PUTIN.PETROVSKY, CAUCASUS SIBERIA
Russia has an Islamist and a terrorist problem , it is becoming worse and it is not dealing with it very cleverly. What happened in Nalchik a little while ago was not the end of the affair but could well be a further stage in the spreading of unrest beyond Chechnya. Nalchik was not a great victory of the terrorists; they made the elementary mistake of getting overconfident. Instead of concentrating on frequent small scale attacks, they tried to operate in comparatively large units— thus exposing themselves to the Russian forces and were of course defeated by the greater firepower of the other side. But this was not a decisive defeat and the Kremlin is facing a growing problem.
It is frequently forgotten that Russia has a sizable Muslim population, between 16 and 20 millions, no one know the exact figure. And while the Russian population is rapidly shrinking , the population of Tatarstan, Bashkorstan and other Muslim concentrations is rising. These regions furthermore are rich in resources (including oil) and while they do not want to secede from Russia, they want much more self rule . Off late they have suggested that the Vice president of Russia should be a Muslim. They are not in their great majority Islamist but small cells do exist there too. Among the prisoners in Guantanamo there are no Chechens but there are some from Bashkirstan .
Russian Muslims have not very much in common with each other, they are dispersed over a very large country , there is no united front, they do not have a common language and it should not be too difficult for the Kremlin to keep them content by a variety of concessions.
But the Kremlin has not shown much aptitude in dealing with its Muslims. Instead they have been doing all kind of favors to countries such as Iran—for instance building nuclear facilities for them, in the wholly mistaken assumption that the Iranians will help them to contain the Muslim problem at home.
The Russian rulers feel aggrieved about the loss of empire and they increasingly tend to put the blame on the West—rather on themselves. To a certain extent one can feel sympathy or at least understanding; the .loss of Kiev was not just the loss of Ukraine, it is the loss of a thousand years of Russian history for the history of a Russian state begins after all in Kiev.
Putin and a majority of his colleagues want to regain as much as possible of what was lost. But they are doing it all wrong, at best this could be a long process, and they are people in a hurry. They bring pressure not only on the Muslims, they want to undermine Georgia and Moldavia as well as the Ukraine, they put increasingly military bases in Tadzhikistan and other Central Asian republics which depend on them. (These republics too mishandle their Islamist problem as shown recently in Andizhan causing the radicalization of a movement which is not inherently militant and religious-fanatic in character). The Kremlin feels in a strong position in view of the great and growing income from the oil and gas they are selling.
But oil and gas is not enough to reestablish an empire. They try to do the impossible-- to make the new Russia more nationalist and more multi cultural at the same time. But the number of Russians is dwindling , the Russian countryside is becoming empty, thousands of villages are simply disappearing. . The demographers predict that the population of Russia at present 142 million will have declined by 2050 to 101 millions, even if the birthrate should recover which is quite doubtful. For comparison. The population of Yemen , not the most populous country in the Middle East ,will also be about 100 millions by the middle of the century.
Perhaps the demographers are mistaken with regard to the Yemen overrating its growth. But they are not mistaken with regard to the decline of Russia and the question arises how long will the Russian Far East and Siberia remain in Russian hands if it is empty of people? The Russian military leadership and the KGB live an a fantasy world called Eurasianism that is to say an alliance with China and parts of the Muslim world against the Western threat. But neither the Americans nor the Europeans want to replace the Russians in Yakutia and Kamchatka. One of these days this may be understood in Moscow too.
It would be wrong to put all the blame for the crisis in the Caucasus on the Russians. The Chechens had their chance in the nineteen nineties to establish an autonomous republic and they made a great mess of it. . Aggressive Islamism is a virulent condition which tends to spread but it does not occur everywhere and given the situation in the Caucasus it was not preordained that it would spread outside Chechnya.
It is perfectly natural that Russia should have special interests in the region surrounding it and that Russian influence should be felt.. But to assert such influence tact and patience is needed and Russian policy has been showing neither. As far as the Caucasus is concerned they may have missed the opportunities, it may be too late for a real improvement in the situation and we may face a long period of widespread unrest.