As the initial shock of Moscow’s subway terror and its follow-up in Dagestan wears off, the focus has shifted to Moscow’s likely response. Clues could be found in Putin underling and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s latest pronunciamentos during a surprise visit to Dagestan yesterday.
Suitably attired in his “tough guy” black jacket and t-shirt, Medvedev promised regional leaders harsher methods and punishment for the terrorists, but he also pondered aloud about root causes of terror such as poverty and poor living conditions. Had he gone into an honest discussion of the root causes of the region’s descent into violence and lawlessness, one might have had the encouraging thought that the Kremlin is no longer oblivious to the reality on the ground. Alas, there’s little reason to believe that, although the “root causes” of this Russian tragedy are plain to see.
One is the cancerous spread of the radical Wahhabi/Salafi ideology in a region long dominated by traditional Sufi Islam and in which the former was completely unknown and culturally alien less than 20 years ago. Beginning in the early 1990s, a massive influx of Wahhabi preachers, jihadist organizers, and Saudi money established a beachhead for radical Islamism by deftly exploiting the political turmoil and economic collapse of the post-Soviet era. It has been expanding ever since and has now become the dominant ideology of the resistance to Russian domination.
The ongoing radicalization of Russia’s Muslims, in the North Caucasus and elsewhere, is often acknowledged by Moscow, and “Wahhabism” and “Wahhabis” have become common descriptors of the Islamization trend in official parlance. But the Kremlin is less than credible in inveighing against Wahhabi terrorists at home, when at the same time it supports perpetrators and sponsors of Islamic terrorism abroad in the Middle East.
Which brings us to poverty. Medvedev’s discovery of poverty as the cause of terrorism may qualify him for an honorary degree from an American university, but it does little to explain the violence at home. The fact is that the North Caucasus has always been poor — as have been tens of millions of other Russians — yet few have become terrorists. Indeed, Islamic terrorism as a Russian phenomenon is barely a decade old. To look for the reasons why it has become ubiquitous today, we need to go no further than Medvedev’s promise of harsher methods still.
After all, it is impossible to imagine a harsher and more brutal treatment than the one Moscow and its henchmen have been inflicting on the local populace for the past decade. In just one example, Putin’s enforcer in Chechnya is one Ramzan Kadyrov, a semi-literate thug, whose main qualification seems to be his professed wish “to die a 100 times for Putin.” Kadyrov and his private band of cutthroats rule Chechnya like a feudal fiefdom in which kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder of suspected opponents are commonplace and in which people who dare expose Kremlin’s puppet are at greater risk than the terrorists themselves, as the recent murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, and lawyer Stanislav Markelov testify.
None of this would have been possible without the direct support of the Kremlin, and therein lies the final and most important root cause. It is to be found in the undemocratic and politically oppressive regime, the predatory nexus between the interests of business oligarchs and the Kremlin and the corrupt law enforcement apparatus that is more adept at being a political police than in dealing with terrorists. A root cause many call Vladimir Putin.
– Alex Alexiev is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.