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Russia's Underground Fire: Politics, Security and Human Rights in the North Caucasus

In April 2009, the Russian government announced it was ending "counter-terrorism operations" in Chechnya, effectively declaring victory over separatist rebels in the troubled republic. A closer look, however, reveals that in recent years the insurgency has spilt over Chechnya's borders, radicalized, and spread across the whole North Caucasus region of Russia. At a 29 March 2010 Kennan Institute lecture, Tom Parfitt, correspondent for The Guardian in Moscow and Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, discussed the evolution of the Chechen separatist movement and how the Russian government has dealt with one of its gravest internal threats.

In 1991 separatist Dzhokhar Dudayev declared Chechnya to be a sovereign state, prompting a war between Russia and Chechen separatists that began in 1994 and ended in 1996 with an unsteady truce. Russian forces reinvaded three years later and routed the separatists from the capital city of Grozny. Since then, the rebels have waged war against the Russian-backed Grozny government, although the nature of the insurgency has changed.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, noted Parfitt, the once secular nationalist separatist movement became influenced by Islamic field commanders who were increasingly religious and fundamentalist. With Dudayev killed by Russian forces, Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev rose to the helm, orchestrating the terrorist siege on a school in Beslan in 2004 and establishing a flexible network of radical Islamic groups in neighboring regions.

Although Basayev too was eventually killed by Russian forces, rebel leader Doku Umarov has taken his place and allied the fight against the Russian government with the global jihadi movement, seeking to declare a Caucasus emirate state based on Sharia law. Parfitt noted that last spring Umarov revived the rebels' training unit for suicide bombers and vowed that "the fight will return to the Russian heartland," made evident most recently by the Moscow train bombings of 29 March 2010.

Parfitt outlined the Russian government's responses to the Chechen separatist movement and their relative effectiveness in quelling the rebels. Military and counterterrorism strategies have been partly successful; however, the atrocious behavior of Russian soldiers there – including kidnappings, murder, and rape – has contributed to keeping the insurgency alive.

Ramzan Kadyrov, Russian-appointed President of Chechnya, is the Kremlin's "biggest success and failure" according to Parfitt. Chechnya is now calmer than Dagestan and Ingushetia, but much of that is due to Kadyrov's brutal and repressive measures. He has supported arson of separatists' family members' homes, assassination of political opponents, and allegedly the murder of human rights advocate Natasha Estemirova. His actions have spurred many Chechens who never considered joining the Islamist insurgency to do so, and even officials in Russia see his assertion of power as evidence that he might soon slip the Kremlin leash.

Parfitt emphasized that a policy focusing on the socioeconomic routes of radicalization is vital to stemming the violence. Chechnya's unemployment rate hovers at about 50 percent and across the region as a whole, widespread poverty, a large population of young people, the brutality of law enforcement officials and predominantly rough terrain have created ideal conditions for insurgency. Indeed, a 2006 Levada poll of young men in Dagestan, Kabardino Balkaria and North Ossetia indicated that they did not feel strong ethnic tensions in the region but rather suffered from high unemployment and bad governance, a result of endemic corruption on all levels.

The Kremlin has responded with some effective measures. In 2004, federal funds were allocated for the reconstruction of Grozny; in 2008, President Medvedev removed the much-hated president of Ingushetia, and in early 2010 Medvedev appointed former businessman Alexander Khloponin to head the newly created North Caucasus Federal District. "The vital task is to raise the prestige of local authority and create jobs so being a guerilla fighter is less attractive," remarked Parfitt.

This seemingly distant conflict also impacts the interests of the United States, argued Parfitt. Chechen separatists' links with the global jihadi movement have strengthened, increasing the danger of cross-fertilization with insurgents in Central Asia, a region which has several U.S. military bases. In addition, a successful "reset" between Russia and the US and Europe is hampered by Russia's human rights record in the region; almost all cases involving Russia in the European Court of Human Rights are brought by Chechens seeking redress for Russian soldiers' violations of basic rights, including the right to life. "The U.S. is doing itself a favor if it can stop the circle of violence in the region," concluded Parfitt.

Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute

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Larissa Eltsefon

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American expertise and knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, and the region. Through its residential fellowship programs, public lectures, workshops, and publications, the Institute strives to attract, publicize, and integrate new research into the policy community.  Read more