One of the biggest myths perpetrated by Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine is that during his 10-year rule over Russia, the former president and current prime minister succeeded in “pacifying” the North Caucasus. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we are witnessing today is the start of the third Caucasus war in 15 years, following the two Chechen wars of 1994 and 1999.
There was the June 22 attack on Ingushetia’s President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the recent murders of Chechen human-rights activists Natalia Estemirova and Zarema Sadulaeva, and last week’s terrorist attack in Nazran, which killed scores and maimed hundreds. Add to these the near-daily attempted murders of police officers in Dagestan (according to the local interior ministry, there have been 128 murder attempts against law-enforcement officials since the beginning of this year alone) and the constant kidnappings in Chechnya (Russian human-rights watchdog Memorial documented 74 kidnappings and 16 killings of Chechen residents between January and June). And this is only an abridged catalogue of the blood spilled in the North Caucasus during the past few months.
There are several reasons why the “pacification” of the region has failed. Vladimir Putin committed a fateful mistake when he struck cynical deals with influential clans in the North Caucasus to keep the region under Moscow’s formal control: Federal money and blank checks on lawlessness to often criminal and corrupt local leaders were exchanged for their personal loyalty and support during so-called elections. The result of such deals is that the laws of the Russian Federation no longer apply in the North Caucasus, which is ruled by increasingly repressive regimes.
According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, Chechen authorities practice extrajudicial killings and punitive house-burnings against the relatives of suspected insurgents. Memorial workers and other rights activists in Chechnya point to constant surveillance of their activities by the local authorities. Before she was herself kidnapped and murdered, Estemirova, who worked for Memorial, was investigating the “disappearances” of people in Chechnya.
Meanwhile, the Moscow-installed Chechen leader, Putin friend and former militant Ramzan Kadyrov, has built a veritable personality cult around himself since coming to power in 2007. Moscow continues to supply 70%-90% of the revenue to the regional governments there, but it has failed to extend the writ of Russian law to the Caucasus.
Another important reason for the Kremlin’s Caucasus failure is the elimination of democratic procedures. “Elections” in which Mr. Putin and his party receive 100% of the vote on a 100% turnout in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan are a throwback to Soviet times. They have left citizens without any real influence over their governments. The Kremlin’s stubborn insistence on retaining former KGB Gen. Murat Zyazikov as president of Ingushetia despite overwhelming local opposition has no doubt greatly contributed to the recent upsurge in violence in that region.
Finally, Russia’s recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (cheered on by separatists in the North Caucasus) after last year’s Georgian war could come back to haunt Moscow. With this action, Mr. Putin and his successor in the Kremlin, Dmitry Medvedev, signaled that threats and blackmail can go a long way in achieving the separatists’ goals. If and when the federal government, crippled by the economic crisis, stops its generous flow of money to the corrupt North Caucasus elites, Chechnya, Ingushetia and other republics of the Russian Caucasus may be tempted to follow the path of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The main lesson of recent tragedies is surely that cynicism, brutality and propaganda will not solve the very real political, economic and security problems of the North Caucasus. These problems can only be solved with honest policies based on the rule of law, democracy and respect for the rights of citizens.
Mr. Nemtsov was deputy prime minister of Russia (1997-1998) and is a leader of the Solidarity opposition movement.