Russia Struggles to Keep Grip in Caucasus ; Conflict Are Growing in the Troubled Region, Where Emotions Still Run High over the Beslan School Massacre

Article excerpt

Murat Zyazikov, the pro-Kremlin president of the southern Russian republic of Ingushetia, is a hunted man.

Since taking office in 2003, he has narrowly escaped assassination at the hands of a suicide car-bomber and a sniper, allegedly sent by local Islamic militants. In the past month alone, insurgents have bombed the motorcade of his deputy premier and opened fire on his security chief. A year ago, fighters loyal to Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev briefly seized the Ingush capital of Nazran, killing almost 100 police officers and government officials.

Mr. Zyazikov, a former general of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), shrugs all that off. "Things here are calm and peaceful," he told journalists at a meeting in his plush, golden- domed presidential palace. "These attacks against me and my officials are the work of desperate men who want to destabilize the situation in southern Russia. They hate the fact that we are building a worthy life for our people."

As the war in neighboring Chechnya grinds into its seventh year with no resolution in sight, conflicts are metastasizing around the troubled north Caucasus, which has been a zone of tension since it was conquered by Russia in the 19th century. The region is a patchwork quilt of warring ethnic groups and rival religions that makes Europe's other tangled knot, the Balkans, look tame by comparison.

Many experts say the Kremlin's grip, iron-hard in Soviet times, has slipped disastrously in recent years. "The Chechen conflict is spilling into neighboring republics, escalating the process of destabilization," says Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

Zhairakhsky, a sparsely populated district amid the high, snow- capped mountains of southern Ingushetia, has remained relatively untouched by conflict. But, says local administrator Yakhya Mamilov, "if you stand on a mountaintop here and look around, you'll see wars flaring or brewing in every direction. It's impossible to build for the future with any confidence while these conditions last."

Rebel fighters from Chechnya, a few kilometers to the east, often take refuge among their Ingush ethnic kin in Zhairakhsky, locals say.

Further east is the Caspian Sea republic of Dagestan, with 32 constituent ethnic groups, where Islamist rebels stage almost daily bombings and ambushes against Russian security forces.

To the south and west two breakaway republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are locked in long-simmering wars of independence against the post-Soviet state of Georgia. Just next door on another side is traditionally Christian North Ossetia, hereditary enemy of the mainly Muslim Ingush, with whom they fought a savage border war in 1992.

Moscow has tried to maintain its authority by phasing out "unreliable" local leaders, and replacing them with loyalists like Zyazikov. …