On July 7th, as Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev discussed world security in the Kremlin, people charged with security in Chechnya kidnapped a local man and his son. Twelve hours later the man was dragged from a car in his underwear and executed before a few villagers. And this was but one of many punitive actions taken by Chechen authorities against relatives of alleged rebels.
It was brought to light by Natalia Estemirova, a human-rights activist who has chronicled kidnappings, torture and killings for a decade on behalf of Memorial, Russias oldest human-rights group. Ms Estemirova received prizes in Europe, but no thanks from her government. On July 15th, as she left home in Chechnya, she herself was kidnapped. A few hours later she was found dead in neighbouring Ingushetia. Her hands were tied and she had two bullets in her head and chest.
Ms Estemirovas murder topped the headlines of foreign television networks, but was mentioned only in passing by Russian channels, despite a prompt condemnation from Mr Medvedev. Her colleagues say that her work had outraged Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnyas president. They blame him for her murder (though Mr Kadyrov pledged to lead the investigation into her murder himself).
Chechnya is no longer considered a zone of a counter-terrorist operation. This status was removed a few months ago at the request of Mr Kadyrov. Since then the number of disappearances, house burnings and killings has risen. Even before Ms Estemirovas murder, Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, a colleague, talked of escalating fear in the region and pressure on human-rights activists. Natalia [Estemirova], who tried to fight the victims cases, was braver than many of the relatives, she said after the murder. Fear and force have been Mr Kadyrovs main tools of governance. As a former rebel, he has coerced those who fought alongside him and got rid of those who opposed him. He has turned Chechnya into his fief, more Russias ally than its subject.
Across the region, killings and kidnappings have become common. Ingushetia has descended into what amounts to a civil war, says Grigory Shvedov of Caucasian Knot, an independent news service. The killing of policemen has become systematic. In an especially daring attack on June 22nd, rebels used a suicide-bomber to try to kill Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, Ingushetias president. His driver and a bodyguard were killed; he is still in hospital. A Chechen group involved in the Beslan school siege in 2004 took responsibility and its leader promised more attacks. Nobody knows how many rebels there are in Ingushetia or neighbouring Dagestan. Many are local and young, born when Russia first went to war in Chechnya in 1994, says Mr Shvedov.
Russias brutal repression and lawlessness have pushed people towards Islamic fundamentalism. The rebels are now driven not by ideas of independence but by revenge or the vision of an Islamist state. Their influence has become especially visible in Ingushetia. People are afraid to go out in the evening, cafs are closed, there are fire exchanges almost every night, says Ms Sokiryanskaya.
Mr Yevkurov, a paratrooper, inherited a corrupt and weak government from his predecessor, a KGB general named Murat Zyazikov. His first steps were encouraging: he unearthed corruption, engaged with opposition leaders and began to fight against armed rebels. He also insisted that Russias federal forces should not carry out special operations in Ingushetia without his knowledge. But this has had little effect, says Ms Sokiryanskaya. They simply do not know any other way, she explains.
The Kremlin likes to blame Western security services for destabilising the region. Some Russian security men also blame Georgias president, Mikheil Saakashvili. For as long as people like Saakashvilithe neo-Nazis and neo-Fhrerslead neighbouring states, we will not be in peace, Arkady Yedelev, Russias deputy interior minister, said recently.
Russias large-scale Caucasus 2009 military manoeuvres were held under the banner of fighting terrorism. Mr Medvedev, who inspected the Russian units, explicitly linked the exercises to last years war in Georgia. The main lesson for us from these events is the necessity to hold fully fledged, ongoing and highly effective exercises, he said this week, a day after visiting South Ossetia, which Russia (almost alone) recognises as independent. This came only a few days after Mr Obama said that America recognises Georgias territorial integrity and does not want a renewal of military conflict. To ram that message home, an American warship arrived in Georgia this week to hold the first joint exercise since the end of last Augusts war. Joe Biden, Americas vice-president, is expected to visit Tbilisi shortly.
The south Caucasus remains so tense that the European Union has delayed its report into the origins of the Georgia war, which was to have been published at the end of July. But even as the worlds attention is fixed on Georgia, Russian citizens keep dying in the north Caucasus. Vladimir Putin, Russias prime minister, once promised to hang Mr Saakashvili by the balls. Sadly he seems to have no such feeling for those who killed Ms Estemirova.
July 18-24, 2009