For over five years the war in Chechnya has occupied a central and neuralgic place in Vladimir Putin's political agenda. In unleashing a renewed military campaign in September 1999-abrogating the cease-fire agreement that had terminated the earlier 1994-1996 war launched by then president Boris Yeltsin-President Putin sought to win American and Western acquiescence in, if not support for, Russia's military campaign by framing the conflict as a war on international terrorism.
However, far from extinguishing the conflict, or confining it within the territory of Chechnya, these policies have contributed to the spread of violence and instability far beyond the borders of the Chechen republic. Instead of pursuing strategies that would address the larger socioeconomic crisis of the predominantly Muslim regions of the Northern Caucasus, marginalize extremists, and win broad support from the population of the region, the brutality of Russian military forces and their local allies in the war in Chechnya and the repressive actions of the security services in neighboring republics have fanned the flames of hostility to Moscow and created conditions for the spread of radical Islamist ideologies and the recruitment of new adherents across the Northern Caucasus.
President Putin has treated the problems facing Russia as a product of state "weakness" and has called for strengthening Russia's unity and state power in response. Ostensibly in order to better combat terrorism, he has introduced a series of measures aimed at strengthening Russia's political unity and executive power at the expense of political pluralism, freedom of information, and civil society development. But by weakening or undermining Russia's fragile and weakly developed system of institutional checks and balances on central power, and reducing the transparency and accountability of official behavior, these policies may well be exacerbating rather than mitigating the challenges facing Russia today.
What began as a secular conflict over the political status of Chechnya has progressively been transformed into a wider struggle involving more radical fighters from other Muslim republics with an avowedly Islamist agenda that now threatens to destabilize the broader region of the Northern Caucasus. The past few years have also seen a rising tide of terrorist actions directed against local authorities and security services in other republics of the Northern Caucasus as well as against the Russian government and population more broadly, including terrorist acts aimed at targets in the city of Moscow itself.
From the dramatic seizure of some 800 hostages in a Moscow theater in October
2002, in which 129 hostages died from the effects of a lethal gas used by Russian security services in a bungled rescue operation, to the September 2004 horrific siege of an elementary school in Beslan, Southern Ossetia, in which over 300 civilians died-over half of them children-these episodes have not only challenged the official assertions that the war could be confined to Chechnya alone but have dramatized the inability of the Russian government to adequately protect the security of its population.
The inept and chaotic handling of many of these terrorist attacks has brought into stark relief the poor performance of the security services, the incompetence of local officials, serious intelligence failures, and above all widespread official corruption. In the Beslan episode, to take just one example, the siege was carried out by some thirty-two terrorists, of several different nationalities, who were apparently able to bribe their way across a series of checkpoints to enter the republic and to utilize weapons and explosives stored on the site beforehand. The local authorities and the federal security services proved incapable of coordinating their actions to control the situation, and the Moscow-appointed president of the republic proved completely inept. Indeed, the most courageous and effective actor was Ruslan Aushev, the former president of Ingushetia, a figure removed from power by Moscow for resisting pressure for more coercive policies.
The Putin government has used these events to justify a series of measures which
are ostensibly intended to more effectively combat terrorism but which appear to
have little relation to the real terrorist threat. First, it has refused to seek a political solution to the conflict in Chechnya and has deliberately sought to undermine possible negotiations or international mediation and to delegitimize potential negotiating partners by demonizing a broad array of Chechen political figures within the country and abroad as "terrorists."
Conflating Chechen resistance with international terrorism, President Putin has explicitly refused to distinguish between more moderate figures and extremists and has exaggerated their ties to international terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda.
Domestically, the Russian government has used security concerns to justify ever greater restrictions on freedom of information, on civil rights, and on the role of nongovernmental organizations, particularly those engaged in the defense of human rights. The military and the organs of law enforcement have been given an ever freer hand, rarely if ever held accountable for their abusive behavior and atrocities against civilians.
Refugee camps in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia were closed and the international non-governmental organizations providing medical care and humanitarian assistance to refugees there were compelled to depart. The mass media have largely lost their independence and editors and journalists have been dismissed or attacked for expressing critical views.
A whole series of measures aimed at further centralization of political power and the strengthening of the executive branch have eroded the already fragile elements of federalism and separation of powers in the Russian political system. The autonomy and political influence of regions and republics has been sharply reduced. Parliament, now dominated by a single pro-presidential party, no longer acts as an independent check on executive power, and liberal political parties and their leaders have been marginalized. Most recently, the popular election of regional governors was abolished in favor of their appointment by Moscow, and a discussion is now under way of bringing even local government under tighter central control by eliminating the election of mayors as well.
Moreover, a high proportion of President Putin's appointees to key positions in
the regions are drawn from the military and security services, selected for their presumed loyalty to the president but often lacking political skills or understanding of local conditions. But the substitution of appointed for elected officials does not necessarily guarantee either loyalty or competence.
In the absence of a competitive party system in which political parties help create a web of ties between the central government and local populations, Putin's centralizing measures could well widen the chasm between state and society.
This growing emphasis on centralization, unity, repression, and secrecy is arguably exacerbating rather than mitigating the problems and making state power even more dysfunctional. In Chechnya and in the broader Caucasus region the brutality as well as the corruption of Russian military and security forces and their local allies-and their extensive reliance on torture, mass roundups, indiscriminate executions, disappearances of civilians, and simple extortion-has embittered many toward Moscow and made it increasingly difficult to win "hearts and minds" and build popular support. Indeed, the lack of transparency, and the difficulty of holding Russian officials accountable for abusive behavior, has led unprecedented numbers of Russian citizens frustrated by the unresponsiveness of their own government to seek redress at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Lacking a positive agenda for ameliorating socioeconomic conditions in the Northern Caucasus, the expanding operations of security forces across the Northern Caucasus, the closure of mosques, and the wave of often indiscriminate arrests have served to drive Islam underground and facilitated the spread of extremist ideologies. Without a coherent and sustained program of economic development that would create employment, housing, and education and offer alternative opportunities to an impoverished and alienated population, particularly young males, and absent a serious effort to eliminate corruption, these trends are likely to worsen.
Russia under Putin is facing a somber future.