Russia’s strategy regarding its mostly Muslim southern republics has varied little over the last decade of turbulence: Answer force with force. Attacks on trains, apartment blocks and schools are met with crushing military campaigns, disappearances and death.
But on Tuesday, the day after 39 people were killed in Moscow by female suicide bombers during the morning commute, the government’s handling of the Caucasus region came under criticism, even from within.
The idea of Russia suffering the wrath of people radicalized by violence in the republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan is nothing new. But this week’s attack seemed to pull it back from the margins of discourse. The subway carnage has engendered not so much shock as despair at the return of a nightmare.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, widely regarded as the most powerful man in Russia, may well choose to continue the hard-hitting policy he engineered.
But elsewhere, there is an undertone of failure.
President Dmitry Medvedev invited Ella Pamfilova, head of the presidential commission on human rights, to meet with him Tuesday at the Kremlin. Afterward, he called for redoubled efforts to improve the quality of life in the republics.
“We destroy terrorists and will continue to destroy them,” Medvedev said. “But it is much more difficult to create correct, modern conditions for education, for conducting business, for overcoming the clan system.”
Meanwhile, the deputy chair of the security committee of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, acknowledged in an interview that law enforcement officials had helped to radicalize people in the Caucasus by abusing their rights.
“It’s not tough actions against terrorism that fuel tensions, but the violations of human rights that happen because of the incorrect actions of law enforcement organs and power structures,” Gennady Gudkov said. “The population today often suffers from lawlessness coming from the law enforcement organs.”
Since taking office two years ago as Putin’s handpicked successor, Medvedev has often expressed himself in softer, more liberal terms. But few policies have changed. Putin’s approach still appears to hold sway.
Putin, a former KGB agent, has been bellicose in response to the bombing.
“We know that they are lying low,” he said of the militants. “But it is a matter of honor for the security services to drag them out of the bottom of the sewers into the light of God.”
Putin has good reason to defend the use of crushing force. After a humiliating Russian military defeat in the 1990s, he launched the second Chechen war to regain control of the rebel region, cementing his political career amid popular enthusiasm for vengeance.
It was also Putin who installed the Kadyrov clan, former mountain-dwelling rebels who had fought Russian troops, to run Chechnya. The Kadyrovs were given tacit permission to ignore human rights in the name of security, as well as seemingly bottomless funds to rebuild the bombed-out capital, Grozny.
Like Putin, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov appeared to interpret Monday’s subway attack as a catalyst for more violence. He called for terrorists to be “callously destroyed.”
Critics in Russia have long said that the installation of the Kadyrov family, the so-called Chechenization of the counterinsurgency, was a quick solution that would eventually prove disastrous.
When Kadyrov’s father was first made Chechen president by the Kremlin, the public was weary of war and Russian troops were being criticized for rights abuses.
The younger Kadyrov took over after his father was assassinated. He has used torture, secret prisons, extrajudicial killings and the burning of homes belonging to relatives of suspected fighters, rights workers say.
At the same time, he stirred religious sentiment, calling on women to cover their heads and encouraging the return of polygamy.
The result has been a radicalized population and a fervor that is now focused less on breaking free of Moscow’s grip and more on waging jihad, analysts say.
Meanwhile, militants squeezed out of Chechnya have gone to Ingushetia and Dagestan, where Islamist philosophies have mingled with clan rivalries and organized crime.
“I think it’s important for federal officials to try to win back public opinion, because a lot of people support” the militants, said Gregory Shvedov, editor of the Caucasian Knot website. “Not in a financial or a material way, but they support them in an ideological way. I think there are thousands of people in the North Caucasus who are not participating in jihad but who support it.”
Shvedov described Russia’s current approach to the Caucasus as a sort of neo-feudalism, with almost total authority given to proxy leaders.
“People in the North Caucasus feel like they don’t belong to the nation but to a local leader, and those local leaders will make decisions about their lives,” he said. “You want people to be citizens, to pay taxes, to belong to a federal army. Really, Moscow wants this. But it’s not happening.”
Less than a year ago, Moscow declared an end to its counter-terrorism operation in Chechnya. At the time, Kadyrov said he presided over a “peaceful and budding territory.”
But one bloody event after another ensued: A suicide bombing nearly killed the president of Ingushetia in June. In July, human rights worker Natalia Estemirova was abducted in Chechnya and killed. Aid workers who helped children wounded by war were killed weeks later.
And then there were the huge numbers: Kidnappings, violent deaths and suicide attacks, the ghosts of a war that was supposed to have been won, all on the rise.
It took the bombings in the Moscow subway, whose tunnels run like veins binding the neighborhoods of the capital, to turn a creeping sense of despair into a firmer notion that the status quo isn’t working.
Lawmakers considered imposing the death penalty for terrorist attacks. Medvedev asked judicial officials to review legal responses to terrorism.
A poll released Tuesday night by Moscow’s Levada Center found that 70% of Russians considered the situation in the North Caucasus “critical” and “explosive.”
Nearly half of the respondents thought the region was mostly or completely beyond the control of the federal government.
Despite the calls for a new kind of response, some are convinced that Putin, Kadyrov and the security services will turn to their usual methods.
“The state has the right to use force to protect the lives and interests of its citizens, but if under this pretext they give their blessing to systematic violation of the laws, it’s counterproductive,” said Alexander Cherkasov, an expert on the Caucasus with the rights group Memorial.
“They are calling for the continuation of what’s been going on for 10 years: actions based on force and power.”