Russian Leadership's Backyard Troubles

Ongoing tensions in the Caucasus are becoming a threat to leadership in Moscow.

August 5, 2009, 6:58 AM

August 5, 2009 — -- The old man has tea served to his guests. A hot wind blows off the Caspian Sea into his apartment above Makhachkala, the capital of the Republic of Dagestan. To the south lie the slopes of the Caucasus, the mountain range between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, a region hotly contested by major powers for centuries. Ali Aliyev, not wanting his guests to feel uncomfortable, closes the window and turns on the air conditioner.

The 77-year-old is better known by his artist's and war name Adallo. In one of the wistful poems for which he is known, he writes: "Alone in the festival of life, I smile at everything that touches my heart." The poet has a long beard, as white as the shirt he is wearing, and the seam of his gray trousers rests on his bare feet.

"I can only laugh when I hear that some call me the bin Laden of the Caucasus," he says, as he digs for an international list of wanted terrorists, which includes both his name and that of the founder of the al-Qaida terrorist network, who is currently in hiding. "I can't even read Arabic." In Moscow, he is considered the chief ideologue of radical Islam within Russian terroritory -- a dangerous troublemaker.

In the 1990s, Adallo joined Chechen leader Shamil Basayev's underground movement in the nearby mountains. Basayev was so ruthless he would even take hostages in hospitals, just as his collaborators would later take children hostage at a school in Beslan. Adallo has been under house arrest since he returned to Dagestan from exile in Turkey. His views are apparently unchanged: He still believes that an act of terror like the one that was committed in Beslan in 2004 -- in which, in addition to the 31 terrorists, 334 schoolchildren, parents, teachers and soldiers died -- is justified. "The Russians have killed far more innocent people in their war against Chechnya," he says.

The Dream of an Islamic Caucasus

Adallo is considered the intellectual father of the men who dream of an Islamic Caucasus, of a caliphate under the rule of Sharia law that would stretch across the region's current borders. Underground fighters in the region are now killing representatives of the government on a daily basis, while Moscow fights back just as brutally.

These are the incidents that occurred last week alone: On Sunday, a suicide bomber killed himself and six others in front of a concert hall in the Chechen capital Grozny; the next day, police shot eight suspected terrorists in a forest near Makhachkala; on Tuesday, four rebels died in a battle in the southern Chechen mountains, and that evening a bomb exploded near the house of the mayor of Magas, the capital of the Republic of Ingushetia.

In the first five months of this year, the Caucasus has already seen more than 300 attacks, in which 75 police officers and 48 civilians died. The authorities, for their part, have "liquidated 112 bandits," as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced.

The region is "one of the Kremlin's biggest problems," Alexei Malashenko, a security expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center warned lasted Wednesday. On the same day Gennady Saizev, the former head of the Alpha Group counterterrorism unit, said that violence is "increasingly threatening the entire nation."

From Adallo's perspective, when someone armed with a submachine gun forces his way into your apartment, you should be allowed to defend yourself with an ax. The apartment, in his metaphor, is the Caucasus, and Russia the intruder. He mentions former French President Charles de Gaulle, who he says was his favorite Western politician, because he gave Algeria its independence, but only after his country had waged a brutal colonial war. "Here in the Caucasus, the train has also left the station for the Russians."

It has been a year since Moscow waged a war in the region -- against Georgia. The conflict focused the world's attention on the volatile Caucasus region once again. It was a war over South Ossetia, a small separatist republic that declared its independence in 1991 and over which Tbilisi was attempting to regain control. Russia crushed the Georgian army in the five-day war. But what does the victory mean for the rest of the region?

For Russia, it has meant dealing with pressure coming from two sides. In Russia's Caucasus republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya, Moscow is now under more pressure than ever to prove itself as a peacekeeping power that can guarantee security, create prosperity and rein in Islamists. But it must also increase its attractiveness for the countries south of the Caucasus range, so that Armenia, currently its most loyal ally in the region, and oil-rich Azerbaijan, which has managed to walk a fine line between Moscow and Washington, do not follow in Georgia's footsteps and fall under American influence.

Nowhere in the world are so many conflicts raging in such a small region than in the Caucasus, where roughly 40 ethnic groups speaking 50 different languages come together in an area about the size of Sweden. The region is home to only 26 million people, and yet they are separated by a total of 3,500 kilometers (2,180 miles) of borders, some of them contested.

Six wars have raged in the Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union, making it the most dangerous region in proximity to the European Union.

It is precisely through the Caucasus that gas coming from Central Asia and Azerbaijan is expected to flow to Europe one day, bypassing Russia. The pipeline is less than 100 kilometers from the border of South Ossetia, the bone of contention in the most recent war, in a region where Moscow's tanks are now stationed.

All of these factors contribute to a general sense of nervousness among the major powers when it comes to the Caucasus. Russian President Medvedev had hardly finished meeting with US President Barack Obama in Moscow in early July before he demonstratively hurried off to South Ossetia. A short time later, US Vice President Joe Biden met with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi to assure him of Washington's support. At the same time, the United States sent the USS Stout, a destroyer, to the Georgian coast, while Russia amassed 8,500 troops for a military exercise dubbed "Caucasus 2009."

This raises the question of who will control the Caucasus in the future. The West? The Russians? Islam?

With its speedy victory over Georgia last year, Moscow garnered respect in the region, where strength is seen as the highest virtue, and where in fact it has almost cult-like status. Russia has gained two protectorates, the breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and yet its actions elsewhere in the region have created a credibility problem. Even though the Kremlin has recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, it continues to suppress similar separatist movements at home. In the case of Chechnya, Moscow's ventures have come at the cost of two wars and more than 100,000 presumed dead.

"Just take a look around in Dagestan and in the Caucasus," says Adallo, the poet, in Makhachkala. "No one can sleep soundly here anymore, neither the people nor those in the government."

Eight weeks ago, a sniper shot Dagestan's interior minister in the heart while he was attending a wedding. He was reputed to have participated directly in the torture of underground fighters, and after he was killed Moscow praised him as a "Russian hero." The mayor of Makhachkala, also a man with a dubious reputation, has survived 15 attempts on his life, and he now runs the lively coastal city from a wheelchair.

A new concrete road runs from Makhachkala into the mountains southwest of the city, enabling Russian tanks and Dagestani police patrols to move more quickly as they hunt down insurgents. There are an estimated 1,000 rebels in this region alone, men who have been unable to find jobs in the Caucasus and, while looking for work in neighboring Russia, are consistently referred to as "black asses," or second-class citizens. Such discrimination only fuels the spirit of resistance among the combative people of the mountains.

Part 2: Russia's Poorhouse

Troops from the Russian Interior Ministry and the FSB, Russia's domestic intelligence agency, have surrounded the village of Gubden, and checkpoints dot nearby roads. Indignant local residents produce photos of the bodies of two men that show the signs of horrific torture. Meanwhile, the evening news on the government-run television station reports that the two were underground fighters killed in a gun battle with police.

The killings may have been an act of revenge for an incident that happened a few days earlier, when police were ambushed and shot to death. It is difficult to differentiate between victims and perpetrators in the Caucasus. Some underground fighters behave like common criminals when they demand protection money from local residents. The police and intelligence agents, on the other hand, have not shied away from killing innocent people so that they can report successes to Moscow in the hunt for terrorists.

On the surface Achulgo, a mountain stronghold perched at 2,100 meters (6,890 feet) above sea level, seems peaceful enough. An elderly woman is selling postcards depicting a likeness of Imam Shamil, who is still revered as a hero by the mountain peoples today. Shamil resisted the Russian army in the 19th century, when Moscow subjugated the Caucasus. In 1855, the war of conquest consumed one-sixth of the budget of czarist Russia, costing Moscow more than it cost the British to subjugate India.

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.

Since Lakoba's boss, Abkhazian President Sergei Bagapsh, announced his support for a plan to allow foreigners to buy local real estate, the threat of a fire sale to Russians has been the main topic of conversation in the city's cafés. "We could soon end up like the Indians, who sold Manhattan for cheap necklaces," warns the editor-in-chief of a local daily newspaper.

In his book "The History of Abkhazia," Lakoba describes how his homeland was afflicted by forced displacement, punitive expeditions and bloody ethnic cleansing, sometimes initiated by Moscow and sometimes by Tbilisi. One of the victims was Lakoba's great-uncle Nestor. He was the leader of the Abkhaz Autonomous Republic when Georgian Communist leader Lavrentiy Beria poisoned him in Tbilisi in 1936, simultaneously poisoning the relationship between Abkhazians and Georgians.

Lakoba sums up the policies of the Bolsheviks' predecessors when he writes: "Czarism needed Abkhazia without Abkhazians." But which Abkhazia needs Putinism today? Russia's strongman, who wants to prevent NATO barracks on Georgian soil from encroaching on his summer home in Sochi, treats Abkhazia and South Ossetia as his pawn against foreign influence. Lakoba, on the other hand, envisions Abkhazia as a "small, neutral and cosmopolitan state."

The road to the impoverished provincial city of Gali, 70 kilometers south of Sukhumi, is lined with burned-out houses, vestiges of the 1990s civil war. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgian national guard and paramilitary units attacked Abkhazia, which was seeking independence and was supported in its effort by Moscow. The conflict claimed the lives of 8,000 soldiers and civilians on both sides and forced 240,000 people to flee Abkhazia.

Because of that civil war, not even the smallest political faction can imagine reintegration into Georgia today. The "territorial integrity of Georgia" demanded by Americans and Europeans is currently nothing but an empty phrase.

A road dotted with deep potholes, with more oxen on it than people, leads from Gali to the border between Abkhazia and Georgia. At the border checkpoint, uniformed Abkhazians serve in rusty metal huts, reinforced by Russian FSB border guards living in gray tents surrounded by a barbed-wire fence.

German prisoners of war built the bridge spanning the Inguri River into Georgia proper after World War II. The murky water flows between the warring Caucasus republics. Georgian villages on the opposite bank shimmer, mirage-like, in the sweltering early afternoon heat.

A hunched-over, 80-year-old woman wearing oversized rubber boots is trudging toward the bridge. She lives in a village on the Abkhazian side and is returning from a hospital stay in the nearby Georgian city of Zugdidi. The woman is too poor to pay the fare of one Lari, or about 42 cents, to cross the bridge on a horse-drawn cart. But then help arrives, as a convoy of four white, armor-clad jeeps flying the blue flag of the European Union slowly approaches the bridge. An officer from Lithuania gets out of one of the jeeps, speaks to the woman and gives her the Lari.

Since a Russian veto in the United Nations Security Council barred UN troops from patrolling in Abkhazia, and since the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), yielding to pressure from the Russians, abandoned its missions in Georgia proper, Abkhazia and Ossetia, the EU has been providing the only international observers in the crisis-stricken region. The EU contingent patrolling the 170-kilometer Georgian border with Abkhazia consists of 69 men from 13 nations, including 22 Germans.

Carsten Frommann, a blonde senior police detective from the eastern German city of Dessau who has already served in Sudan, gives the order for the convoy to continue along its route. "In case of frontal attack, all vehicles are to drive in reverse, in case of an attack at the center, the vehicles at the front should move forward and the ones at the back should move backward," he recommends, before the group reaches the "dirty triangle," a few square kilometers along the border zone where smugglers have been causing trouble lately.

Since June, the EU observers have referred to the area as the "bloody triangle." In one incident, a mine exploded, killing the driver of the mission's ambulance. But everything is going smoothly today, with the exception of a small incident in Paluri, a village of 1,000 inhabitants, where an angry crowd forces the convoy to come to a standstill. The villagers have been without electricity for one-and-a-half months. "There are those here who would like us to be in charge," says Wolfram Hoffmann, a retired colonel in the German military, the Bundeswehr.

Part 3: What Has Russia Gained from the War?

Just past the Georgian border crossing, along the Inguri River, there is a large billboard depicting a likeness of Georgian President Saakashvili, wearing a pinstriped suit and a red tie, and the slogan: "We are Uniting Georgia." Saakashvili, who came to power in Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003, has reinvigorated the Georgian economy through privatization and with the help of foreign aid money.

He has built roads, curbed police corruption and ensured a relatively reliable supply of power, water and gas. But none of this counts at the moment. Since his attempt to reintegrate South Ossetia by force failed, his opponents have taken to calling him "Mikheil the Destroyer." Nevertheless, his decline in popularity has not brought him down yet -- despite Moscow's fervent hopes that it would -- because the West continues to support him and the opposition is deeply divided.

What has Russia gained from the 2008 war in Georgia? It has secured control over two small pieces of territory in the southern Caucasus, with a combined land area slightly larger than Jamaica and recognized only by Nicaragua. Much of the remaining southern Caucasus, with its natural resources and energy corridors, is choosing its own path, while lawlessness in the northern Caucasus becomes more and more pervasive by the day. "The Kremlin hasn't the slightest idea what to do next in this region," says Moscow political scientist Malashenko.

It is only on the Armenian border with Turkey, in the village of Lusarat at the foot of snow-covered Mt. Ararat, that the farmers appreciate the Russians, referring to them as "brothers who protect us." Moscow's troops are protecting the Armenian border, and Russia is training Armenian officers and supplying the country with almost all of the natural gas it needs. It owns the pipelines in Armenia, most of the country's power plants, the largest mobile network operator and even the government-run savings banks.

But 80 percent of Armenia's exports pass through Georgia. Because of the Russian-Georgian war, the government in Yerevan has recognized how economically isolated the mountainous country is, prompting it to cautiously approach reconciliation with archenemy Turkey. It has also moved forward with plans to reopen the border with Azerbaijan, closed since the 1993 war between the two countries. If that happens, a new bridge could be built across the river that forms the border at Lusarat, opening up a new point of entry for tourists and trade.

A village resident sits at a table in the shade of an apple tree. Whenever he receives a call on his mobile phone, he hears a curt voice, instead of the standard ring tone, that says: "Comrade, pick up the phone. Stalin wants to talk to you." The humble outpost of Lusarat is all that is left, on the border with a NATO country, to bear witness to the empire of the former Soviet dictator, a native Georgian. Every year, on a day set aside to honor the border troops, the villagers embrace the Russian soldiers and bring them apricots and apples.

If Moscow had its way, every village in the Caucasus would be like Lusarat. But not even at the Kremlin does anyone believe that the past can repeat itself.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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