Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Efforts to Decapitate Resistance in North Caucasus Not Working

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 23 – Efforts by the Russian force structures to pacify the North Caucasus by arresting or killing the leaders of the Islamist underground there make for good media copy, but they have done little or nothing in most places to reduce the size of the underground or cut the amount of violence.

            Instead, Mikhail Zilbert of the “Caucasus Times” argues in a close study of the situation in Kabardino-Balkaria over the last decade , this Russian approach "only for brief periods" after massive attacks “freezes the undeviatingly growing dynamic of violence” in that North Caucasus republic (caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=21082).

            That is because in a network organization like the Unified Valayat of Kabardinia, Balkaria and Karachaya, these organizations are constantly being “renewed” by the influx of new leaders. That has led to some “black humor” when local residents “as a joke propose” after one or another Russian decapitation of the underground “that this or that person take over the job.

             One reason for such humor is that members of each group can be sure, whatever the salafi Muslims say about nationality, that the underground will observe the system of social relaitons” that existed in Soviet times and required that leaders be chosen on the basis of nationality in mono-ethnic areas or by rotation in multi-ethnic ones.

            Zilbert documents leadership changes in the Kabardino-Balkaria underground over the last decade and then turns his attention to the ways in which Islamist fundamentalism first failed to make gains because they downplayed the importance of nationality in the lives of the peoples of the North Caucasus and then gained victories because they focused on this issue.
            A decade ago, he continues, Moscow and its local representatives found it relatively easy to counter the underground in Kabardino-Balkaria, but “to disperse the present opposition is much more complicated.” The underground is “conspiratorial,” well-organized, and “what is most important bears the banner of radical Islam.”

            “And if at first society was certain that young people were going into the forests as a result of unemployment or the impossibility of achieving their goals in regular life, then now children from extremely well-off and educated families are being enlisted by the underground groups.”

            That means, Zilbert says, that “among [the forest units] are a far from small percentage of ideologically committed warriors.” That makes them more not less attractive to many in Kabardino-Balkaria because ordinary citizens see the underground as fighting corruption and seeking a better life for them as well.

            The republic authorities have tried to fight back by building mosques and promoting moderate Islam. This is “undoubtedly a good idea,” the “Caucasus Times” analyst says, but it is not clear that anyone is listening to what officials are saying in this regard, especially given the continuing depradations of the Russian power structures.

            Indeed, he says, “step by step, society is getting accustomed to life alongside the armed underground.  Few are shocked by regular reports concerning the murders of members of the force structures or among underground fighters. Ever more often, in official reports, references to ‘members of the underground bands’ sound almost like ‘members of the government.’”

            “It is evident,” Zilbert adds, that “the federal authorities, having bet exclusively on the resolution of the problem by force have driven themselves into a dead end.”  It is far from clear just what ideology Moscow could offer that would be attractive enough to take the place of that held by the underground.

            And the ideas of economic development may backfire as well, the analyst goes on. If the construction of new resorts in the North Caucasus really does promote growth, then the question will quickly arise as to whether Moscow “needs an economically independent Caucasus” or can even tolerate that.

            “For the time being,” Zilbert says, “the local population looks on the the Russian authorities as guests and observes all requirements of traditional hospitality.” But these “guests” are quickly wearing out their welome, all the more so because by establishing “a special legal zone” in which everything is permitted, they are driving ever more people into the underground.”

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