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Russia bombing: Jihadis or sign of other trouble in north Caucasus?

A Russia bomb that killed six people in the Russian city of Stavropol has led to speculation about jihadis or Islamic militants. But analysts worry about a widening circle of instability – and players – in the north Caucasus.

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Sending a message?

It is also possible the bombing was intended as a message to Alexander Khloponin, a former Siberian governor and businessman who is now the Kremlin's powerful special emissary to the newly-created "North Caucasus Administrative Zone," who was due to visit Stavropol on Thursday. Next month, Mr. Khloponin is scheduled to release a plan to fight terrorism and restore stability to the troubled region, which may include firing scores of officials and re-allocating millions of dollars in Moscow aid.

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In an unusual interview with the government newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta on Thursday, Khloponin admitted that Islamist militants might be the least of his problems in the increasingly unsettled region.

"The problem is that criminals and organized crime engaged in property redistribution are trying to operate under the guise of terrorism and religious extremism within the (north Caucasus) district," Khloponin said. He added that if economic reforms take hold, the small numbers of Islamist insurgents will be easy to deal with. "Those bandits who are running around in the forest may be repelled without any need to impose the counter-terrorism operations," he said.

The Kremlin has granted Khloponin extraordinary powers, including sole authority to appoint and dismiss the heads of all federal agencies throughout the sprawling region, which includes the Russian territories of Stavropol and Krasnodar (where Sochi is located), plus seven mainly-Muslim ethnic republics strung out along the mountain line between the Caspian and Black Sea.

"Khloponin will make his program public in June, and it seems likely that he will emphasize social and economic development, which is very important in a region where unemployment is soaring and corruption is the number one problem," says Pavel Salin at the independent Center for Political Trends in Moscow. "His task number one will be to try to stop the theft of federal cash by local elites, who are helped by Moscow officials. This will make him a lot of enemies."

Though the Stavropol bombing has grabbed headlines this week, Mr. Soldatov says a bigger challenge for Khloponin is unfolding in the formerly peaceful ethnic republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, where there have been at least three terrorist attacks in the past two weeks. He says they are likely connected to a botched Kremlin policy of backing ethnic-Kabardins, who have been seizing the lands of their neighbours, the Balkars.

"There have been few victims in these attacks, but they are indicative of a new process going on in the region that amplifies the challenge facing Khloponin," says Soldatov. "There are many sources of instability, becoming aggravated all at once. As the Sochi Games approach, it only looks like it will get worse.