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