Sunday, March 30, 2014

Window on Eurasia: North Caucasus 'Calm' Exists Only in the Russian Media

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 30 – A serious consequence of a crisis like the ongoing one in Ukraine is that it absorbs so much media space that little or none is left for other events and developments, creating a situation that may benefit some and harm others even when no overt falsification of the news is involved.

            When not covering a story serves the interests of government officials who control much of the media, this problem is even more dangerous because it allows them to argue often quite successfully that if there are no reports of any problems, then there aren’t any problems and officials deserve credit for that.

            That is exactly what is happening in the North Caucasus now. After receiving intense coverage because of the  Sochi Olympics, Musa Musayev, a Daghestani journalist says, in the last month, the security situation there “has fallen out of the information space” and “the appearance of stability has been created” (

            “The reality however is very different,” Musayev says.  The Russian force structures have launched numerous special operations, “but the media aren’t reporting them.” Part of this reflects the attention being given to Ukraine, but part of it is the result of “unwritten instructions” that the authorities have given journalists.

            As far as one can judge, Musayev says, there has been an improvement in the security situation but not nearly as great a one as the media reports suggest. The bands of militants appear to be smaller in size, but they are still attracting “not only local residents but young peoplefrom  other regions of Russia and even from abroad.”

            A more important shift, judging from arrest and casualty reports, he continues, is that the militant groups have “ceased to be the unquestioned masters of the forest and mountain fastnesses” but have chosen to shift their operations “primarily to population points.” That may reflect greater control of the countryside by the siloviki, but it also suggests the militants have more support among the population than the Russian authorities say.

            Last week, the independent news agency reported its own statistics on 5291 casualties (killed and wounded) in the conflicts in the North Caucasus over the last five years. Several of its findings are striking, none more so than the fact that half of these losses were in Daghestan (

            Overall  casualties, at least those being reported, have fallen among siloviki, militants and the civilian population, but last year, after two years of declines, the number of civilian losses “again rose.” Each side in this conflict can be counted on to put its own interpretation on what is happening.

            But one development in the conflict in the region is sufficiently disturbing that it deserves broader attention and condemnation even if there are disagreements on statistics.  It is being reported in local websites and media that the siloviki are now setting fires in highlight Daghestan in an effort to deny the militants cover and force them into open fields where they can be fought.

            At least five such fires have been set so far, and despite the statements of some officials that these are the result of bad fire security, local residents and experts are nearly unanimous that there is no other plausible explanation for the timing, size and location of the fires except siloviki involvement (

            Bulat Magomedov, a Daghestani historian, says that such a military strategy is nothing new. It was used in the Middle Ages, and it was applied in the North Caucasus by General Yermolov in the 19th century. He notes, however, that in the past and again possibly now such actions simply increase the readiness of the militants to fight and the support they get from the population.

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