Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 on a promise to bring peace to the Caucasus. Almost a decade later, the region is once again on fire as a spate of suicide bombings and attacks on police and government officials have killed more than 400 people over the past three months.
This time, the killings are not the work of separatist rebels. Rather, they are a boiling-over of dozens of local feuds and vendettas that Kremlin-picked rulers have been unable to control. In fact, by arming and supporting tribal strongmen and giving their police forces carte blanche, Moscow has arguably triggered a new kind of conflict—a vicious cycle of violence between the state's representatives and everyone they judge an enemy. In the partially self-governing republics of Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Chechnya, "a full-blown civil war is going on between law enforcement and the population," says Lyudmila Alekseyeva, president of the Moscow Helsinki Group.
There's a sad symmetry between the Chechen conflicts of the 1990s and today's violence. The first and second Chechen wars were the most extreme expressions of the spirit of the age of Boris Yeltsin, characterized by ethnic separatism, the loss of central--government control, and the rise of local fiefs and oligarchs. The new violence, similarly, is the most extreme expression of the spirit of Putin's era: a rapacious brand of capitalism, in which a strong state rules through distribution of patronage and oil money and uses the police to get rid of anyone who stands in its way.
This is happening everywhere in Russia today; in the Caucasus, where power is concentrated in the hands of those ethnic groups or clans closest to Moscow, it's just more violent. Take Dagestan, a republic the size of Switzerland. The conflict there pits the dominant Avars against competing groups like the Kumyks. Separatism, which once defined the battles in these regions, now often takes a back seat. In Chechnya, former rebels fight not for independence but to avenge themselves on Ramzan Kadyrov, a former warlord whom Putin has used to impose order.
In Ingushetia, police brutality has become the main recruiting tool for a small but brutal radical Islamist insurgency. Still, it's not clear how much of the spiraling violence the rebels have actually caused. The story of the at-tempted assassination of Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the republic's president, in June shows how tangled the story can become. Appointed by President Dmitry Medvedev last year to rein in corruption and violence, Yevkurov faced two enemies: the Islamists, and local police and members of the Federal Security Service, who used the threat of terror to mask profitable criminal activities ranging from kidnapping to protection rackets to oil trading. The attempt on Yevkurov's life was blamed on the rebels. But according to a source in his administration and another in the upper house of Russia's Parliament (both of whom did not wish to be named for fear of reprisals), the real perpetrators were police defending their business interests.
No one is suggesting that the rest of Russia is on the brink of similar mayhem. But the story in the Caucasus gives the lie to the myth of Putin-era stability, and the underlying problems with government and law enforcement are common across the country. Official nepotism, theft, corruption, and brutality create poverty and resentment.
Alexander Cherkasov of the human-rights group Memorial—whose Chechnya representative Natalya Estemirova was kidnapped and murdered in July in Grozny—says that the local law enforcement has become "almost entirely criminalized" there and that Moscow has lost control of it. The "death squads, torture, kidnappings, and illegal prisons" Cherkasov describes appear to be a Caucasus problem—but again, they are only the most extreme examples of a deeply criminalized, brutal, and unaccountable system.
The Caucasus has been restless for a century and a half. But today's crisis shows up more than just the traditional problems of a faction-ridden society. Rather, the Kremlin's inability to pacify the region even after a decade of wealth and stability is a clear symptom of Russia's nationwide crisis of governance. The rising cycle of violence in Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Chechnya shows how brittle and destructive the new feudalism of the Putin-Medvedev era can be when tested by any serious local pressures.