Stand-off raises tensions in northern Caucasus trouble spots
By Mark Huband, Andrew Jack, Stefan Wagstyl and Tom Warner

September 3 2004

The school siege in North Ossetia is raising tensions across the
Caucasus, a region racked by instability, ethnic conflicts and
widespread poverty.

For most Russians, Moscow is rightly the dominant power in the
Caucasus. They bemoan the territory lost in the collapse of the Soviet
Union in the form of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia - especially
Georgia, with which there were close cultural ties.

Under Russian president Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has asserted
its authority over the Russian republics of the northern Caucasus,
including Chechnya. Chechnya alone declared independence in the early
1990s and only the Chechens have gone to war for a separate state.

But the Kremlin is worried that if one republic wins independence,
others may start demanding greater autonomy, or worse.

Chechen leaders understand well the complex political and ethnic web of
the region and try to exploit it by taking their fight beyond Chechnya.

This week's siege in North Ossetia has a gruesome forerunner in the
first big Chechen terrorist incident - the 1995 hospital siege in
Buddenovsk, southern Russia, where about 100 people lost their lives.

The main victims were ethnic Russians. In the school siege, they are
Ossetians, an ethnic group generally loyal to Moscow.

Reports suggest the hostage takers demand the release of 30 men
detained after the June attack on the interior ministry offices in
Nazran, in neighbouring Ingushetia, in which 90 died. The prisoners
are both Chechens and Ingush, who are closely related to the Chechens
but have mostly stayed out of the Chechen conflict.

If it now emerges that there are Ingush among the hostage takers
as well, as has been reported, this could signal new levels of
co-operation between Chechens and Ingush.

There are also signs of unrest in Kabardino-Balkaria, an ethnic
republic north-west of Chechnya, where at least two police recently
died fighting a group of armed men they described as "bandits".

And in Dagestan, which borders Chechnya to the east, feuding clans
are struggling for control of the republic.

In these cases, there is no undisputed evidence of Chechen
involvement. But the conflicts create opportunities, starting with
gun-running, in which the Chechens are expert.

Alex Rondeli, a Georgian political analyst, says: "Today it is North
Ossetia, with the trouble coming from Ingushetia and Chechnya. Tomorrow
it can be Kabardino-Balkaria or Dagestan. Russia doesn't feel strong
in the north Caucasus. There are lots of problems."

For Mr Putin, a significant cause of these problems are the Chechens
and their ability to spread violence across the region, preventing
economic development in a region that has long been poor. The Chechens'
capacity to strike is enhanced by the fact that some two-thirds
of the population live outside Chechnya in neighbouring republics,
in Moscow and elsewhere.

Russian officials have repeatedly blamed Islamic radicals for stirring
up anti-Russian sentiments. Since the September 11 US terrorist
attacks they have also sought to show links between local fighters
and al-Qaeda and other Middle Eastern groups. But western intelligence
officers are sceptical. One says: "The hostage takers are a bunch of
Chechens based in the Caucasus. They are not motivated by jihad or
Islamist ideology, and the issue is really all about the withdrawal
of Russia from Chechnya."

Whatever the cause of the trouble, the Kremlin will seek to maintain
its grip on the northern Caucasus. Georgian analysts fear that it might
also take a tougher line in defending its interests across the border
with Georgia, where Russia has kept military bases despite promising
to remove them. Moscow has also supported separatist administrations
in two breakaway Georgian republics bordering Russia - South Ossetia
and Abkhazia.

In South Ossetia, a cease-fire has held since August 20, but tensions
between Ossetian and Georgian villagers in the region remain high.

In Abkhazia, Georgia's coast guard shot last month at aTurkish cargo
vessel that refused to pass Georgian inspection. This week in Moscow,
Mr Putin met a candidate in the upcoming Abkhazian presidential
election, which Georgia denounced as support for Abkhaz separatism.

Mr Rondeli, the Georgian analyst, says he is worried Russian hawks
could use the wave of terrorism in the north Caucasus as an excuse
to increase backing for separatists in Georgia.

Additional reporting by Andrew Jack and Mark Huband

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress