Vienna, March 22 – The number and size of “illegal armed formations” vastly exceeds that of “the bandit underground” in the North Caucasus, even though many Russian officials use the terms interchangeably, according to a Moscow investigative journalist who spent several months gathering information on the Caucasus Imamate.
And that confusion is part of Moscow’s more general problem with the region, Olga Bobrova says in a three-part article in “Novaya gazeta, its continuing tendency to deal with that region in black and white stereotypes and to discourage efforts to comprehend the complexities that Russia faces there.
Bobrova’s study, which explicitly seeks to replace these stereotypes with a true portrait of the situation, may represent and the thoughtful and comprehensive description of the situation yet provided to Russian readers of the media (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2010/022/13.html, www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2010/024/18.html, www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2010/027/18.html).
Among the most important points Bobrova makes in her articles which are collectively titled “The Imamate of the Caucasus. A State Which Does Not Exist” – and her detailed discussion of each of them and perhaps especially of the biographies of those involved are beyond the scope of this summary – are the following:
First of all and as others have done, the “Novaya gazeta” journalist stresses just how much the militant “underground” has changed over the past two decades. Its internal structure has been transformed, with independent groups increasingly linked together in a “flexible network structure,” which allow it to conduct often successful military actions.
Its financing has changed from relying on getting what it needed by stealing or trading with Russian forces to receiving “support from sympathetic brothers from all ends of the earth and also thanks to the broad support of the local population.” It has shifted its tactics from open military clashes to “diversionary war.”
Its possibilities have changed as well, Bobrova writes. “If earlier commanders of the underground propagandized their ideas exclusively by personal example, now, the militants ever more actively use Internet technology,” including YouTube roles, to promote their ideas, gain recruits, and organize resistance.
And “the most important thing” is that the underground’s ideology has changed. In place of national self-determination has emerged “a new religious idea,” which seeks “the separation from Russia of the entire Caucasus and the creation on this territory of an independent Islamic state which lives according to shariat laws.”
The “Islamization of the underground, Bobrova writes, although it attracted more people to its cause and brought with it “the threat of penetration into the depths of the country,” has been much to the benefit of the Russian Federation in at least two ways. On the one hand, it has cost the underground attention and support in the West.
And on the other, this shift means that “the present-day Caucasus underground has dropped out of the political context” as a result of which “Russia is now fighting against inadequate religious fanatics” rather than secular military officers with Soviet training or skilled and more secular politicians.
But if that works to Russia’s benefit, Bobrova continues, there are other aspects of the development of the underground “Islamic ‘state’” which do not. It is much better and more broadly organized, it offers its members genuine promotion opportunities, and it has better communications and in many cases better supplies.
Most importantly, she continues, “For a significant part of the Caucasus population, the institutions of the Caucasus Imamate are no less objective and visible than the analogous [state] institutions. To the secular courts are counterpoised the shariat ones. [And] new recruits fill the number forest detachments much more willingly than they do the ranks of the Russian Army.”
Indeed, because the imamate is structured so that there is not only a hierarchy that overreaches the government one but also a physical presence in every village in the region. Consequently, “about them in the villages people describe them as the night ruler,” an indication that Moscow no longer controls the situation after the sun goes down.
Second, Bobrova argues that “in assessing the scale of the activity of the forest detachments, one must keep in mind the difference between the terms ‘bandit underground’ and ‘illegal armed formation.’” That is something few people in Russia do be they officials, journalists, or ordinary citizens.
In the North Caucasus today, she says, there are “hundreds of petty armies” or “illegal armed formations,” “but not every illegal armed formation is part of the bandit underground.” As a consequence and regardless of what anyone says, “the underground itself is significantly less numerous.”
“Almost every more or less visible Caucasus official or businessman has a small army,” Bobrova says, citing numerous examples of what she has in mind. Indeed, she says, “the personal guard of many Caucasus presidents and other big people if one views these formations through the prism of the law are also illegal armed formations.”
That means, Bobrova continues, that “many murders – and the militia does not hide this – take place on a commercial basis.” And even when the militia discovers a Wahhabi trace, “this does not mean that the Wahhabis acted on their own initiative.” Instead, those involved may have hired themselves out to raise money.
Indeed, “removing enemies and competitors is one of the services which the underground offers to prominent people in the Caucasus republics.” But Bobrova adds that an additional “source of heightened mortality” in the Caucasus – the law enforcement structures themselves – may be “the most significant,” killing openly or “masking” themselves as bandits.
And that brings Bobrova to her third point: Russian law enforcement personnel who try to “fight under the underground openly and by observing all procedural rules encounter the reality of the incapacity of the government machinery,” an encounter that convinces many of them to take things into their own hands.
The Moscow journalist notes that if the militia encounter someone in the North Caucasus even if that person is armed cannot be sure that he will be convicted or if convicted sent to prison. Many are given conditional sentences and others get out after only a relatively brief incarceration.
Knowing that even under the best case scenario, those they arrest will be released “after a couple of years and again go into the forest with much hotter hatred to [Russian forces] than before, many Russian law enforcement officers prefer to serve as judge, jury and executioner lest they be confronted by someone they’ve arrested again in the future.
Such actions, of course, undermine the authorities of the powers that be and are part of a more general problem: the underground and the special services are intertwined by fate, something that “is neither good nor bad; it simply is.” But there is another serious aspect to this: Russia’s special forces have helped to create the enemy that they are trying to defeat.
Evidence of that and of the corrosive role it plays is the following disturbing fact: “all the terrorists killed in the course of the storming of the Beslan school in the course of their lives had close relations with the militia and the FSB,” a major reason perhaps why the Russian authorities insisted on killing all of them.
Bobrova concludes that Russians “know so little about the Imamate only because they do not want to know about it: Any interest in the underground among [Russians] is equated to sympathy. Or what is worse, to complicity.” But her examination has convinced her that “wisdom and consistency” will serve as “the chief weapon against the underground.”
At the very least, Russians must get over their propensity to view the conflict in black and white or even worse holding totally contradictory ideas about it at the same time. Thus, the views of many Russians that there are only a few “bandits” and that the entire North Caucasus is against Russia are both false and make winning almost impossible.