“While solving in part the security issues in Sochi by implementing restrictions on the movements of broadly defined hazardous population categories, Russian government also draws the line separating the North Caucasus from the rest of the country. The solution may look attractive to the security officials, but the price for such a solution is that the North Caucasus is de facto becoming increasingly less and less associated with the Russian Federation.”
The unconfirmed reports of the death of Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov, together with the recently-released but unverified statement and video by a Dagestan-based group calling itself “Ansar al-Sunna” (Helpers of Sunna, a name it shares with Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna, a group based in Iraq), and claiming Umarov’s sponsorship and guidance in the Volgograd bombings, are increasing the uncertainty about Russia’s ability to maintain adequate security at the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics.
Moscow sources have begun to make capital from the rumours, with one commentator pointing to a supposed link with the Syrian conflict and a threat to Russia from Saudi Arabia, which is said to have promised “internal complications” if Russia continues to support Syria’s Bashar Assad. The Saudi theme is an old one in Kremlin propaganda, which seeks to lay the blame for atrocities like the Beslan school siege at the door of the West, the CIA, and alleged “Saudi links”.
As the 1-month countdown to the Sochi Winter Olympics begins, attention is focusing on the political significance of this event not only for Russia itself but also for the rest of the world, whose good will and participation is, theoretically at least, an important part of the proceedings. While the propaganda value of the games for the Russian government in terms of national pride and Putin’s personal prestige doesn’t need to be underscored, it’s perhaps a good idea to take a step back and look at the Sochi games in terms of one or two aspects of the international situation in which the games are about to go live.
It hasn’t escaped the attention of even the least disputatious Western commentators that – viewed on the map – the Black Sea coastal resort of Sochi is “not far from Chechnya”, and “in a rough neighborhood” (near the North Caucasus). The wisdom of holding an extended high-profile international sporting event in what is essentially a war zone has now and then been questioned by observers with no particular political or ideological ax to grind. But since what is involved, on paper at least, is a show of international solidarity and Olympic ideals, most have decided to give the Russia’s authorities the benefit of the doubt. While at the end of 2013 the doubts were increased by the bombings in Volgograd – was this not a warning by terrorists intent on sabotaging the event? – what has slipped from the headlines and many or most of the pre-games analyses is a consideration of other events beyond Russia’s borders in which Russia plays an important and well-nigh decisive role.
In March last year Foreign Policy published an article by Brookings Institution analyst Fiona Hill in which she outlined what she saw as the real reason for President Putin’s support of Syria’s Bashar Assad. It was connected, she wrote, with Putin’s fear of the situation in the North Caucasus and Chechnya (expressed in a series of interviews he gave in 2000) as “the continuation of the collapse of the USSR…. If we did not quickly do something to stop it, Russia as a state in its current form would cease to exist”:
For Putin, Syria is all too reminiscent of Chechnya. Both conflicts pitted the state against disparate and leaderless opposition forces, which over time came to include extremist Sunni Islamist groups. In Putin’s view — one that he stresses repeatedly in meetings with his U.S. and European counterparts — Syria is the latest battleground in a global, multi-decade struggle between secular states and Sunni Islamism, which first began in Afghanistan with the Taliban, then moved to Chechnya, and has torn a number of Arab countries apart.
As Hill was not slow to point out, in reality the two conflicts have little in common – while the Chechen wars were mainly localized within the North Caucasus region, with occasional outbreaks of terrorism elsewhere in Russia, in Syria the whole of the country is embroiled in a ferocious civil war, and Assad does not have at his disposal the resources that were available to Putin in his confrontation with Chechnya. He has been unable to eliminate opposition adversaries abroad in the way that Putin did, and – far from being localized – the Syrian conflict has spilled over into the entire Middle East region, threatening its stability. As Hill put it:
Chechnya is in a bad neighborhood, but Syria is in a terrible neighborhood, and the effects of the Syrian conflict cannot be contained in the way that Chechnya’s were.
Undeterred, Putin and the Russian military leadership press on with their obstinate support for the Syrian dictator, thus bringing ever closer the likelihood of the disintegration of a state that is of the greatest geopolitical importance to Russia’s own security. The endgame strategy is to blame the whole disaster on the United States, for having supported democratic movements associated with the Arab Spring.
Such is the context in which the Sochi games are now to be held. Clearly, in a state like modern Russia, where the triumph of propaganda is of more importance than diplomacy or attempts at international reconciliation, the scene is set for a large and prominent display of public advocacy and agitprop. With the ramping up of its counter-information channel Russia Today – a Russian-language version is now being added – and the dismantling of the RIA Novosti agency, Moscow is about to make maximum political capital from the games, forcing Western nations to take a position in what the Russian authorities view as a conflict between “values” – the liberal, tolerance-espousing values of the West, with its respect for gay rights and the freedom of dissenters and minorities, and the uncompromising, conservative fusion of Orthodoxy and Islam that is beginning to emerge as the founding ideology of the Eurasian Union. By linking the Volgograd bombings to the alleged activities of Syrian and North Caucasus extremists, by raising the profile of Doku Umarov and his “Caucasus Emirate”, and by issuing reminders about the Boston attacks of last April, Moscow is making sure that, as Western nations prepare to send their athletes to Sochi, their governments are compelled to take sides in a Kremlin-prepared choice of alternatives.
In the aftermath of the Volgograd bombings, most of the commentary in Western media has focused on the likelihood that the explosions were the work of forces controlled by Doku Umarov and his “Caucasus Emirate”. In the Interpreter magazine, Andrew Bowen writes that
it is still a safe bet that the bombings can be attributed to the Caucasus Emirate, Russia’s homegrown Islamist insurgency. With that, and the upcoming Olympic Games, in mind, we can analyze the threat and potential for further attacks in the region and in Sochi by attempting to understand who the terrorists are and what they are capable of
and he says that
Rightly, the Russian authorities consider the threat as high enough to warrant the impressive security efforts.
Nearly all of the commentators persist in viewing the recent bombings and their social and political context from a Western perspective. Although the Caucasus Emirate is said to be “homegrown”, it is regarded in much the same light as Al Qaeda, while the Russian “authorities” (by which are meant counter terrorist and counter intelligence forces) and their efforts to control the situation are seen as equivalents to security and intelligence services in the West. In other words, the Volgograd bombings are viewed essentially in essentially the same light as terrorist attacks in the West, and the perpetrators are considered to be the equivalent of Islamist groups in London, Madrid or other Western capitals.
The analyses by observers like Andrew Bowen, Mark Galeotti and others tend to focus heavily on listings of Russia’s security preparations for the Olympics, together with a rundown of the assumed structure of the Islamist cells in Dagestan and Ingushetia. with much emphasis on “suicide bombers” and their “psychological preparation”. Very many such analyses look ahead to the Sochi Olympics, and link the atrocities to a desire by the Islamists to disrupt the Games. What is almost entirely missing from these articles is any attempt to set the recent events in a historical perspective, and particularly in the context of the long and shadowy relationship between the growth of Islamism in the North Caucasus and the activities of Russia’s security services. Although Bowen mentions “the gradual transformation of a Chechen nationalist/independence inspired resistance to a more regional Islamist insurgency”, he does not follow this up with a consideration of why the transformation took place, or of the agencies, including the Russian state authorities, that helped to make it possible. In particular, he fails to set the recent bombings in the historical context of other, similar bombings in the past, some of which were attributed by Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya to special operations by Russian secret services.
This lack of historical analysis and awareness is all the more striking as some of the commentators, like Galeotti, have been researching Russian history and security issues since at least the late 1980s.
The narrative of “suicide bombings” to “disrupt the Olympics” makes good headlines for Western media, but it does not do a great deal to help our understanding of events that go far beyond Sochi and may have much wider repercussions for global politics as a whole. In the context of Volgograd the Syrian conflict, and Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad, is one area that deserves much closer scrutiny. It’s time that Western defence correspondents and analysts broadened their approach to such events to include some historical depth, a consciousness of the details of the Chechen conflict, and the story of Chechen independence, for it is there that the roots of the present troubles can be found. In Russia’s brutal and mindless suppression of dissent in the North Caucasus, and its attempts to destroy it by every possible means, whether it be military force, propaganda, or subversion, lies the answer to the questions many are raising now.
In connection with today’s atrocity in Volgograd the Russian authorities have once again blamed a “black widow”. This gendered narrative regularly appears in Russia’s state-controlled media. As Amanda Alcott has pointed out:
The monstrous narratives used to describe black widows have become a lynchpin in Kremlin propaganda… and show the world the Russian portrayal of the ongoing war and security services’ operations in the North Caucasus. The narrative is particularly founded in the basic moral superiority of Russian masculinity over femininity, and reinforces the patriarchal power of the Russian government and society by using black widow propaganda as a way to in effect blame femininity for the actions of the black widows, removing any agency, legitimacy or pity associated with their actions and plight.
Also, as I suggested on this blog in 2010:
– Almost without exception, Western media accepted at face value the official statements by Russia’s FSB and other agencies, including the terminology that was used in them. The existence of a “Black Widows” organization dedicated to obtaining revenge for the deaths of slain Islamist insurgents was also treated in some reports almost as an established fact, even though there is little independent evidence to support it.
– The alleged involvement of female suicide bombers – in particular, the “Black Widows” – was a feature of Russian media coverage and official statements (notably the FSB) following earlier terror attacks in Russia, particularly at Nord-Ost and Beslan. In the past, many commentators both in Russia and abroad drew attention to the fact that the “Black Widows” scenario, with its dramatic and even theatrical elements, does not look particularly convincing on close examination. For one thing, among North Caucasus Islamic insurgents shahid or “martyr” operations are usually carried out by men.
Update December 30: Today’s trolleybus blast in Volgograd – the second in 24 hours – was apparently carried out by a male bomber. Some reports say both explosions were the work of male suicide bombers, but others still mention a female guerrilla in connection with the station blast.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, I am writing to you from Finland. My name is Polina Zherebtsova. I am a political refugee from Russia. From contemporary Russia, which for many, many years has been ruled by Mr. Putin.
All my life I have kept a diary. And it so happened that I was born in the Caucasus, in the city of Grozny.
When I was nine years old my city was surrounded by a ring of Russian tanks – and houses were turned into ruins and ashes along with their inhabitants. Has your home been shelled by a tank, Mr Khodorkovsky? Mine was. The upper floors of the apartment building were on fire, and children were screaming in unbearable pain: shrapnel tore their bodies.
My grandfather, a veteran of the Second World War, was in the hospital on Pervomayskaya Street, but was killed in the shelling. He was recovering – my mother and I were going to take him home.
We could not bury him for a week. There was fighting.
I know you have been through a lot, have been imprisoned. But tell me – can you imagine how the patients scream when the guns are firing at their hospital or when a jet bomber, invisible and invulnerable to their curses, drops a one-and-a-half ton bomb on them?
We looked for where the snow was cleaner, gathered it up and strained it through cloth so we would drink it. It was not white snow, not at all like the snow I can see just now in Finland. It was dark gray and bitter, because there were burning buildings all around. An oil plant was on fire, and whole neighborhoods of homes were burning. Before they reached living human flesh, the bombs tore up stone and concrete.
And the houses were full of people, and they had nowhere to run to.
We fell from hunger, lying about in the corners of apartments, half submerged in basements. And the rats huddled against the cold at our feet and squeaked.
The rats slept with me in the hallway on the icy wooden floor, and I didn’t chase them away, realizing that even they were suffering from “Russian democracy” Our cats died, unable to withstand the diet of pickled tomatoes we fed them once every few days.
To get at least some food, you had to walk about in other people’s basements, where the conquerors had left thin silver threads, and if you stepped on one of those threads you would go straight to heaven.
And do you want to hear how I stood near the concrete slabs under which for three days in the centre of Grozny, choking in the wreckage and cement dust, Russian old folk died?
No one was able to raise the slabs and remove the debris! People wept and prayed, but could not do anything. Those who died under the ruins of their houses did not get a grave in “the land we won.” This hell was repeated many times in ten years: as long as the war lasted in the Caucasus, in the Chechen Republic.
In August 1996 rockets from a Russian military post flew into the staircase of our apartment building: our neighbours were blown to pieces. I was eleven years old at the time.
I came out into the front entrance of our building and my feet sank ankle-deep in blood. Blood dripped from the walls and ceiling, and I could hear the surviving neighbours screaming in terrible agony. Since then, Mr Khodorkovsky, I do not believe Russia’s rulers. I do not think that this is the price of conquering the land and preserving its integrity. This was done by “weaklings” – because a strong man will not assert himself at the expense of the lives of women and children.
Essentially they are traitors of their own people.
In 1999, when the “humanitarian corridors” of refugees were shelled, burning people alive in buses, we could not get out of the city. And on October 21 1999 Grozny market was hit by a rocket. In the afternoon, when thousands of people were crowded there.
It was later announced that this was a “market of terrorists” with whom the the invaders were fighting.
“Terrorists” was the name they gave to the children, the old folk and women who traded vegetables, sweets, bread, cigarettes, newspapers, etc. And the market was called the “arms market,” but I never saw weapons there, although sometimes I would spend a whole day going round all the stalls with a box of stuff.
During the holidays or after school I could not rest – I had to work in order to survive.
I traded in that market place. There were no pensions, no salaries. People did their best to survive. For a year my mother received no salary. It was stolen. And we traded in order to survive and buy bread.
They did not have to start “conquering us”, turning our lives into one continuous strip of hell. Our lives were already hard enough without bombs and “Grad” installations. When the rocket hit Grozny market I was three blocks away from the place where it landed. I saw fire from the ground to the sky, and then I heard a deafening explosion.
In my legs there were sixteen fragments of shrapnel.
And what happened to the people who were closer to the rocket? Severed arms, legs, heads, bodies turned to dust.
The children found their mother by her hairpins or the buttons on her jacket…
Did anyone get an apology? Or compensation for this hell? Did anyone?
I got nothing except threats and being told to “shut your mouth”, as I was a true witness to these bloody events. Here is the face of the modern Russian government.
Killing, slandering and grabbing. And this is called “conquest”?
In 2000, On January 19, the surviving neighbours and my mother and I were threatened with execution by firing squad.
We were on the edge of a cliff and the soldiers fired over our heads.
Our old granny neighbour fell to her knees, crying:
“What are you doing? We’re your people! We’re Russians! Don’t shoot!”
The Caucasus is a peculiar region. In it, cultures and ethnicities, ways of life and cuisines, have been interwoven.
Of the forty-eight apartments in our building ten were Chechen and the rest – Russian, Armenian, Gypsy, Azeri, Ingush, Jewish, Polish…
We lived together amicably until the war began. The war swept everything away: life, friendship, love. It destroyed everything.
Surviving in inhuman conditions, people from the Chechen Republic n the other regions of Russia faced and still face the most vile discrimination, persecution and threats.
The authorities have no time for their stories of mass executions and extrajudicial kilings. All, regardless of ethnicity, are classed as “Chechens.”
I have come up against this, too.
For about a year I was refused a passport. But you got one in a single day, and were even kindly driven to the gangway of a private jet. Double standards – those are precisely what distinguish despotism from democracy…
I was very sympathetic to you when you were in prison. I considered the sentences you were given unjust, political. Even now I think that you may have been subjected to pressure. But you in your interview you said: “Putin is no weakling. I am ready to fight in order to keep the North Caucasus as part of our country. This is our land, we conquered and won it!” Consider: now you will have to share responsibility for those war crimes, which in the Caucasus are not the costs of “conquest”, but its essence.
Read my diary.
Read how we were conquered.
How we buried our murdered neighbours under fire, having first covered the graves with branches so that the hungry dogs would not tear the bodies apart.
How thousands of women and children were murdered in the Chechen Republic.
Do you still want integration with such a Russia?
I do not.
And I do not need her citizenship. I am embarrassed by it, like the shameful brand-mark on a slave.
On October 24, Russia’s Kremlin-friendly politician LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky went on television, where he shouted and ranted about the North Caucasus, apparently calling for barbed wire to be placed around the region, for the fertility of ethnic North Caucasians to be suppressed, and for an increase in the military presence and level of surveillance in the area. His comments received wide support from viewers, by a ratio of three-and-a-half to one over those of his opponents on the show.
Zhirinovsky’s high-profile intervention came in the context of the suicide bombing in Volgograd, the riots in Biryulyovo, and the recent ethnic pogroms in several of Russia’s cities.
Writing in North Caucasus Weekly, Jamestown analyst Valery Dzutsev commented that
the controversy surrounding Zhirinovsky’s latest comments may not end up being as beneficial to the political players as initially assumed—emotions within society are running high, and the politicians might be forced to actually take some decisive steps beyond simply making a show of their indignation. The Kremlin does not seem to have a good way out. If Moscow reprimands Zhirinovsky, thereby supporting the North Caucasians, it will face a backlash from ethnic Russians. If Moscow does not react to Zhirinovsky’s tirade, it will disappoint the North Caucasians and undermine the positions of the governors in the region. Since the Russian government cannot afford to offend ethnic Russians, the North Caucasians are likely to bear the brunt of ethnic-Russian resentment. This is likely to result in ever greater levels of distrust between non-ethnic-Russian North Caucasians and ethnic Russians, while the governments in the republics of the North Caucasus will have to adopt much more nationalistic stances in order to retain some credibility among their constituents.
Later, on November 12, Caucasian Knot reported Zhirinovsky as saying that his comments had been misunderstood:
“I regret that part of our society got a negative impression. I spoke only about combating terrorism,” Vladimir Zhirinovsky said at a plenary session of the State Duma.
The LDPR leader also stressed that he meant “to take measures if terror acts were committed”, “Interfax” reports.
As far as the statements about birth control were concerned, then, according to Vladimir Zhirinovsky, he was talking about international practice, and did not make them with regard to the Russian Federation.
The LDPR leader expressed his regret about the situation.