NALCHIK, Russia — In their haste to blame Chechen terrorists for a bold attack on government buildings in this faded resort town last week, Russian authorities initially failed to reveal one crucial detail: the gunmen were not Chechen.
Residents who encountered the 100 or so militants said they spoke with local accents, suggesting that the attack was home-grown in Kabardino-Balkaria, an impoverished Muslim region in southern Russia.
The eyewitness accounts are a disquieting reminder to the Kremlin that terrorism in Russia no longer originates only from the war-torn republic of Chechnya.
And if that message wasn’t clear, in a statement on a rebel Web site Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev — Russia’s most-wanted man — praised the “forces of Mujahideen” from Kabardino-Balkaria, and not from Chechnya, for the assault.
Analysts say the heavily armed gunmen who took part in last Thursday’s attack represent a new wave of militancy in Russia whose ability to arm and organize in local Muslim communities is now a bigger threat to the Kremlin than bands of Chechen rebels sneaking through the mountainous terrain of Russia’s southern Caucasus region.
“It’s a total failure of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s policies in the Caucasus,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based defense analyst. “Putin began with having a problem in Chechnya. Now he has a problem in the entire northern Caucasus. The war that began in Chechnya has spread out to a number of other local republics.”
(Meanwhile, there were further clashes Nalchik on Tuesday as Russian security forces continued their search for suspected militants in order to gain control in the town. Gunfire was heard and a suspect in last week's attacks was reported killed in a clash with police.)
Fanning the flames of historic mistrust of the Kremlin, locals say, is the combustible combination of high unemployment, easy access to weapons and frustration with endemic government corruption.
This summer, in a report leaked to the Russian press, a senior adviser to President Putin warned that some areas of the region were close to anarchy.
“When all the mosques are closed down except for the one with a Kremlin-friendly imam, extremists seize on discontent and recruit more to their ranks,” said 28-year-old Ruslan, a Nalchik resident who, fearing repercussions, did not want to give his last name.
Brunt of Belsan
The Nalchik attack took place only 60 miles down the road from Beslan, where 331 hostages, mostly children, were killed when Russian forces stormed a school held by Chechen rebels. In the year since the Beslan tragedy, Nalchik has borne the brunt of Kremlin’s crackdown in the region.
Following Beslan, the Kremlin began to impose strict rule from Moscow. Elections of local leaders were abolished in favor of Kremlin appointees, a policy that has alienated local ethnic groups. Reports of human rights violations have increased.
Amid accusations that police planted weapons and ammunition on civilian corpses in Nalchik in an effort to support their claims that dozens of terrorists were killed, grieving families have yet to recover relatives’ bodies. Russian anti-terrorism laws allow the government to bury bodies of terrorists in unidentified graves, a policy that has aggravated the Muslim community.
“The oppression of Russia’s Muslim population, using heavy-handed tactics, has backfired,” said analyst Felgenhauer.
Despite Moscow's brutal tactics, there are signs the Kremlin is beginning to acknowledge that brute force and central rule are weakening its hold on the region.
In a rare acknowledgement that anti-terror policy could be flawed, the pro-Putin president of Kabardino-Balkaria, Arsen Kanokov, admitted that the government might be reaping what it sowed.
“It will get only worse if we continue to forbid them to pray, close their mosques and force them underground, where it is harder to control them,” he told the daily Kommersant newspaper. “This will only harden them. And what is banned always seems to be right to people.”
The government’s reaction to the assault on Nalchik certainly reflects a policy in crisis.
Although senior Moscow officials quickly claimed Basayev was behind the Nalchik events, Kabardino-Balkaria Prime Minister Gennady Gubin has reiterated, “There is no information that Basayev participated in this raid, even indirectly.”
And while other Russian officials were pointing to the Chechen leader’s role, defense minister Sergei Ivanov stated categorically that the militants posed as “peaceful citizens” in Nalchik, without the help of outsiders.
The lack of coordination extended to official reports of the number of dead militants. The Kabardino-Balkaria president said 70 were killed by security forces. The Russian Interior Ministry reported 92. Meanwhile, Basayev said 41 militants had died in the attacks.