August 22, 2010


Russia's Long (and Brutal) War on Terror (Nathan Thornburgh, August 16, 2010, TIME)

Moscow was a fortress before it was ever a city. The Kremlin, sited on Borovitskaya Hill in 1156, was its first grand building, made originally from pine, then oak, limestone and finally red brick. As its walls grew thick, Moscow began the "gathering of Russia"--the conquering of principalities around it. It was the beginning of an expansion that, at the zenith of Soviet power, encompassed not just Russians but the world's largest tapestry of subject peoples: more than 100 ethnic groups speaking more than 200 languages, living in 11 time zones. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow divested itself of many of those entanglements, but some regions that agitated for more autonomy were located inside the century-old border of Russia and could not be carved out. Chief among these was the North Caucasus, a predominantly Muslim region that includes Chechnya, a tiny republic that fought two failed wars of independence. Since 2007, Chechnya has been ruled by the strong hand of Ramzan Kadyrov, a Kremlin-backed president who at first extinguished all open rebellion. But even Kadyrov's grip is slipping, and the fight against the Kremlin has flared in neighboring republics, which have served as a base for insurgent groups to mount successful attacks from southern Russia all the way to the fortress city on the Moscow river.

The March 29 bombers, Dzhennet Abdullayeva, 17, and Maryam Sharipova, 28, were so-called black widows--young women radicalized by the death or disappearance of their husbands--from Dagestan, a tiny, mountainous republic south of Chechnya that, together with the rest of the North Caucasus, serves as a strategically important buffer between Russia proper and its enemies (like Mikheil Saakashvili's Georgia) to the south.

Dagestan's sorry recent history mirrors that of the rest of the region. The post-Soviet era was chaotic and corrupt. Regional governments co-opted Sufism--a variant of Islam popular in Central and South Asia--by building government Islamic schools and mosques, but their own venal appetites tainted the faith by association. So when students and preachers began bringing Wahhabism--the strict Saudi version of Islam--to the North Caucasus, it seemed clean, devout, otherworldly. The ensuing struggle between Kremlin-backed Sufi authorities and the growing tide of Wahhabis has been bloody and clannish, and it has reached far beyond the mountains of the Caucasus. In Dagestan, a Chechen former engineer named Doku Umarov has declared himself the emir of the nonexistent emirate of the Caucasus. Umarov claimed responsibility for the Moscow-metro bombings, telling Russians in a video message, "I promise you that the war will come to your streets and you will feel it in your lives, feel it on your own skin." [...]

Russia's war on terrorism is essentially a civil war. "Our Afghanistan is inside Russia" is how Lipman puts it. Even so, on most days, the war feels far away. This may well be a credit to the Kremlin's powers of misdirection and distraction. At a huge Moscow rally organized by Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth group, 65,000 young Russians were bused in from all over the country to celebrate victory--not in the war on terrorism but in World War II. The string of speakers hardly mentioned terrorism, choosing instead to focus on other bogeymen: opposition leaders, foreign media and foreign leaders who had apparently insulted the memory of Russia's sacrifice in the Great Patriotic War. Teenagers lined up by the dozens to turn in books--ostensibly for return to the publishers--written by Kremlin opponents like the leaders of Georgia and Estonia and opposition politicians like Gary Kasparov.

The authoritarian overtones of the rally, where everyone wore matching faux-military T-shirts and had been issued replica Kalashnikov cartridges, were chilling. But there was an added component, an orderliness that was breathtaking for Russia: 65,000 teenagers and not one of them smoking or drinking. It reminded me of the allure of the Wahhabi extremists who recruit young people in Dagestan: in a chaotic and muddy land, the clean-swept mosques and confident composure of the Wahhabi leaders is a tremendous sales pitch.

The same can be said of the Kremlin. Its pitch is that Russian authorities are strong enough to muscle their way to victory. But explosions continue to hit the North Caucasus on a daily basis, and Moscow remains at risk. In mid-July, another six would-be suicide bombers were arrested before they could be "deployed" to major Russian cities, according to police. This is the real indictment of the Kremlin's strategy: its iron fist keeps striking the Caucasus, and the Caucasus keeps striking back.

...but they are nations, so they'll be free.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 22, 2010 8:40 AM
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