The region still places a heavy burden on the Kremlin's budget today. Moscow has established a garrison for 3,000 soldiers in the town of Botlikh, in a valley near the border with Chechnya and Georgia. In the town square, the face of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is displayed on a poster that promises gas and electricity to local residents. Both services have in fact been provided, and yet the town's 11,000 residents are still unhappy. The garrison takes up pastureland they need for their cows and, worse yet, the Russians threaten traditional customs. One of the town elders complains bitterly about the wives of Russian officers, who do their shopping in the local market "wearing short skirts or men's clothing." By men's clothing he means trousers.
The affluence local residents had anticipated, on the other hand, has yet to materialize. During the Soviet era, Botlikh was known for its apricots. Today, however, the town's small juice factory is shuttered, its business ruined by the high cost of shipping products to Russian cities. The Kremlin spends billions in aid on the Caucasus, and Moscow covers 80 percent of Dagestan's national budget. The Caucasus is Russia's poorhouse.
It is a 1,300-kilometer journey from Dagestan to Abkhazia, on the western flank of the mountain chain, along the M29 transit road. The cities along the way illustrate the waning influence of the central government in Moscow. Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen dictator installed by Putin, has built the largest mosque in the Caucasus in the capital Grozny. His word is law, and he rules the republic as if Chechnya were an independent country. It was in Chechnya that activist Natalya Estemirova sought to expose the human rights violations of the Kadyrov regime -- until she was murdered last month.
Ingushetian President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov was severely injured in a bomb attack in June near the capital Magas. The Russian security forces there have barricaded themselves behind a 10-meter fence meant to protect against rebel grenade attacks. Farther along the road, near Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, is Beslan, the site of the 2004 hostage crisis. The only city in the region with an air of hope about it is the Black Sea resort Sochi, the future site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
It is a three-hour drive from Sochi to Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, which Moscow now treats as an independent country, but only to irritate Tbilisi. In the government building, a white Stalin-era structure surrounded by palm trees and renovated hotels, a stocky man with a high forehead says that he feels wedged "between the little empire of Georgia and the big empire of Russia." Stanislav Lakoba is the coordinator of security services in the Abkhazian government. A historian, he is viewed with suspicion in Moscow for having written several books in which he refutes the Russian version of history, according to which Abkhazia joined the czardom "voluntarily" in 1810.
Lakoba has long been considered a mastermind of the Abkhazian independence movement. Unlike the bitterly poor South Ossetians, who want to be united with North Ossetia on the Russian side of the border, the idea of real independence appeals to many of Abkhazia's 200,000 residents. A critical press there finds fault with Moscow's dominant role in the 220-kilometer coastal strip, which, as the "Côte d'Azur of the Soviet Union," once attracted 2 million tourists a year.