Caucasus plight: no war, but no peace

Poverty, corruption, targeting of Muslims trigger latest unrest

November 26, 2005|By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI | ERIKA NIEDOWSKI,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

NALCHIK, Russia -- It should have taken Ruslan Nakhushev no more than 10 minutes to walk from the security police headquarters, where he was summoned this month to be questioned, back to his office on Gorky Street, one of the main thoroughfares here in the capital of one of Russia's troubled southern republics.

But he never returned to the office or to the three-room apartment he shared with his mother.

Calls to his cell phone were met by an unfamiliar voice, a laugh, then the silence of a dead line. When relatives reported him missing, law enforcement officials said they knew nothing of his whereabouts, even though agents of the Federal Security Service were among the last people known to have seen him.

Family members and colleagues think they know what happened to Nakhushev - who, as head of an Islamic studies center, worked to stem the radicalization of young Muslims - based on the fate of other activists who have vanished elsewhere in the Caucasus. He was abducted by the government, they fear, because he represented something not well-regarded by officials in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria: opposition.

"He was never afraid of the government in Nalchik. He stood up to them," said Svetlana Chetovskaya, a colleague who was keeping a vigil at Nakhushev's office with his sister and one of his brothers. "We are sure he was kidnapped."

This city, 1,200 miles south of Moscow, is the latest part of the Caucasus to erupt in violence. It suffers from indistinct threats and heavyhanded rule.

Last month, more than 100 militants staged daytime attacks on law enforcement officials, storming government buildings and trying to seize the city's airport. More than 130 people, including more than half of the attackers, were killed in the fighting with police and soldiers.

Authorities and analysts say some of the violence in Kabardino-Balkaria has spilled over from nearby Chechnya, where for more than a decade rebels have fought for independence from Russia in a vicious, grinding war.

The battle here is seemingly different. There is no real war, and yet there is no real peace.

Nalchik and the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria are, in every sense, far from the prosperity of Moscow. Unemployment in the largely Muslim republic is 70 percent, according to government estimates, more than eight times the national average. People who do have jobs earn, on average, less than $75 a month.

Clans resentful of any challenges to their power maintain a tight grip on the republic's government, which is heavily dependent on subsidies from Moscow, money that is not always spent in the ways that officials promise.

Less than a month before the attack in Nalchik, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's permanent envoy to the Caucasus called the corruption in the region "horrifying" and proposed putting areas that receive the most federal money under temporary fiscal management by the Kremlin.

Activists and local leaders say the unrest here is not rooted solely in the republic's crushing poverty and the corruption that includes the bribes necessary to obtain jobs and protection money paid to criminal groups. It is also a product, they say, of an arbitrary campaign of harassment and intimidation of young Muslims by police who make no distinction between the devout and the dangerous.

Muslims restricted

Freedom of religion is greater than in the Soviet era, but authorities increasingly mistrust - and mistreat - Muslims who dare to pray outside government-sanctioned mosques.

Nakhushev's disappearance Nov. 4 highlighted the reality in Karbadino-Balkaria that even seemingly good intentions are not enough to win trust.

Nakhushev, a former KGB agent who was part of a peacekeeping mission to negotiate the release of hostages in Chechnya, described his Islamic Studies Institute as a tool for creating a dialogue between disaffected young Muslims and local authorities.

By his account, he had warned against the radicalization of the Muslim community and had urged those mistreated by police not to take up arms. He had campaigned to prove that police fabricated criminal charges brought against two colleagues at the institute, whom authorities blame for the most recent attack.

Nakhushev said in an interview in Moscow last month that his work made him a target, too. He was not an observant Muslim, but he said his name surfaced on a list of those deemed Islamic extremists, often referred to as Wahhabis by the Russian government. Accounts of the way the list was compiled vary, one holding that militiamen based it on their surveillance of local mosques.

Two weeks after the fighting that filled the streets of Nalchik, prosecutors began criminal proceedings against Nakhushev for "instigating acts of terrorism." The only evidence against him, Nakhushev said, was an article in the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta that dubbed him - based on no sources - one of the "ideologists" behind the uprising.

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