North Caucasus a Fertile Ground for Extremism

chechnya081409.jpgWe are pretty impressed with the latest article from Sarah Mendelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published by Foreign Policy.  It is exceptionally easy to whine and moan about conditions of injustice and human rights violations in Russia, while it is altogether another task to begin debating ideas as to how the international community can take concrete steps to help improve the situation.  Mendelson has not yet drank the kool-aid, and recognizes just how far away we really are from having either the Obama or Medvedev administrations actually care about what is happening in the North Caucasus, but it is rare to even see the hypothetical policies discussed.

Moreover, the North Caucasus embodies many of the characteristics Obama officials have cited as fostering terrorism. In 2006, a colleague and I commissioned a survey of 1,200 males in the Caucasian republics of Dagestan, North Ossetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. We found that young men in the area had few employment prospects. Neither the local nor federal governments delivered the social services they and their families needed, and they did not know who would supply jobs or a safety net for them. Our findings suggested that the North Caucasus is fertile ground for terrorist recruiters promising to provide for this young, disaffected population. Whoever gets there first will win the region. In fact, North Caucasians already serve as a recruitment pool for militias fighting outside of Russia and against the United States in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Obamaadministration’s counterterrorism policy, as outlined by White House aide JohnBrennan last week, focuses on identifying and altering such enablingenvironments. It nods to the role that socioeconomic deprivation plays indriving people to terrorist causes. The North Caucasus is a hot zone –Russia’s most pressing domestic problem and a burgeoning international concern.Therefore, getting targeted assistance to the region, including job creation,should be of the highest importance to the White House and State Department, aswell as European governments.

But working with theRussians on this issue won’t be popular or easy. It might also strike some inthe White House as out of sync with its recent message — “Russia’s future isup to Russians” — as Obama said last month.

That new approach isone I heartily applauded as one of the conveners of the Civil Society Summit,the Moscow forumwhere Obama delivered that message. Over two days of discussion, I heard a multitudeof Russian policy thinkers and activists articulate a deep desire to alter thedynamic of U.S.-Russian engagement, after years of one-way American lecturesabout the rule of law and democracy. Across the Russian political spectrum,they want peer-to-peer engagement. But the long-time trend within policycommunities of either not acknowledging, or not knowing what to do about thedisastrous human rights situation in the North Caucasus, poses a majorchallenge to the new approach.

Photo: A supporter holds portraits of murdered human rights activist ZaremaSadulayeva and her husband Umar Dzhabrailov during a memorial incentral Moscow August 13, 2009. Sadulayeva, the kidnapped head of acharity helping children in Russia’s troubled Muslim republic ofChechnya, was found dead of gunshot wounds in the boot of a car onTuesday along with her murdered husband. (Reuters Pictures)