Murat Zyazikov, the pro-Kremlin president of the southern Russian republic of Ingushetia, is a hunted man.
Since taking office in 2003, he has narrowly escaped assassination at the hands of a suicide car-bomber and a sniper, allegedly sent by local Islamic militants. In the past month alone, insurgents have bombed the motorcade of his deputy premier and opened fire on his security chief. A year ago, fighters loyal to Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev briefly seized the Ingush capital of Nazran, killing almost 100 police officers and government officials.
Mr. Zyazikov, a former general of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), shrugs all that off. "Things here are calm and peaceful," he told journalists at a meeting in his plush, golden-domed presidential palace. "These attacks against me and my officials are the work of desperate men who want to destabilize the situation in southern Russia. They hate the fact that we are building a worthy life for our people."
As the war in neighboring Chechnya grinds into its seventh year with no resolution in sight, conflicts are metastasizing around the troubled north Caucasus, which has been a zone of tension since it was conquered by Russia in the 19th century. The region is a patchwork quilt of warring ethnic groups and rival religions that makes Europe's other tangled knot, the Balkans, look tame by comparison.
Many experts say the Kremlin's grip, iron-hard in Soviet times, has slipped disastrously in recent years. "The Chechen conflict is spilling into neighboring republics, escalating the process of destabilization," says Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.
Zhairakhsky, a sparsely populated district amid the high, snow-capped mountains of southern Ingushetia, has remained relatively untouched by conflict. But, says local administrator Yakhya Mamilov, "if you stand on a mountaintop here and look around, you'll see wars flaring or brewing in every direction. It's impossible to build for the future with any confidence while these conditions last."
Rebel fighters from Chechnya, a few kilometers to the east, often take refuge among their Ingush ethnic kin in Zhairakhsky, locals say.
Further east is the Caspian Sea republic of Dagestan, with 32 constituent ethnic groups, where Islamist rebels stage almost daily bombings and ambushes against Russian security forces.
To the south and west two breakaway republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are locked in long-simmering wars of independence against the post-Soviet state of Georgia. Just next door on another side is traditionally Christian North Ossetia, hereditary enemy of the mainly Muslim Ingush, with whom they fought a savage border war in 1992.
Moscow has tried to maintain its authority by phasing out "unreliable" local leaders, and replacing them with loyalists like Zyazikov. "This tactic is not working," says Alexander Iskanderyan, head of the Center for Caucasian Studies. "Moscow imagines that exchanging 'bad' officials with 'good' ones will change things, but the main trend we see is a steady loss of control."
Passions in Ingushetia and N. Ossetia are still seething over the Beslan school massacre a year ago. On Sept. 1, 2004, a squad of 32 terrorists, most of them ethnic Ingush, drove from Ingushetia and seized 1,200 hostages in Beslan's School No. 1, just across the border in N. Ossetia. Three days later Russian security forces launched a massive assault on the building, leaving 331 people dead, half of them children.
Zyazikov, and other pro-Kremlin officials, blame the outrage on "international terrorism." North Ossetia's acting president, Taimuraz Mamsurov, says the Beslan school siege was a deliberate attempt by "certain forces" to stir up ethnic war between Ingush and Ossetians. "Tensions have increased (since Beslan), that's natural," he says. "But I think we've succeeded in restraining our people from fulfilling that scenario."
Others doubt the danger has passed. "Everyone here is always talking about getting ready for war with the Ingush, to get even with them," says Madina Pedatova, a teacher at Beslan's spanking new School No. 8. "I'm terrified of it, but I'm sure it's coming."
Just across the heavily fortified Ingush-N. Ossetian border thousands of Ingush refugees forced from their homes in N. Ossetia in 1992 live in a sprawling, squalid refugee camp. Here the hatred is palpable. "The Ossetians are like Nazis. They drove us from our homes (in 1992) like cattle, showing no humanity," says Umar Khadziyev, unemployed, who lives in a small hut with his wife and three children.
Mr. Khadziyev says he condemns the Beslan attack, with its terrible death toll of children. But then he adds: "Do you know why the fighters drove past two Ossetian schools before taking School No. 1 in Beslan? It's because the Ossetians used that very school as a prison for our people in 1992. Yes, our women and children were held there, in that same gym, beaten up and denied food and water. Nobody talks about that, do they?"
For Moscow, the spreading unrest, fuelled by Islamic extremists in some republics and ancient ethnic antagonisms in others, poses an almost nightmarish challenge. After Beslan, President Vladimir Putin warned that the cost of failure could be "the destruction of Russia." Says Khadziyev, the Ingush refugee: "Our grandfathers told us the USSR would collapse one day. I'm sure that Russia is going to fall apart too."