Moscow airport bombing: A signal for Russia to change

If it turns out that the Moscow airport bombing was caused by terrorists from the north Caucasus, the Kremlin will need to do more than talk tough and blame airport security.

Russia’s leaders are responding to the tragic bombing at a Moscow airport much as they have after past terrorist attacks: very tough talk, a promise to track down the culprits, and citing lapses in security, in this case, by airport security.

Those responses may form a partial answer to Russia’s terrorist challenge, but they cannot be the whole answer. If Monday’s massive explosion in the international arrival hall of Domodedovo Airport turns out to be the work of terrorists from Russia’s north Caucasus region – and it bears their hallmark – then much more must be done to get at root causes as well as improve civilian security.

(For an op-ed on Russia's failed policy in the north Caucasus, click here.)

The Kremlin took a step in the right direction a year ago when it named a special envoy to the north Caucasus region, the turbulent area on Russia’s southern flank with a mostly Muslim population. The aim of the envoy, Alexander Khloponin, has been to win the hearts and minds of the impoverished people there through economic development projects.

This mountainous swath of provinces has caused trouble for the Kremlin ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, when separatists in Chechnya were put down after two wars that cost tens of thousands of lives.

But what was once a nationalist battle for independence in Chechnya has since spread as an Islamist call to jihad in neighboring provinces such as Dagestan and Ingushetia. A low-level civil conflict has developed, with almost daily skirmishes between security forces and militants who seek to establish a Muslim caliphate. Terrorist attacks in the north Caucasus quadrupled in 2010, according to an official Russian report.

The encouraging thing about Mr. Khloponin’s appointment last year was that it added a second prong to a Kremlin strategy that had relied almost exclusively on heavy-handed force and the installation of loyal political leaders. He wants to focus on energy and education, manufacturing and tourism as a way to lift crushing unemployment and remove the temptation of jihad as a career.

But as the world has seen in Iraq and other places plagued by insurgencies, tourists won’t come, foreigners won’t invest, and businesses won’t grow in the soil of injustice, corruption, insecurity, and suppression.

The key to these problems in Russia’s remote region is the same one that can unlock the country’s potential as a whole: Fair elections, not sham ones; impartial courts, not compliant judges; responsible police, not bribetakers; free media, not censorship.

What Russia faces on its southern flank is no less than nation building, complicated by clanism, deep historic grievances with Moscow, and differing interests among the local players. It is hard to see how the Kremlin can douse the flames of terrorism in the north Caucasus without being willing to cleanse Russia itself.

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