Islamic revival stirs angry youths in six Russian republics

July 17, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NALCHIK, Russia - Dzhamed Tsakoyev knelt on the carpet and laid the paperwork out like tarot cards, as if shuffling medical and police reports might make sense of his son's brutal death.

Last year, police in the southern Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria arrested Tsakoyev's son, Rasul, a cell phone dealer who was also a devout Muslim. Rasul Tsakoyev's captors allegedly shocked him with electric wires, put cigarettes out on his skin and beat him unconscious. They left him for dead on a trash heap.

The young man, remarkably, revived himself and stumbled toward home. He told his parents his story. A few days later, he died in a hospital of his injuries.

His only crime, his mother, Zukhra, said, was his refusal to sign a false confession claiming he was a terrorist, and his regular attendance at Friday prayers at a mosque.

"What kind of a life can we have if our only son was killed in such a manner?" she asked.

An atmosphere of distrust is spreading here, like a plague affecting all the Caucasus. Russian troops have fought separatist guerrillas in nearby Chechnya for most of the last decade, in a struggle marked by massacres, kidnappings and summary executions.

Now, a mix of poverty and endemic corruption is helping create legions of angry, unemployed youths in six of Russia's other ethnic republics in the Caucasus Mountains. An Islamic revival has given those young men a cause to fight for. Human rights groups charge that authorities have responded to isolated attacks with indiscriminate violence, creating a cycle of repression, radicalization and retaliation.

Even Russia at stake

At risk are six republics - Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Adygyea - and Russia itself.

What happens here will also come to matter to the rest of the world, much as the fighting in Chechnya has contributed to the suspicion and hostility between Islam and the secular west.

Russian authorities say that domestic and foreign radical groups carefully laid the groundwork for bloodshed in the Caucasus.

"They've gradually been forming a fifth column," Sergei N. Ignatchenko, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service, or FSB, said in a recent interview. "They pay a lot of attention to involving the younger generation, starting in their teens. It's a well-functioning, well-adjusted system."

But Ignatchenko conceded that poverty, police brutality and corruption have all aided the radicals' cause.

Now, experts say, the region's radicals and authoritarian officials are preparing to harvest what they have sown. "We will have in the next year an explosion in the North Caucasus," said Alexei Malashenko, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center. "It's practically inevitable."

In Kabardino-Balkaria, authorities have conducted mass arrests, tortured suspects and closed all the mosques in the capital - except the huge, new central mosque that residents call "the KGB mosque" because it is government controlled.

"We are concerned and disturbed by the growing radicalism of the region," said Valery Khazhatukov, of the Kabardino-Balkaria Human Rights Center. "All these repressions play into the hands of the radical leaders."

In Ingushetia, insurgents began carrying out abductions and geurrilla raids in 2002, after Moscow closed refugee camps housing tens of thouands of Chechens.

North Ossetia - predominantly Christian - still grieves the slaying of 331 students, teachers and others during the Beslan school siege last November, blaming both local officials and the republic's Islamic neighbors.

In Karachayevo-Cherkessia, minority ethnic groups are demanding more autonomy and an end to alleged corruption. Protesters stormed the president's office last fall after seven business rivals of the president's son-in-law were slain at the son-in-law's vacation house, their bodies thrown down a mineshaft.

In Dagestan, fighters this year have slain more than two dozen police, prosecutors and other officials in bombings and shootings, injuring scores of others. In June, a bombing derailed a freight train. This month, a bomb blew up a truck carrying solders, killing 10.

Some senior officials have warned Russian President Valdimir V. Putin that conditions are explosive. In a report leaked to the Russian press, Putin's envoy to the Caucasus warned that Dagestan could fall into anarchy; the republic, he concluded, is approaching a "drastic escalation of protests and civil disobedience."

Hope for Islamic state

In 1999, militants invaded Dagestan from Chechnya, hoping to forge the two Russian republics into an Islamic state. Leading the fighters was Shamil Basayev, the person Moscow considers the most dangerous of insurgents in the region. But this time his fighters encountered resistance, and they were fought off.

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