Monday, October 29, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Putin’s New Man in the North Caucasus Tries to Redefine Problems There

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 29 – An exemplar of the principle that “to a hammer everything looks like a nail,” President Vladimir Putin’s new representative in the Southern Federal District – a general from Russia’s foreign intelligence service who has worked on trade issues – is seeking to redefine the nature of Moscow’s problems in the North Caucasus.
Unlike his experimental and outspoken predecessor Dmitriy Kozak who often talked about the social-economic causes of instability in that region, Grigoriy Rapota, the man Putin appointed to replace him two weeks ago, appears intent on focusing instead on crime and the impact of nefarious influences from abroad.
On the one hand, that approach will play well in the Kremlin where there seems little willingness to provide the kind of support needed for the revival of the economy of that region and where there is a great deal of interest in blaming outside agitators rather than accepting any personal responsibility for what is taking place there.
But on the other, such an approach almost certainly guarantees that the long-festering problems across the region will continue to intensify and thus present Moscow with more difficult problems in the future, however much such continuity gets Putin and his associates off the hook for the moment.
When Putin named Rapota to his current post, few analysts or officials in the region expected him to make any dramatic changes, beyond possibly devoting more attention on how best to identify and then counter foreign influences in the Caucasus (
They based their conclusions on his long career in Russia’s foreign intelligence service as well as his subsequent positions in the Russian Security Council, ministry of trade, ministry of science, industry and technology, and, most recently, the Eurasian Economic Community, where he served as general secretary.
But at his first meeting with senior officials last Friday, Rapota showed that while such predictions may not have been wrong, they were at the very least incomplete. He told law enforcement personnel in his district that they must do more to fight crime in seven key areas (
First, he suggested, officials must address the problem of the illegal ownership of guns, since almost 70 percent of the crimes committed there involve arms. And he called for making an increasing effort to gets citizens to voluntarily turn in their extensive holdings of weapons to the authorities.
Second, the new presidential representative argued, they must combat terrorism. In recent months, Rapota noted, 84 percent of all terrorist acts in the Russian Federation took place in the Southern Federal District, an unacceptably high figure.
Third, he called for blocking the foreign sources of support both financial and ideological behind the illegal armed formations that have been carrying out such actions against the local population and Russian officials.
Fourth, he urged that there be a stepped up campaign against narcotics trafficking. Fifth, he called for a new focus on organized economic crime. Sixth, he said that officials must address official corruption not just among lower level officials, as has been the case up to now but at the most senior ones in the region as well.
And seventh, he said, officials throughout the North Caucasus must deal with the influx of immigrants from the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a flow that not only has increased in size in recent times but inevitably destabilizes the situation there.
Rapota may not be able to address all these issues in the near term, of course. But his announcement nonetheless has three immediate consequences: It suggests that Russian coverage of developments in the Northern Caucasus will increasingly view them as part of the criminal world rather than as social-political problems.
It calls into question just how successful Kozak was in his earlier post and may provide potentially lethal ammunition for his enemies in Moscow. After all, they could note that if Rapota has already found this much wrong, what was the current minister for regional development doing when he was in the Southern Federal District.
And perhaps most important to him, Rapota’s statement at the start of his tenure in the Southern Federal District means that he will likely be judged in its terms, a political reality that may lead to more arrests and trials rather than new social programs.
Whether this will make that region more stable, however, is doubtful. Indeed, Rapota’s comments last week, especially if he does not expand and modify them soon, could easily mean that the man Putin has sent to correct a problem will in the end make it much worse.

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