Moscow Terror Attack Russia Must Develop an Alternative to Islamism in the Caucasus
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wants to weaken Islamist militants in the Caucasus by building infrastructure projects worth billions. But Monday's terror attack in Moscow shows once again how hard it will be to win the hearts and minds of the population.
Speaking on television shortly after Monday's deadly attack on Moscow's Domodedovo Airport, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev seemed shaken, almost helpless. "This is a terrorist act," Medvedev said, putting into words what was already obvious to observers.
The attack, which according to current figures killed 35 people and injured well over 100, puts the Russian leader under considerable political pressure. His vision of economic development for restive provinces in the Caucasus, such as Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, as a means of combating militant Islam, seems increasingly naive. His dream of promoting tourism in the troubled region appears more unrealistic than ever.
On Wednesday, Medvedev had planned to appear before political and business leaders at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos to present his vision for bringing peace to the Caucasus. His plan foresees building five major ski resorts in the region, one of which will be on the highest mountain in Russia, Mount Elbrus. Another is to be in Dagestan, where people die on an almost daily basis in skirmishes between militants and security forces. The plan, which will cost 12 billion ($16 billion), is based on an initiative by Alexander Khloponin, a former top executive and regional governor. In January 2010, Medvedev appointed Khloponin as his envoy to the North Caucasus, giving him the rank of deputy prime minister.
Although there is not yet a proven link between the Domodedovo bombers and Caucasus-based militants, media reports on Tuesday make it seem increasingly likely. Moscow-based newspapers reported that an eyewitness at the airport saw a women of Muslim appearance, dressed in a black robe, accompanied by a man. That would fit into the pattern of previous terrorist attacks in Moscow which have been committed by so-called "black widows," as female suicide bombers from the Caucasus have been dubbed.
The Domodedovo massacre has, intentionally or not, torpedoed Medvedev's planned initiative at Davos. On Monday, reacting to the attack, the Kremlin boss canceled his opening speech at the World Economic Forum. Now it will be even more difficult to make the plan, or even parts of it, a reality.
Medvedev's idea to use the Davos summit to personally secure foreign partners for the development of the Caucasus had always seemed ambitious. The plan to increase the number of ski tourists from the current level of a few thousand to hundreds of thousands looked like an unrealistic daydream.
Demands for Tougher Stance
Hardliners in Moscow will now demand a tougher stance against terror and will call for even more power and personnel for Russia's already bloated intelligence agencies and corrupt police. It is a reflex that is by no means limited to Russia, a country where the desire for a strong man is especially pronounced after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the social insecurity of the 1990s.
In Russia, the supporters of a hard line on terror point to the success of a series of anti-terrorist operations in the North Caucasus last year, the "liquidation" of the guerrilla fighters' chief ideologue, Said Buryatsky, and the capture of the underground leader Akhmed Yevloyev, also known as Magas.
The Russian security forces often operate outside the law in the Caucasus. Many police officers and intelligence agents follow an approach that Vladimir Putin formulated in 1999 after a wave of terrorist attacks. "If they're in the airport, we'll kill them there," he said. "If we find them in a toilet, we'll kill them in the outhouse."
But militant Islam in the Caucasus resembles the mythical hydra, which grows back two heads for each one that is severed. Every time a fighter is killed, another one joins the armed underground. Hence Russia needs to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the people in the Caucasus.
Losing Faith in the State
The appeal of the secular state is dwindling in the region, which has a mostly Muslim population of 7 million. State services are deteriorating and the government is increasingly unable to provide prosperity and security for its citizens. Corruption has undermined the reputation and authority of government institutions. Police officers stationed on the main road across the North Caucasus regularly demand expensive bribes. And the pyramid of sleaze even goes as high as officials in Moscow ministries.
The Islamists' promise of deliverance from all the evils of everyday life, not only in the afterlife but here on Earth, is not unlike the Communist rhetoric of the past. If the Russian authorities want to undermine them, they will have to come up with an attractive alternative. And that will take more than a few ski resorts.