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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 November, 2004, 10:55 GMT
N Caucasus: Is terror spreading?
By Tim Whewell
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Just two and a half months after the Beslan school siege, President Putin's administration has vowed to tackle the root causes of the mounting crisis in the North Caucasus.

But concerns are growing that Russia will struggle to contain the terror threat.

Mourning relatives in Beslan
Fears of a wider conflict escalated following the Beslan tragedy
Russian officials are not mincing their words.

President Vladimir Putin's adviser on Chechnya, Aslambek Aslakhanov, summed up the North Caucasus situation like this:

"Total unemployment, a great concentration of criminal groups who undermine stability, terrorist bands, corrupt local authorities, the fact that anything - or anyone - can be bought."

The Kremlin believes armed groups like the one that attacked Beslan are able to operate across the region and gain new recruits because they have a network of supporters among the local population.

They exploit the economic crisis in a region where unemployment hovers between 40 and 60%. And they feed off a growing interest among young people in radical forms of Islam.

'Religious extremism'

Islamic radicals first surfaced in Chechnya in the mid 1990s. But they have gained influence in neighbouring Ingushetia. And now the authorities on the traditionally moderate west side of the Caucasus are also becoming concerned.

Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev
Basayev has claimed responsibility for the Beslan school siege
The minister of culture of Kabardino-Balkaria pointed out that many of the hostage-takers at Beslan were not Chechen:

"What happened in Beslan was not about nationalism," he said. "I think it had the character of religious extremism. The terrorists did not belong to any ethnic group. They were bound by a religious idea."

Russia's most wanted man, Shamil Basayev, who claims to have masterminded the Beslan attack, spent time with local supporters in Kabardino-Balkaria in 2003. Two local policemen had been bribed to bring him in.

And just two months ago, a small local militant group engaged nearly 400 anti-terrorist agents using tanks and helicopters in an eight hour battle.

In an apparent reaction to the growth of extremism, most of the mosques in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, were closed down this summer.

The authorities have denied it was a political step. They simply said several rental agreements ran out at the same time.

But the government has admitted it has been organising meetings in every town and village at which elders denounce what they call "Wahhabism", a form of Islam they say has been imported from the Middle East. They are warning young people not to follow it.

Rule of law

In a sign of how seriously Moscow views the situation, Mr Putin sent one of his right hand men to oversee the North Caucasus immediately after the Beslan tragedy.

Some say Dmitri Kozak, former head of the Kremlin administration, is the third most important man in Russia.

Kabardino-Balkaria and the surrounding area
Some Journalists visiting Kabardino-Balkaria have been harassed
His priority, he told the BBC, is to promote economic and political development as the most "serious tool" in the battle against extremism.

On a visit to Kabardino-Balkaria, he publicly berated the entire local cabinet for misusing more than a billion roubles.

"Over the last few years," he said, "we have the impression that the local administration has become a club to promote the interests of those who have found their way into power."

He told me: "We have to treat this situation in a liberal way. Liberal economic policy, and that means the rule of law."

But the rule of law is not firmly entrenched in Kabardino-Balkaria.

Journalists who travel there independently are harassed by the secret police.

Those - like the BBC - who inform the authorities of their visit are kept under close supervision.

Torture allegations

I did however manage to meet the parents of Rasul Tsakoyev.

Mr and Mrs Tsakoyev, Rasul's parents
He had been beaten so badly his body had burst
Zokhra Tsakoyev (right)
On 29 September Rasul's broken body was thrown on a rubbish tip and left for dead. But the 26-year-old amateur boxer was still alive, just. He crawled one and a half kilometres to find help.

He lived for another two days, long enough to tell his parents what had happened. He said he was abducted by the police, and tortured to make him admit he was a Wahhabite.

"They had tortured him with electric shocks," his mother Zokhra told me. "There were wounds on his head. And his neck had been burnt with cigarettes. He had been beaten so badly his body had burst."

Rasul's parents insisted their son had no connection with Wahhabites, let alone with any armed groups. They said their son' s only fault was to attend the mosque regularly.

His death is now being investigated, but only after a large crowd of angry people protested outside government buildings.

Unexplained murders

The volatility of the situation in the Caucasus is shown by the chaos in another republic, Karachayevo-Cherkessia.

President Vladimir Putin's adviser on Chechnya, Aslambek Aslakhanov
When you try to find out who is responsible... everyone is responsible
Aslambek Aslakhanov
There, demonstrators forced the local president to flee his office after the unexplained murders of prominent local citizens.

Kremlin officials are surprisingly frank about the need to replace corrupt and discredited local leaders.

"You have a circle of vice and when you try to find out who is responsible for something it is impossible because everyone is responsible," Mr Aslakhanov, the envoy to Chechnya, told me.

"This is a silent brotherhood that is interested in itself."

But not all the appointments made since Beslan inspire confidence.

A new security adviser on Chechnya is Ramzan Kadyrov, a clan leader who controls his own private army.

Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, fears the problem is that the president prizes loyalty above all else.

"Putin cannot make a real choice," he said. "He prefers not to deal with real politicians but with servants who are subordinate to Moscow.

"[The Kremlin] wanted to keep the conflict within the borders of Chechnya," Malashenko said. "But they could not prevent it spreading to other territories.

"Now, after Beslan, a lot of experts and a lot of politicians including from the Northern Caucasus itself believe we are on the eve of a big, total Caucasian explosion."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 18 November, 2004 at 1100 GMT.

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