Galloping lawlessness sweeps former Soviet lands

The horrific murder of four foreign engineers in Chechnya earlier this month emphasized an uncomfortable fact about the former Soviet Union: The real threat to security in the region is not a return to authoritarian government, but the lack of any government at all.

The three British citizens and a New Zealander, working in the north Caucasus republic for a British telecommunications company, were kidnapped by a Chechen gang in October and held for ransom. During a bungled rescue, they were killed.

These four now join a growing list of victims of the everyday violence that has followed the collapse of the Soviet order, including the regular kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder of local citizens as well as foreign businessmen, aid workers, and peacekeepers. In Chechnya alone, some 111 hostages, many of them foreign, are currently being held for ransom.

Low-level violence has become endemic across the archipelago of anarchy stretching from the Black Sea to Central Asia. After 1991, armed conflicts - from local violence to full-scale war - destroyed the residual legitimacy of local institutions after the end of communism. These disputes created new security vacuums, ungovernable black holes into which money, drugs, weapons, and people simply disappear. Recognized states are now not so much weak as simply irrelevant. Average post-Soviet citizens have discovered what Angolans and Afghans have known for a long time: In the absence of legitimate state authority, personal security is a self-help game.

The inability of the state to guarantee the security of its citizens, though, is not the only problem. Criminal entrepreneurs in these areas are learning how to export their lucrative brand of privatized violence.

In response to the recent air strikes on Iraq, Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov issued a statement threatening terrorist attacks against the US and Britain.

Last spring, the Trans-Dniester region in eastern Moldova, which declared independence in 1990 and fought a brief secessionist war two years later, announced that it has resumed production of small arms, a mainstay of the region's economy during the Soviet period. Trans-Dniester-produced weapons have found their way as far afield as Kosovo and Macedonia.

Abkhazia, whose mercenary army routed Georgian forces in 1993, has carved out an independent country both ungoverned and ungovernable. Abkhazia has become an important transit zone for weapons, drugs, and the increasingly profitable prostitute trade through the Turkish port of Trabzon, and from there to Europe and the Middle East. Local powers oppose any outsiders who might call attention to their business and have stepped up attacks on United Nations personnel in the area.

In North and South Ossetia, Russian border guards seeking to police the region are regularly ambushed or find themselves in the middle of fire-fights between rival Ossetian, Ingushetian, and Dagestani gangs.

Earlier this month in Tajikistan, the deputy chairman of the country's National Bank was kidnapped, the latest in a string of killings and disappearances linked to the lethal alliance of politics and transnational crime spawned by that country's unresolved civil war.

Some degree of order has begun to emerge in these zones, but it is hardly the kind of order that Western governments should welcome. On the ground, de facto countries are being forged. Trans-Dniester, Chechnya, and Abkhazia are set to become a new generation of unrecognized rogue states that hold sham elections, sign trade agreements, and teach new versions of history to schoolchildren. But these formal accouterments of statehood are little more than masks for illicit money-making, often at the expense of the people in whose name local leaders tout their independence.

These post-Soviet black holes are rarely of major concern to Western policymakers, who are focused on stopping hot wars in the Balkans and preventing their outbreak elsewhere. But in an era of so-called new security threats - from international terrorism to drug trafficking - these anarchic zones are critical problems. And they are problems not easily solved by peace agreements or peacekeepers. Cooperation among national police forces and greater assistance to front-line countries around the Black and Caspian seas are essential to checking the export of violence to other fragile states.

Interstate wars and large-scale ethnic conflict normally grab the headlines, but it is low-level lawlessness that poses the greatest threat to security and regional stability in the former Soviet south. Rogue regions are the real legacy of Soviet communism, and their increasing propensity to export the business of violence should be of central concern in the West.

* Charles King, a professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, wrote 'Nations Abroad: Diaspora Politics and International Relations in the Former Soviet Union' (Westview Press, 1998).

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