Despite Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to end Russia’s counterterrorism operations in Chechnya last year, insurgents remain active. Since 2009, the number of terrorist attacks carried out by Islamist insurgents has increased significantly throughout the North Caucasus region—which includes Chechnya—and even affected Moscow.
This is not surprising. Russia’s counterterrorism strategy in Chechnya over the past decade has led to mixed results. On the one hand, large groups of terrorists led by Shamil Basayev, Doku Umarov, and others have been decimated and their leaders killed. On the other, terror attacks have occurred in Chechnya, in neighboring Russian provinces like Stavropol, and even in the Moscow where metro bombings killed at least 38 people earlier this year.
There are many reasons for the rise in attacks. Penetrating closely knit cells is difficult; anti-terrorist forces employ crude tactics; and the general economic, social, and “ideological” environment in the region tends to support terrorists. As a result, the current counterterrorism strategy must be modified to successfully reduce the levels of violence and bring greater stability to the region.
There is no need now or in the foreseeable future for a massive use of military force. While the police, anti-terror units, special forces, and the like can be indispensable in certain circumstances, they alone cannot turn the North Caucasus into a “normal” region.
Economic development is the right path. It would give people, especially young men, work; but, even more importantly, it can arrest the trend toward de-modernization and de-industrialization. The problem is pervasive corruption, both in the region and in Moscow. Simply pumping money into the region is a waste of funds and another form of corruption.
Russian policy makers must demonstrate the political leadership necessary to help resolve the North Caucasus problem by taking specific steps in several areas.
First, they must find the time and make an effort to understand the North Caucasus and its diverse areas, ethnic groups, and religions. Doing so will make their strategies better informed and more effective.
Second, they must appoint capable administrators in the region. These administrators must be knowledgeable about the North Caucasus and able and willing to connect with local elites while practicing federalism.
Third, the administrators should work closely with and promote these elites as long as they seek to enhance the region’s prosperity through modernization and integration with the rest of the Russian Federation.
Fourth, Russian leaders should reduce corruption, starting with their own federal government. Restoring a modicum of moral authority to Moscow in the eyes of the North Caucasus elites and other citizens will help Russia to effect change in the region.
Fifth, they should also support moderate Islam in the North Caucasus, on a par with support for Christianity elsewhere in Russia. By working with moderate Islam followers, they can reduce the appeal of extremists who threaten the region.
Finally, Moscow’s policy makers must allocate funds, yet spend money carefully to maximize the benefit to ordinary citizens in the North Caucasus.
In addition to Russia, the international community—particularly Western governments and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—can help to improve the situation in the North Caucasus. U.S./NATO success in Afghanistan and Pakistan would be a good thing, from the standpoint of what is happening in the North Caucasus. Conversely, a U.S./NATO failure in Afghanistan and a deterioration of the situation in Pakistan would be very bad news. Governments can offer their support to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, withhold support from extremists and radicals operating in the North Caucasus, and cooperate actively with the Russian government to fight terrorists and those who support them.
Meanwhile, NGOs and the media should speak out freely about corruption, human rights violations, collateral damage from special operations, and the threat of extremism in Chechnya, as they currently do on Afghanistan and Pakistan. The worst possible scenario for the North Caucasus would be for it to become something like Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. The international community should keep this image in mind and work to prevent it, including adopting an international framework similar to that which is being used in Pakistan.
While terrorism in the North Caucasus remains a problem, the upcoming 2012 Russian presidential election and the 2014 Olympics in Sochi present the Kremlin with a deadline to deal effectively with it. Leaders in both Russia and the larger international community should embrace this opportunity both to reduce the region’s violence and increase its long-term stability.