Awaiting The 'Big Fire'

Ramazan Tembotov hardly cuts the image of a hardened Islamo-terrorist. A soft-spoken human-rights activist, he's clearly more at home with legal briefs than a Kalashnikov. He's also an elected representative of the Kremlin's ruling party, United Russia. Yet none of that kept him from being rounded up in a massive counterterrorism operation in the Russian town of Nalchik, deep in the volatile north Caucasus, where masked militia recently grabbed him from his car at gunpoint and carted him off to jail.

What greeted him there was almost Dante-esque: prisoners crowded into small rooms and corridors, "howling like animals" as they were beaten. "Wait, you will be next," a police investigator told him, offering no explanation for his arrest. "They were torturing people like the Gestapo," Tembotov told NEWSWEEK, adding that he was released late that night without physical harm. What saved him, he believes, was a cell-phone call he surreptitiously placed to a high-ranking contact at the FSB, the Federal Security Service.

All eyes have lately been on Moscow, where the talk is all about who will replace Vladimir Putin in 2008. The latest name to surface: Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president's chief of staff and chairman of the Gazprom natural-gas monopoly. Last week Putin promoted him to a new post, first deputy prime minister, scarcely a week after choosing him to head a high-profile committee that will channel the country's burgeoning oil revenues into health, education and social projects certain to be popular with voters. Another closely watched loyalist, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, was awarded new prominence as second deputy prime minister. Kremlin watchers had a field day after the promotions. Yet when it comes to gauging Russia's future, they would do better to look away from Moscow and more toward Nalchik, far to the country's south.

Just a month ago, heavily armed Islamic militants launched a bloody attack on this capital of the once sleepy province of Kabardino-Balkaria, best known for its proximity to touristy Mount Elbrus. For two days the city was a war zone as the guerrillas targeted government offices, police stations and the airport. When they finally retreated, 126 people were dead and another front, it seemed, had opened in Russia's brutal Chechen wars. Moscow has since made clear its determination to stamp out further unrest at any cost. Putin praised authorities for putting down the Nalchik revolt and, in a recently televised meeting with security chiefs, warned that tactics employed with such devastating effect in Chechnya would not be ruled out elsewhere. "We have acted ruthlessly before," Putin said, "and will do the same in the future." Above all else, says defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer in Moscow, the Kremlin fears a "big fire" in heavily Muslim southern Russia. Pressing as the matter of Putin's successor may be, it pales in relation to the threat posed by Nalchik--a bellwether for the entire region. The question is whether Moscow's hardfisted policies are keeping that threat in check--or fanning the resentments that could inflame it.

The answer is not reassuring, judging from Ramazan Tembotov's experience. As he tells it, something approaching a state of siege grips Nalchik. According to the Moscow daily Gazeta, as many as 2,000 people have been arrested in Kabardino-Balkaria over the past month. Local witnesses and human-rights activists put the figure in the hundreds, though it appears that many more have been pulled in for police questioning. Authorities in Nalchik confirm that a major "cleanup operation" is underway. "One hundred armed people came into the streets on Oct. 13," says Interior Ministry spokeswoman Marina Kyasina. "Now we are investigating how many people could be supporting them, or sympathizing with them." Kyasina confirmed that Russian law-enforcement officials had a list of several thousand suspected Islamic militants in the area but denied widespread reports that those included on it were being systematically detained and interrogated. So far, she says, only 37 people have been formally arrested, a figure that seems implausibly small given the stories coming out of Nalchik and nearby villages.

Every morning, crowds gather outside the main government building at the city center. Most are women--wives, mothers, grandmothers--seeking news of husbands, sons or relatives who disappeared during the fighting or were subsequently taken into police custody. Their tales are variations on a theme: black-clad armed militia surrounded a house, or stormed an apartment complex, and took their men away. Raya Chechenova, 50, lost her son in the October fighting. Summoned by police, she tells how she found his body stacked with others in a refrigerator truck outside her village of Iskozh on the outskirts of the capital. (Cell-phone photos taken by families show the bodies of dozens of young men, many burned or naked.)

A young woman named Oksana, holding a baby, stands among the crowd, crying. Her sister gave birth that morning; the husband, Anzor, has turned up in one of the police's makeshift morgues, also apparently among those killed on Oct. 13. Oksana adds that both her brother and father have since been detained. They were beaten, she claims, for five hours. Federal and local militia in Iskozh recently went from house to house, detaining more than 30 people in a classic Chechen-style cleansing operation, according to a local human-rights observer, Valery Khatazhukov.

Larisa Dorogova, a lawyer helping these mostly Muslim women, reports that large-scale arrests are taking place throughout the region. She has helped a dozen families whose relatives have been detained over the past month and subsequently released. "All come back badly hurt," she says, some so seriously as to be handicapped. Others do not come back at all. "I recently spoke to a woman from Zalukokazhe," she says. "Militia officers explained that her son, Zaur Psanukov, died after throwing himself out a window"--no mean feat, Dorogova adds, considering that the windows of the building where he was kept are covered by bars.

Another lawyer in Nalchik, Irina Komissarova, relates how she was summoned to represent Rasul Kudayev, a former inmate at Guantanamo, captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and returned to Russia in late 2004. Russian authorities arrested him on Oct. 23, accusing him of participating in the terrorist raid on Nalchik, despite the fact that he is so crippled from a war wound he can barely walk. "Kudayev was hunched on a chair, clutching his stomach in obvious pain," she says. He told her that police beat him until he agreed to sign a confession. When she advised him that his legal rights were being violated, officers were furious. "I'd rather tear my epaulettes off than let you get away with this," one shouted at Kudayev. "We'll beat the hell out of you," yelled another. Under the threats, her client signed. Two weeks ago, local judges kicked her off the case.

So it goes elsewhere. Across Muslim southern Russia, authorities are arresting anyone they suspect of Islamic activism. Often, the grounds can be as trivial as the mosque a family attends or the decision of its women to don the higab, according to Oleg Orlov at the Memorial human-rights group in Moscow. He offers a ready list of places where large-scale sweeps have taken place over the past year, from Bashkortostan to Ingushetia to Dagestan. Mosques are being closed; youths who study the Qur'an are harassed. Often, arrests seem to be made almost randomly, he says, as though police simply go out and grab "the usual suspects" so as to appear to be effectively fighting terrorism. "At the very least, this violates human rights, not to mention Russian law," Orlov adds. "At worst, it makes people angry and pushes whole communities into opposition against the government and toward the extremists."

If the Kremlin's men actually wished to touch off the dreaded "big fire," they could hardly be going about it better. Across the north Caucasus, tensions are growing. In the past month alone, Russian security forces have engaged in half a dozen ambushes and gun battles with insurgents in the major cities of Dagestan. Between Aug. 15 and Oct. 20, according to the Eurasia Daily Monitor, rebels staged more than 20 ambushes and bombings in neighboring Ingushetia. If anything, the pace of violence picked up after the attacks in Nalchik, according to Russian authorities. "It does feel as though we are losing control in the Caucasus," agrees Gennady Gudkov, a member of the Russian Parliament and a reserve colonel in the FSB who blames much of Moscow's problems in the region on corrupt local officials who "indulge the most outrageous behavior of law-enforcement organs."

Another federal deputy, Anatoly Yermolin, a former commander in Russia's elite Vympel antiterrorism force, goes even further. "We are trying to stop the fire in the Caucasus by pouring fuel over it," he says. He is just back from Nalchik and believes that local authorities have lost, perhaps irrevocably, the trust of the people, particularly the young. "Children died in Nalchik," he says. "They were 13, 15, 16 years old. We treat their parents like animals, throwing dead bodies in piles to rot and making families dig out the remains of their loved ones. Murder! An outrage! These are the methods that will cause us to lose the Caucasus!"

Not all is so bleak. Lately there have been signs that Moscow has begun to recognize how badly its policies are backfiring. Shortly before the October attacks, a new president was appointed for the region. Possibly prodded by Putin's trusted special envoy for the Caucasus, Dmitry Kozak, he has made some conciliatory gestures--promising (so far without result) to reopen some mosques, calling on local authorities to release the bodies of at least some of those killed in the October fighting and reportedly conceding that government policy is partly responsible for escalating tensions, according to Diederik Lohman at Human Rights Watch in New York. "The Kremlin," says Lohman, "is clearly trying to find a new approach." But can they, and in time?

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