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Russian Repression Radicalizes the Caucasus

The Russian nightmare of Islamic radicalism spreading like a contagion is growing closer to reality. Reuters has a thorough report on the radicalization taking place in the mountainous region of Dagestan and the government’s heavy-handed crackdown:

In the first half of 2012 alone, the Caucasian Knot website recorded 185 insurgency-related deaths and 168 wounded, making Dagestan one of the deadliest places in Europe. The number of men seized by security forces as suspected militants so far this year, tracked by Russia’s leading rights group Memorial, has already exceeded last year’s total.

And the violence has begun spreading beyond the Caucasus to other parts of the country, like Tatarstan, long a peaceful area on the Volga river in Russia’s European heartland.

In an attempt to “purify” the Islamic community in this region, the Salafist insurgents are striking at fellow Muslims—adherents to Sufism, long the predominant strain of Islam in the area—whose clerics they say collude with the Russian state. The salafists have attacked mosques and murdered imams, and the Russian authorities are fighting back with destructive force and collateral damage:

In one sleepy seaside neighborhood, a stray rocket-propelled grenade shell tore through the walls of family home in July, several blocs away from where security forces had laid siege to what they said was a rebel hideout.

Standing amid the charred and plaster-strewn shambles of his children’s room, Magomedgusein Vagidov seethed: “Why with all their radars and satellite today can they still not find a bunch of guys hiding in the woods?” he said.

“They either don’t know how or don’t want to end this war.”

As we’ve written, it’s important that the Russian government understand that the Islamists are competing ideologically as well as militarily. As a result, the brutal Russian response, which has included arbitrary abductions and torture, is making things worse:

One of [the captured young men], Arslan, was freed after two days and went into hiding. [His mother’s] cell phone holds pictures of bruises and burns on his body she says are signs of beatings and electric shocks, used to force him to admit to involvement in two suicide bombings on a police checkpoint that killed 12 people in May.

Another of her sons, Ruslan, is in detention, and her youngest is still missing: “It’s been four months since my son was kidnapped and no one can tell me where he is,” she said in the house outside Makhachkala. “If my son is guilty, why don’t they charge him and try him?”

Strongarm tactics such as these were put on hold during the Dmitri Medvedev presidency, which saw the beginnings of a more constructive, if slower, response to the situation, in the eyes of some. But with Vladimir Putin’s reelection, what critics call the “Chechnya model” has returned to Dagestan: hardline repression and no-holds-barred counterinsurgency. Whether this will bring the conflict to a head or draw out the battle lines even farther remains to be seen. But in the Caucasus and beyond, the specter of radical Islam will haunt Russia for years to come.

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