Staunton, July 22 – Most Russian commentators have suggested that the bombing this week of a hydroelectric dam in the North Caucasus was either simply a continuation of the activities of anti-government groups in that region or was specifically directed against the leadership of Kabardino-Balkaria or Presidential Plenipotentiary Aleksandr Khloponin.
All those factors could be at work, Aleksandr Krylov, a senior scholar at the Moscow Institute of International Economics and International Relations, acknowledges, but he argues that the bombing may in fact be part of a broader effort by Circassian groups and others to derail plans for the Sochi Olympics in 2014 (www.nakanune.ru/articles/14789).
Krylov specifically notes that “there is an intensification now in the North Caucasus of the Circassian problem, which is directly connected with the upcoming Olympiad, and certain forces are actively attempting to play the Circassian card for their own purposes,” an effort that has found “mass support in local society” there.
In support of his argument, Krylov points to what happened in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics. It was no accident, he suggests, that “on the eve of the Chinese Olympics the theme of Tibet and the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous district sounded to strongly. This was not a simple coincidence; there are influential forces in the world who strive to use ethnic games.”
Krylov’s suggestion is important for at least three reasons. First, it reflects a continuing lack of consensus in the Russian capital not only over the source of violence in the North Caucasus but also on how best to counter it, with officials divided between those who favor force and those who believe only economic change will lead to an improvement, albeit over time.
Second, it is yet another indication that those Circassians who seek the formation of a single republic for their nationality in the North Caucasus and demand official recognition of the genocide carried out against them nearly 150 years ago by tsarist authorities have gotten the attention of Moscow, albeit perhaps not the kind of attention they seek.
And third, and perhaps most important, Krylov’s argument highlights the growing tendency of officials in the Russian capital to view all issues in the North Caucasus through the prism of preparations for the Sochi Olympics, the 2014 games that Vladimir Putin has indicated he views as a major part of his legacy.
On the one hand, such a perspective suggests that Moscow may be prepared to use even more force against those like the Circassians it suspects of trying to undermine Russia’s ability to prepare for and stage the games and that the center will adopt an even harder line against the Circassians now than it has in the past.
And on the other, Krylov’s linkage of the Circassians and the question of the Sochi Games could simultaneously lead Moscow to devote more attention to the ethnic dimension of conflicts in the region, aspects of the conflict there which many in Moscow and elsewhere have discounted because of the rise of Islamist politics.
In response to questions put by Nakanune.ru, Krylov made a number of additional points about Russian policy in the North Caucasus in the wake of the latest attack. He said that the decision of anti-Russian forces to attack something as major as a dam shows that “the local underground has become more active” and that “the situation will continue to get worse.”
Indeed, he says, “it is completely possible that those forces which are striving toward the destabilization [of the region] want to push the situation there to the level of Chechnya a decade ago.” Given the likelihood of such plans, Krylov continues, “that is the chief cause” behind the dam explosion, and not “some kind of contradictions in the local elite.”
Asked directly what forces might be interested in such an outcome, Krylov responds that “there are many such forces both locally and abroad,” including Al Qaeda, “criminal groups, various foreign states who in some fashion want to put pressure on Russia in their interests and are using for this the Circassian factor and the unstable situation.”
Local elites, Krylov says, are exploiting all this, seeking to “shift responsibility” for everything onto Moscow and “receive from the federal center concessions and what is most important financial means.” And consequently in the years leading up to the Sochi Games, “we will have an extremely complex situation in this [Circassian] part of the Caucasus.”
According to Krylov, the most important thing Moscow can do is to define the problem correctly and “foresee threats.” Up to now, he says, “our powers that be have been reacting to what happens.” As a result, the initiative belongs not to the powers that be but rather to those who oppose them.
Fighting terrorism is hard for everyone, Krylov concedes, but it seems harder for Russia than for others. “Our western ‘allies’ learn from their mistakes and do not have repeats of the explosions which have occurred. With us, on the other hand, is observed a certain psychological freeze: terrorist acts take place with regularity and quite frequently. This is very disturbing.”
Asked whether the new law on the FSB will change the situation, Krylov says that only the future will tell. But he notes that “we have a large number of ideas and various documents, but then somehow this all is very poorly followed in the real work of the organs,” institutions that for all their shortcomings are nonetheless doing a great deal.
“If they were not effective,” the IMEMO analyst suggests, “the situation would be much worse, but up to now they have functioned insufficiently effectively in order to block the majority of threats which are arising for the security of the state.”