Counter-Terrorism: The Perpetual Rough Neighborhood

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December 6,2008: Russia is frustrated that they still have problems with terrorists in Chechnya, and their half of the Caucasus in general (the rest is occupied by Georgia, Armenia and Azerjiaban). But they also realize that outlaw behavior has been endemic to the region for centuries, especially among the Chechens. The region is similar to Afghanistan, in that for thousands of years survival was a matter of hiding (from armies moving between the Middle East and the great plans of Eurasia) in the mountain valleys, depending on clan organizations for survival, and doing whatever it took to make a living. Russia has controlled the region for nearly two centuries now, so the Chechens have developed new traditions that are based on ripping off the Russians. This always made the Russians nervous, because the Chechens were quite good at conning the czar's officials, and their communist successors, and the Russians never came up with a way to avoid being taken advantage of.

Russia tried to walk away from Chechnya in the early 1990s, after an uprising there proved too difficult for Russian troops to put down. But that just enabled Chechnya, which quickly fell under the rule of a coalition of clan based criminal gangs, to become gangster central for the region. Chechen gangsters lived large via smuggling, robbery and kidnapping. The Russians came back in 1999, after the Chechen crime wave, along with a Chechen Islamic radicals,  caused a growing public outcry throughout the Caucasus and southern Russia. Using their usual overwhelming force, the Russians regained control of Chechnya. As was their custom, they appointed the most powerful and reliable clan to run the place, and hoped for the best. But passing out jobs and other goodies to the most pro-Russian clans didn't stop the majority of Chechens from trying to make a living the traditional way (from anyone who didn't belong to their clan, especially non-Chechens). Attacking the Russians, and the pro-Russian clans, was still a favorite activity.

With legitimate jobs hard to come by (the official unemployment rate is over 50 percent), and a long tradition of improvising, and ignoring laws and rules, the Russians have peace with the Chechens (by local standards) but not much order. Violence and intimidation are still the most common forms of communication between the clans. The Russians are reluctant to pull out the non-Chechen police (Interior Ministry troops) and soldiers, because of the risk of Chechnya once again becoming gangster central.

While the media likes to play up "terrorism in Chechnya," the main problem is that the Chechens have always been difficult to rule, much less control. This "Chechen Problem" has been on Russia's agenda since the 18th century, and nothing has really worked. Even Stalin deporting most of the population to Central Asia during World War II (when it was feared the approaching Nazis would find welcome allies among the Chechens) didn't fix the problem. This merely gave Chechens opportunities (usually criminal) throughout Russia. A decade later, the Chechens were allowed to return to Chechnya, where they did not get along with the Russians, and others, who replaced them after the removal. Chechnya is not a new problem, it's an old one that won't go away.

 


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