The Real Crisis in Putin's Russia; A Combustible Synergy of Terrorism, Poverty, Ethnic Tensions, Pervasive Crime, Corruption and Radical Islam Has Left Moscow Reeling

Article excerpt

Byline: Rajan Menon and Peter Reddaway (Menon is a professor at Lehigh University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. Reddaway teaches at George Washington University.)

What's the main problem in Russia today? Most people have a ready answer: President Vladimir Putin's strangulation of democracy. Yes, but there's a bigger one. That's whether Russia is stable enough to hold together.

Few Russia watchers would suggest the country is on the verge of disintegration. Yet it could be. Certainly, its present boundaries are likely to be altered. The epicenter for change is the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus, consisting of seven ethnic republics (Adygea, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan) framed by the Caucasus Mountains, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It's the sort of place few outside the Kremlin pay much attention to. But we should, for it's not just war-torn Chechnya that's spinning out of control. It's the entire region, where a combustible synergy of terrorism, poverty, ethnic tensions, pervasive crime, corruption and radical Islam has left Moscow reeling. Consider recent developments:

Last December, in Kabardino-Balkaria, the militant Islamic group Jamaat Yarmuk attacked the local branch of the Federal Drug Control Service. Four of the agency's officers were killed and its headquarters was torched. Jamaat, which condemns the narcotic trade as a violation of Sharia, accused the drug cops of being in cahoots with traffickers. The group claims to have militant cells across the republic. An increase in attacks by armed radical Islamic groups--some connected to Chechen warlord, Shamil Basayev--prompted local authorities to declare martial law last summer.

In Adygea, Russian nationalists encouraged by Moscow seek to merge with Russia's Krasnodar region to the north. If they succeed, Adygea would lose the autonomy it won in mid-1991. The backlash in the form of animosity toward Russians is evident among the Adygei, strengthening that minority's own nationalist movement and heightening the danger of civil war.

Karachayevo-Cherkessia has seen a wave of assassination attempts against local officials, the most important being the slaying last October of Deputy Prime Minister Ansar Tipuyev. The republic's mountainous zones are a stronghold for separatists from the Karachai minority and Islamic militants with links to Chechnya. Armed clashes between radical Muslims and local authorities have overwhelmed the republic's security services, forcing Moscow to beef up its military and police presence. …