Caucasus, the problem is that these reforms always end up blocked? Take for example the recommendations from Putin’s former envoy to the region, Dmitry Kozak, one of the Kremlin’s more open and intelligent individuals, which urged Moscow to relinquish more political control and democratic options to the region, with a focus on economic and social development. One academic has argued in a paper that Kozak’s recommendations were shut down and tossed out as they conflicted with Putin’s plans for re-centralization.
Hopes again have been raised by President Dmitry Medvedev’s potential willingness to change the approach, after he appointed the non-FSB official Alexander Khloponin, who has a good reputation as an effective and honest political leader. But until Kadyrov is brought back under some form of accountability, there is little reason to believe that significant changes are underway.
What happened in Moscow this week is dreadful, and even more so because it feels like we are seeing history repeating, with the subway bombings in Pushkinskaya in 2000, Belorusskaya in 2001, and Avtozavodskayaand Rizhskaya in 2004. In addition to the collective trauma of Nord Ost and Beslan, it should be clear that fresh thinking about the Caucasian conflict is a top priority for anyone who cares about Russia’s future.