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Subway Bombings Highlight Unrest in Russia’s Troubled South

March 29, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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No terror group has taken credit for attacks on Moscow's subway system, but Russian authorities blame rebel groups in the volatile Caucasus region. Jeffrey Brown talks to Miriam Lanskoy, senior program officer for Central Asia and the Caucasus at the National Endowment for Democracy.
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JEFFREY BROWN: So, what is known about groups in the North Caucasus that might be behind today’s bombings?

For that, I’m joined by Miriam Lanskoy, senior program officer for Central Asia and the Caucasus at the National Endowment for Democracy, a private nonprofit organization that receives congressional funding. She’s co-author of the forthcoming book “The Chechen Struggle: Independence Won and Lost.”

First of all, who are the Russians talking about when they refer to insurgents or terrorist groups in the North Caucasus?

MIRIAM LANSKOY, senior program officer for Central Asia and the Caucasus, National Endowment for Democracy: Well, it’s interesting.

Watching Putin today, it’s so reminiscent of 1999, where he said almost the same language. The language he used in ’99 was a little bit rougher. He was saying, “We have to wipe out the terrorists wherever they might be.”

And the terrorists in ’99, he meant the leadership of Chechnya. He meant Maskhadov, Basayev, other top Chechen leaders and commanders. Today, in comparison to 1999, there’s a whole variety of different groups. In many cases, we don’t know their, even the — the leaders’ names or a sense of what their — really, what their ideology is.

MIRIAM LANSKOY: And they’re not just in Chechnya — excuse me — but there all over the North Caucasus.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I was just going to pick up on that. Do we know how united they are, or do they have different goals? Do we even know that?

MIRIAM LANSKOY: There is something called the Caucasus Emirate, which is headed by Doku Umarov. It is in his interests, in their interests to try to make things seem as though there is a united front, and every violent act or either terrorist act or different shoot-outs that happen, that they are responsible for them.

And, often, they take responsibility. In this case, they have not. There — there are several conflicts going on in the North Caucasus, and it’s hard to tell in each specific instance to what degree they’re actually coordinated.

JEFFREY BROWN: The idea of a Caucasus Emirate would be around Islam, a religious emphasis.

MIRIAM LANSKOY: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Chechnya, years ago, was always framed — first was framed as a nationalist.

MIRIAM LANSKOY: Yes, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So…

MIRIAM LANSKOY: It was until recently.

JEFFREY BROWN: … so has it morphed or has it expanded, or are all these things going on at one time?

MIRIAM LANSKOY: It has — it has expanded and morphed. It has radicalized.

The Chechen cause, since the early ’90s, was about Chechen independence and establishing a Chechen secular state. The — that cause has now been submerged within this Caucasus Emirate, and has — has become the — has become, by far, more radical than it had been in the past.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what is known about any support from outside? Of course, everyone wonders in any case like this about al-Qaida.

MIRIAM LANSKOY: At this — I mean, at this point, we don’t even know whether this is really related to the North Caucasus.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

MIRIAM LANSKOY: Russia, of course, tries to portray any of the violence in North Caucasus as a projection of al-Qaida, but we don’t — we don’t have independent knowledge of that or ability to trace that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, no, I didn’t mean about today’s attack. But I meant about these groups…

MIRIAM LANSKOY: No, but, in general — in general, we have never — we have never had independent confirmation of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

So, how significant is something like today’s — in your experience, given that it has been six years since an attack in Moscow, how significant is something like this?

MIRIAM LANSKOY: It means, first of all, that the concept that, by wiping out terrorists, you resolve the problem, has not worked. That was the expectation, for instance, with the killing of Shamil Basayev, who was seen as the mastermind of Chechen terrorism.

He was responsible for the very famous, the theater siege in 2002, which was this massive act of terrorism, and then the Beslan hostage-taking in 2004. Those were sort of spectacular acts of terrorism.

But we can see that — that the problem continues. And the — the regime of using force in an uncontrolled, indiscriminate way throughout the North Caucasus exacerbates the problems.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just in our last minute here, as you started by saying it was Mr. Putin who became very firm on this and made his name and place on this, so all of this has an impact on Russian governance, on the prospects for democracy in Russia as well, correct?

MIRIAM LANSKOY: Yes, absolutely.

And that’s one of the concerns, watching, again, the kind of language, and knowing how, in the past, there were massive arrests of people with North Caucasus — who look like they’re from the Caucasus, and reprisals against people based on ethnicity. There’s a concern that that kind of thing can happen — could be happening again.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Miriam Lanskoy, thank you very much.

MIRIAM LANSKOY: Thank you.