After two wars, Moscow has largely tamed Chechnya's separatists with the help of strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, though not without cost. An estimated quarter million people have been killed, and the tiny republic has turned into a totalitarian statelet. Dissenters face kidnapping, torture, and extrajudicial execution, says Alexander Cherkassov of Memorial, Russia's largest independent human rights group.
Indeed, as fresh unrest brews in the region – a crazy quilt of ethnic groups who were forced into the Russian Empire – Russia is applying the same method of suppression that put a lid on Chechnya. President Dmitry Medvedev has called for the "bandits" to be wiped out, and just today Russian forces said they had killed at least 20 insurgents in the Ingushetia region of the North Caucasus.
But there's one problem: While the Chechnya rebellion was nationalist, this threat has jihadist overtones.
"The Chechen rebels were originally fighting for independence, to break away from Russia and form their own nation," says investigative journalist Yulia Latynina. But now "the problem is jihadists; these people are fighting for God, not for freedom, and that is a whole different kind of challenge."
Attacks up 30 percent
The Islamist insurgency is targeting ethnic Russians and pro-Moscow local authorities. According to Kremlin envoy to the region Vladimir Ustinov, "terrorist acts" are up more than 30 percent in the region. Both the scale of the actions and the number of casualties are sharply on the increase.
"More and more young Muslims are joining the fight against the [pro-Moscow] authorities.... This is going to be a growing challenge for Moscow," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.ru, which specializes in security issues. But many independent experts argue the rebellion is largely local, fueled by corruption, poverty, and unemployment, and given an ideological spin by the post-Soviet Islamic revival. Add to that angry public reaction to the Kremlin-sponsored crackdown which, experts say, often targets whole villages and the families of suspected insurgents.
"The Kremlin thinks the pacification of Chechnya was a success that can be repeated," says Alexei Malashenko at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Until Russian leaders understand that dialogue must be part of the solution, I fear the situation in the northern Caucasus will continue to deteriorate."