The Russian government has been saying for three years that the war in Chechnya is over. They are half-right. Most of the checkpoints are gone. Where Grozny’s presidential palace once stood there is now a grandiose fountain. A huge statue of Akhmad Kadyrov, the president the Russians imposed on Chechnya who was assassinated in May 2004, stands in the main square. There are traffic jams in the streets, the cafés are busy, and people walk around with mobile phones. But most houses still don’t have running water. Chechens speak of random violence, entrenched criminality and permanent poverty. And recently the violence has spread. If Chechnya itself is more peaceful, its neighbours are not. The seizure of School No. 1 in Beslan in North Ossetia in September last year was the worst attack, but there have been dozens of killings in formerly peaceful parts of the North Caucasus since then. Last month a Chechen-inspired raid ripped apart Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, leaving more than a hundred people dead. No one now believes that there is anywhere in the region that is safe from Chechnya’s violence.

In the first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, there were two main combatants: the Russian army and a co-ordinated Chechen guerrilla force. Now there is a multitude of groups of armed masked men living off racketeering and an illegal oil trade. Memorial, the human rights monitoring agency, recorded 396 abductions last year, but believes the true figure to be much higher: it has access to less than half the republic’s territory and many Chechens are afraid to report the kidnapping of a relative in case it leads to more trouble. The main culprits are the Kadyrovtsy, the pro-Moscow ‘presidential security service’ of 10,000 men led by Ramzan Kadyrov, the 29-year-old son of the late pro-Moscow president. Officially, the younger Kadyrov is deputy prime minister – the new ‘president’ is a Russian former police chief called Alu Alkhanov – but actually he runs the show. Unshaven, rambling and boastful, he dominates local television broadcasts and government meetings, airing his views on world politics, threatening his enemies and then promising them extravagant pardons. An ex-boxer with no education, he is said, like the late Uday Hussein, to have a taste for personally torturing his enemies.

Putin supports the Kadyrovtsy because they do the bulk of his dirty work for him. In most of mountainous Chechnya, they are now at the forefront of military operations against the rebels and more visible than Russian soldiers. Two other private militias nominally affiliated to Russian military intelligence are the Yamadaevtsy and the Kakievtsy, named after their leaders, Sulim Yamadaev and Said-Magomed Kakiev. In June, a raid by the Kakievtsy drove the whole population of a village across the border into Dagestan. All these bands live off a black market economy made up of Russian subsidies, misappropriated reconstruction money, illegal oil trading and bribes. In an economy geared towards private gain and public insecurity, abduction is a prime means of control.

Three months earlier, the Russians killed Aslan Maskhadov, the rebel commander who was elected president after the first Chechen war, and who signed a peace treaty with Yeltsin in May 1997. His hold over his field lieutenants was weak, and as lawlessness increased in the newly quasi-independent Chechnya – a lawlessness apparently encouraged by Moscow – he was soon eclipsed militarily by his more radical comrade and rival, Shamil Basaev. When Putin initiated the second Chechen war in 1999, he was able to declare Maskhadov to be just another terrorist leader. Nevertheless, his assassination was the final blow to any hope of a political dialogue between Moscow and the vast number of Chechens who feel alienated from Russian rule. Maskhadov’s official successor as leader of the independence movement is a man of a different generation and character, a little-known Muslim cleric called Abdul-Khalim Saidulaev.

Akhmed Zakaev, who was one of Maskhadov’s three envoys abroad and is now in exile in London, told me in May that his leader’s death had profoundly changed things in Chechnya. ‘It’s a fact,’ he said, ‘that Basaev is now a leader in the North Caucasus. Of course he has influence. Our goal is for the people who are resisting to do so not under the flag of Basaev but under Saidulaev.’ A reasonable plan – except that Saidulaev is not a military man, is virtually unknown in Chechnya, and has no leverage on Basaev.

Zakaev, the last pro-independence leader to hold talks with a Moscow politician (in 2001), said that it was pointless to think of negotiating with Moscow after the killing of Maskhadov and while Putin was still in power. ‘We have no political opponents, there is no one we can talk to,’ he said. ‘We only have generals.’ I asked what the strategy was now. His answer was disturbing. The plan was to shift the fighting to the rest of the North Caucasus, to ‘force peace’ by making the cost of Russian policy too high. ‘But only military targets, not Beslan.’ This makes the strategy – if not the objectives – of the pro-independence fighters (or what is left of them) not so dissimilar to the strategy of their Islamist cousins. Both are seeking to make the North Caucasus ungovernable to force Moscow into negotiating with them.

I visited the North Caucasus earlier this year. Five of the autonomous republics in the region are slowly breaking down. Partly this is the result of home-grown radicalism in regions that have a large discontented Muslim population, high unemployment and brutal and corrupt rulers. Partly it is the consequence of Chechen fighters seeking safer havens outside Chechnya. The crisis is worst in North Ossetia, the republic with the biggest Christian population and strongest loyalty to Moscow. Its capital, Vladikavkaz, is a fine old garrison town stretched along the River Terek and a major industrial centre. It used to be the nearest thing to a bastion of stability in the region. When I visited the cemetery outside Beslan, it was clear why things had changed. I watched a couple in long black coats tend their daughter’s grave, the man standing stiffly to one side as his wife dusted the snow off the headstone.

Basaev, the apparent perpetrator, has been Russia’s public enemy number one since 1995, when he organised a raid on the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk which ended in the deaths of dozens of hostages inside a hospital. In 2002 he claimed responsibility for the seizure of the Moscow theatre which ended with the deaths of 129 hostages, mostly from the gas used by Russian security forces. Both attacks displayed a striking ability to grab the attention of the world’s media. On both occasions there was also a sort of political strategy, an attempt to tell the Russian public that the price of involvement in Chechnya was too high.

The same mix of terror, PR and demented politics was apparent at Beslan. On 17 September, two weeks after its bloody conclusion, Basaev issued a statement on the Islamist website Kavkaz Center claiming responsibility. He said that the militants he had sent into the school had presented a series of demands. If Putin ordered a withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, they would start releasing the children. If he resigned, everyone would go free. Ruslan Aushev, the former leader of the neighbouring Autonomous Republic of Ingushetia and the only senior figure to go into the school during the siege, later confirmed that he had passed on a letter containing these demands to the Kremlin. However, the letter addressed to Putin was not made public and the demands were not revealed at the time. Confronted with the awfulness of Beslan, Russians rallied round their president.

The second aim of the attack was to export the conflict from Chechnya, just as it seemed to be ebbing there, and destabilise the rest of the North Caucasus. The school massacre shattered certainties in North Ossetia. The president, Alexander Dzasokhov, was forced to resign on 31 May. But I also heard anger being expressed against the federal government in Moscow. ‘I brought up my daughter, I fed her and clothed her and then they killed her,’ one father told me. ‘And then they gave me 100,000 roubles. That is just . . .’ He opened his hands wide as words failed him. Then, asking not to be quoted by name, he blamed the Russian president: ‘I think Putin just gave the order to destroy the bandits, come what may.’

More than one Ossetian I spoke to said that all reforms after Beslan had been cosmetic and nothing had been done to tackle the corruption among the police and the bureaucracy which had allowed the attack to happen. As one businessman said, ‘I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t happen again.’ Ossetians are waiting for the results of the investigation being conducted by the lower house of the Duma. Vladimir Khodov, a factory director who was made acting governor of the Beslan district after the massacre, acknowledged that the inquiry would probably reveal uncomfortable truths – that some of the militants had been allowed to escape, for instance. The situation, he added, jabbing his finger on a spot on the table, is very precarious. ‘Ossetia,’ he said, ‘has Muslims all around it.’

Six of the seven autonomous republics – the exception is Chechnya – are governed by former nomenklatura officials who have managed to ensure, as the sociologist Georgi Derluguian puts it, that ‘administrative capital was converted into economic capital.’ In North Ossetia the local parliament is full of vodka magnates who made their fortunes from the black market. ‘All banks, all companies, the whole economic pyramid is under the hat of the authorities,’ Alexander Dzadziev, an Ossetian political analyst told me. ‘There are no free entrepreneurs here.’

Ingushetia, to the west of Ossetia, is one of the poorest parts of Russia. Nazran must be Russia’s muddiest town, its jumble of dirty streets and low red-brick houses giving it a benighted Gogolian look. Chechnya is just across the border and the Ingush are closely related ethnically to the Chechens. ‘We feel that the rockets are falling nearer and nearer,’ said Shahman Akbulatov, the head of the Ingushetia office of Memorial. Ingushetia saw an upsurge of kidnappings last year, many of which showed strong signs of being linked to the local federal authorities. Then, last June, the war came too. A large group of Chechen and Ingush fighters held Nazran for a night, killing more than ninety people, including the interior minister, and pillaging hundreds of weapons. The attackers later released a video of Shamil Basaev parading through the town.

These Ingush fighters belong to a network of groups across the region that call themselves jamaats, from the Arabic word for ‘community’. In Ingushetia, where unemployment stands at 90 per cent and the average age is 22, they are finding new recruits. The parallels with Gaza are worrying. Timur Akiev of Memorial was recently visited by a 20-year-old who had been arrested during a police sweep through his village and then released. He had no proper education or stable job. ‘This boy is at a crossroads,’ Akiev said. ‘He could buy himself a foreign passport and try and leave Russia, but he probably won’t find the money for that. Or possibly people he knows will come and tell him: “We know you’re in a difficult position, we can help.” And possibly he will make a deal with them and join a jamaat. And there are lots like him here – not hundreds, I would say, but thousands.’

In Maiskoye, a village on the border between Ingushetia and North Ossetia, I met an old Ingush man called Vagap Darsigov. A week before, at dawn, a group of armed men from the FSB, the successor to the KGB, had burst into his house, turned everything upside down and demanded to know the whereabouts of his son. The son was not, as they thought, in the mountains with the rebels; he was, like tens of thousands of young men in the North Caucasus, away working in central Russia, earning enough money to send some home to his parents. But the FSB men accused the father of collaborating with the rebels and confiscated videotapes, music cassettes and photos. ‘I told them I was just an ordinary man keeping cattle and they said: “Have you kept cattle for Basaev for many years?”’

A harmless, frightened old man, a son who had come under suspicion for some reason and a gang of jumpy policemen storming in with guns: this kind of incident is happening every day in Ingushetia and fraying people’s nerves. And maybe something else is going on in Maiskoye. Another old man, standing in front of the imposing red-brick mosque, told me that 90 per cent of the worshippers there were young men, practising the kind of Islam he felt uncomfortable with.

The third North Caucasian region I visited, Kabardino-Balkaria, was perhaps the most disturbing of all. It has the most authoritarian government in the region and an equally severe opposition. Of the eight Russian citizens arrested in Afghanistan in 2001 and sent to Guantánamo Bay, none was an ethnic Chechen, but two came from Kabardino-Balkaria. When I was there, Nalchik was tidy, with broad avenues, square 1970s buildings and little traffic. It was a vision of what the Soviet Union might have turned into without perestroika. I arrived two days after an Islamist group had been killed in an apartment block on the edge of town. A three-day siege ended when the security forces used an armoured car to blast a shell into the apartment, killing four women, three men and probably – the authorities deny it – an infant girl. The dead were from a small radical group called Yarmuk, whose leader had trained in Chechnya. Next to the blackened apartment block was a one-storey building with Arabic posters in the windows and a padlock on the door. It had been a mosque until it was shut down by the authorities.

My guide in Nalchik, a journalist called Fatima Tlisova, has watched a rise in support for militant opposition. Last year she reported on the story of Rasul Tsakoev, a 26-year-old man who was arrested by the police, tortured and then dumped outside his village: he died of his injuries two days later. His parents said their son did not belong to a radical group. After the story was printed, Tlisova was bundled into a car by a group of police officers, who took her down to a riverbank, burned her fingers with cigarettes and told her to stop reporting. She declined.

As soon as I linked up with Tlisova, we were followed by the FSB. At first I didn’t believe her when she pointed furtively to a heavy black-and-silver briefcase on a chair next to us in a café, saying it was a camera she had seen before. But then we went to the scene of the burned apartment block and a different man in the crowd pointed the same black-and-silver briefcase at us. And so it continued for the whole day.

Until last month Kabardino-Balkaria was run by Valery Kokov, a former Party official who established himself as president, promising Moscow stability in return for big subsidies and a minimum of questions about who controls any lucrative assets in the republic. Recently he was removed from office in favour of a businessman called Arsen Kanokov: an improvement, but one made too late to prevent the raid on Nalchik. Since my visit there has been a series of economically motivated demonstrations against the government. Radicalised youth, ubiquitous secret policemen and a repressive elite: like Uzbekistan in miniature. States as brittle and secretive as this can fracture very quickly.

The Putin administration’s response to the problems it faces in the North Caucasus has been muted. Beslan should have prompted a major policy overhaul, but it didn’t. In the pained speech that Putin delivered immediately afterwards, he never mentioned Chechnya and blamed the massacre on international terrorism. In the region, his authorities embarked on a number of perverse measures, such as barring the Red Cross from visiting detainees. Within a few months, the political agenda had moved on: in a wide-ranging press conference on 23 December, the president mentioned Beslan only once, in passing.

Shortly after it happened, Putin announced plans to scrap elections for regional leaders and have them appointed by the Kremlin instead. Many people I spoke to in the North Caucasus supported the idea, on the grounds that it could dislodge the hated regional elites. A few, however, said that it will lead to disaster, giving the region a new group of distant leaders unaccountable to their local populations. ‘If Moscow appoints a stooge,’ one Ossetian warned, ‘North Ossetia will explode.’

Putin has appointed his close ally Dmitry Kozak as his representative for the Southern Federal District – in effect his envoy to the North Caucasus. Kozak is energetic and evidently not corrupt. Judging by a leaked memo, published in a Moscow newspaper this June, his analysis of a region dominated by ‘corporate alliances that have monopolised political and economic resources’ is as bleak and devastating as that of any Western doomsayer. But Kozak has virtually no team, no clear programme and, depressingly, has had Ramzan Kadyrov foisted on him as ‘adviser on security’. So far the envoy has merely been Putin’s fireman for the region, dousing immediate crises in Beslan, Dagestan and Karachai-Cherkessia, but leaving the mass of the population mired in apathy or anger, waiting for someone to speak up for them. Most of the Chechens I met told me that people are so fed up with violence and politics that they no longer care about such issues as independence. I asked Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, who teaches political science at Grozny University, how much of the population she thought belonged to this silent majority, opposed to Basaev, Kadyrov, Putin and most of the other would-be rulers of Chechnya. ‘Sixty to 70 per cent,’ she estimated.

In Nazran I talked to Azamat Nalgiev, a former local member of parliament. A child at the time of the Stalinist deportations of 1944, he says: ‘I am 64 years old and for 61 years of that time I have been a state criminal.’ He has watched Ingushetia collapse into chaos. ‘I see battles and fights going on from time to time,’ he said. ‘But I can’t work out who is who. Both sides wear masks, you see.’ Brushing aside all talk of independence and ideology, he made a plea for good government in his small corner of Russia. ‘I want to be a free citizen in a free country, the size doesn’t matter.’ A cry for help in a region where the jackals are running the show.

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