A contradictory line on the Caucasus
Chechen terrorism has so far been contained within the boundaries of the Russian federation. Behind the immediate horror of the siege in Beslan stretches a bitter 10-year conflict, with atrocities on both sides. But Bernard Bot, the Dutch foreign minister, as president of the European Union's Council of Ministers, was entirely justified in calling for the Russian government to provide an explanation.
There are worrying links between the conflict in Chechnya and instability across the north and south Caucasus, which risks spilling into neighbouring states. Moscow's handling of the region since the break-up of the Soviet Union is indicative of a dysfunctional state - one with a post-imperial determination to dominate the small nations to its south, notably Georgia, and deeply corrupt armed forces.
The 19th-century conquest of the Caucasus was one of the great achievements of the expanding Russian empire. The garrison town that is the headquarters of the Russian 58th Army, to which some of the casualties of the Beslan siege have been taken, has now recovered its 19th-century name of Vladikavkaz, “Victory over the Caucasus”. It was not an easy victory. Among the mountain peoples, the strongest resistance came from the Chechens throughout the 1840s and 1850s. They also revolted against Soviet rule in the 1920s and suffered massive deportations during the Stalin era.
The sense that Russia is entitled to maintain control over its near south was provocatively spelled out in a recent article by Sergei Karaganov, the head of the Council for Foreign and Defence Policy, one of Moscow's most respected think-tanks. Under the headline “A farewell to Georgia?”, he argued that unless the new government of Georgia co-operates more closely with Moscow, Russia should officially recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia's two contested provinces. Russian policy bitterly resists autonomy for Chechnya, while actively supporting secession for non-viable regions across its borders. In North Ossetia, Russian troops are defending sovereignty, law and order, while in South Ossetia they protect a secessionist regime that depends on smuggling to survive.
The contradictions between Russian policy towards the north and the south Caucasus are not new. The Abkhaz revolt in 1992, which forced out more than 200,000 ethnic Georgians, was supported by armed volunteers from Chechnya. The heroes of Abkhaz independence then fought for Chechen independence the next year. Later Vladimir Putin, then president, threatened Georgia over its failure to seal its north-eastern frontier with Chechnya, allowing weapons and men to filter through. But with that frontier sealed, and monitored by observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Russia denies both Georgian and OSCE officials access to the border between North and South Ossetia, through which weapons are smuggled on a large scale.
It is the structural corruption of the Russian military in this region, and the complacency of the Kremlin about army involvement in smuggling, that is most striking. The 58th Army is responsible for both directing the war in Chechnya and supporting secession in South Ossetia. Until Georgia's authorities clamped down on it recently, the vast smugglers' market outside Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's capital, traded fuel, drugs and weapons under the protection of Russian troops. Imported raw alcohol, Russian sources report, is processed into illegal vodka in the north Caucasus, to the profit of military and criminal networks.
The weapons that circulate among militias across the Caucasus include Russian surface-to-air and anti-tank missiles. The same forces that are fighting the Chechens are involved in selling arms to non-state buyers, some of which leak through to their separatist foes.
Although Mr Putin naturally prefers to emphasise Arab involvement in terrorism within Russian borders, some Russian journalists have dared to suggest that his military forces themselves are complicit. Two well-known journalists critical of the Kremlin's official line were prevented from reaching Beslan to investigate the siege; reports suggest that one of them, Anna Politkovskaya, was poisoned en route. Ms Politkovskaya - with whom I visited Abkhazia and South Ossetia last month - made her name reporting on the conflict in Chechnya; her most recent report was on the collusion between Russian forces and the secessionist regimes in Georgia.
Russia is playing dangerous games across its borders. In the fighting after the Georgian government's clampdown on smuggling in August, Russian television reported that “volunteers” from Abkhazia and Transdniestria - the similarly illegal secessionist regime in Moldova that is underpinned by the Russian 14th Army - had given Ossetian militias support. A creeping annexation is visibly under way.
This, then, is not a crisis in which western states should accept the Kremlin's call for solidarity in the face of international terror while at the same time respecting Russia's full sovereignty over its domestic affairs. Mr Bot should have gone further, to call for the OSCE to convene an international conference on the cross-border security issues in the Caucasus.
Lord Wallace is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Liberal Democrat spokesman on foreign affairs in the House of Lords
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