By Paul Goble
Russian military aircraft struck targets in Kabardino-Balkaria where battles between the militants who killed a group of tourists last week and Russian forces have intensified, even as President Dmitry Medvedev promised that Moscow will continue to promote the development of tourism in that republic in advance of the Sochi Olympics.
Over the past week, following an attack on tourists visiting the republic, violence in Kabardino-Balkaria has escalated to the point that yesterday, Russian officials said that they not only had introduced additional forces to try to hunt down and eliminate the militants but had called in airstrikes against them (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/181424/).
Given the worsening of conditions there –for a chronology, see kabardino-balkaria.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/172027/ — that came as no surprise, but this action had the unintended consequence of highlighting Medvedev’s visit to Vladikavkaz and his statement that Moscow would continue to promote the development of tourism in KBR and across the region.
According to the Russian president, “the implementation of the program of the development of the Caucasus republics and of its touristic component will be continued, despite the bandit attacks,” a measure necessary both to combat extremism and to reassure everyone that the Sochi Games will be held in 2014 (www.islamrf.ru/news/russia/rusnews/15204/).
Indeed, Medvedev said, developing the tourist industry will “give work places which is sespecially important for young people that the extremists recruit and then zombify.” And that along with social and educational programs and promoting traditional Russian Islam is the best way to overcome the terrorist threat.
While the president’s aides suggested that the expanded use of military power and the introduction of a counter-terrorist regime in KBR was not an act of revenge, Medvedev himself was blunt: Thos among the militants “who are prepared to change must get the chance [but] those who want blood must drown in their own … No other approaches are possible.”
In a comment on these latest developments in the KBR, Sergey Markedonov, one of Russia’s most thoughtful commentators on the North Caucasus, argues that the situation in that previously quiet republic “with each day ever more recalls the situation in Daghestan or in Ingushetia,” two traditionally more unstable places (www.politcom.ru/11484.html).
And he observes that “while the series of crimes in the KBR has received incomparably less time in the federal channesl than did the terrorist act at [Moscow’s] Domodedovo, by their importance, the explosions and murders [in KBR] completely compare with the tragedy in the very largest Russian airport.”
The KBR events, he points out, “drive people to one and the same conclusion … Russia as a country is dangerous for tourism and for the movement about of foreigners and its own citizens,” a conclusion with obvious consequences for the scheduled Olympic games in Sochi because “one need not be a great geographer” to see how close KBR and Sochi are.
In the period since the 2005 terrorist incident in Nalchik, officials in KBR have adopted a variety of measures to try to rein in the militants, but the latest events show, Markedonov argues, that this approach has not worked either and that problems, ethnic, economic and political, are all growing.
Especially important for an understanding of what is happening in KBR is the increasing tension between the two titular nationalities, the Kabards (a sub-group of the Circassians) and the Turkic Kabards. The latter have been protesting against the republic government for almost a year, and recently, the Balkar Elders Council accused the KBR president of fomenting terrorism.
Given their anger, the Balkars have even called on President Medvedev to introduce “direct federal rule” in KBR, something that almost certainly would make the situation in KBR even worse by transforming an intra-republic problem into a conflict between the republic and Moscow itself.
But even if that step is not taken, there is a bigger and more seirous problem, Markedonov suggests. Increasingly, “the population of the republic, observing the unleashingof a spiral of force, is beginning to understand that it can count only on itself to protect life, property, and human dignity.”
That has led some to form their own self-defense groups, including the much-ballyhooed Anti-Wahhabi Black Hawk organization, a shadowy group that nonetheless has proclaimed as its goal taking up the fight against Islamists. Carefully controlled, such a group might help the powers that be. On its own, it will further undercut their influence.
Regardless of what form an expanded federal presence takes, Markedonov concludes, “it is time ot understand that under this term must be included not only a strengthening of road blocks and check points but also systemic work toward the integration of the region into the all-Russian space.”
If that doesn’t happen – and the events of the last few days, despite Medvedev’s promises, do not give much hope, then “the atomization inside the republic will only strengthen the extremist tendencies [there] and the amount of force” that both the local people and the federal forces will have to expand.
That Moscow may be prepared to make that investment given Vladimir Putin’s commitment to holding the Sochi Games on schedule in 2014 should not be doubted, but the mere application of the kind of force that the Russian center has used up to now may be like throwing water on a grease fire.
At the very least, Markedonov’s argument suggests, the continuing application of force in response to a growing militant campaign may make ever more people in Russia and beyond doubt the wisdom of holding an Olympiad next door to such a place or — if the games nonetheless take place — reconsider plans to visit.