The link between the bombers of Boston and Russia’s north Caucasus has brought back into the headlines a region on the edge of Europe whose problems stubbornly refuse to go away.
In about 2002, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, appeared to have “pacified” the separatist region of Chechnya after two catastrophic conflicts in which the Russian military devastated it.
From around that point, the conflict mutated. Pro-independence Chechen rebels were eclipsed by Islamist insurgents across a wider region. They began a series of terrorist attacks, most horrendously the capture of the school in the town of Beslan in 2004.
Most western governments had done little or nothing to halt Russia’s war in Chechnya and many were bracing themselves for an Islamist attack by a Chechen or a Dagestani on a western target. It did not happen – until last week.
Even now, about 700 people are dying each year in a low-level Islamist insurgency in the north Caucasus – easily Europe’s worst conflict zone. Because of media restrictions and Russia’s determination to ignore its own conflict, the war gets little coverage.
To any outsider who has tried to care, the Russian government has always responded with a double message. On the one hand, Moscow argues, they deserve western support, as militancy in the north Caucasus has nothing to do with Russia’s policies, but is purely another front in the international “war on terror”. On the other hand, they say, this is a domestic Russian issue and foreigners have no right to internationalise it or question Russia about it. Most western governments, with enough other problems on their agenda, have agreed to play along with this doublethink. But now that line is increasingly untenable.
Look at the Tsarnaev brothers. We are a long way from knowing who, if anyone, ordered them to bomb the Boston Marathon, but there is now a trail that leads from Massachusetts back to Dagestan and Grozny. At the least, someone there had the will to export terror to the west.
Moreover, in less than a year’s time, Russia is hosting the Winter Olympic Games of 2014 in the Black Sea city of Sochi, right on the threshold of the region. The world is heading to the north Caucasus. There is an obvious danger of terrorism. Up until now, the Russian government has resisted offers of collaboration over security for the games. The same Russian agencies that have brutally subdued the north Caucasus seem to be planning a security lockdown in Sochi. I heard one report of a downhill ski-race in which soldiers outnumbered spectators down the route.
That no longer looks good enough. Washington, London and Paris will want to consult Moscow on how to handle security for their teams and visitors. Collaboration over Sochi will also be easier now that there is dialogue between Russia and Georgia again after the election of a new government in Tbilisi.
But there is a bigger problem here. This is a region of nine million people where Moscow has lost authority and no one else has gained it. The Russian scholar Alexei Malashenko calls the north Caucasus Russia’s “inner abroad” because it bears so little resemblance to the rest of the country. Where most of Russia is Orthodox Christian or atheist, the region is predominantly Muslim. While Russia has an ageing and shrinking population, the demographic situation in the north Caucasus is more like Gaza. The young heavily outnumber the old, the birth rate is rising, in some areas unemployment is at about 50 per cent. The problem is now the exact reverse of what it was in the 1990s: the region needs more (civilian) government by Moscow, not less.
From the Yeltsin years, the Russian government did its best to squeeze out an international presence on the ground – first of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, whose mission in Chechnya negotiated the end of the first war in 1996, then of the Council of Europe, which monitored human rights abuses during Mr Putin’s war in the early 2000s.
Russia can begin by asking those two organisations, of which it is a member, back into the region and begin the long process of enmeshing it back into wider Europe. Even the most diehard Russian patriots will have to admit by now that opening up the north Caucasus is a better option than leaving it as a dark forgotten corner of Europe incubating violence.