Russian Leadership's Backyard Troubles

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

ByABC News
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.