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Moscow's Caucasus failure exposed in Chechnya attack

MOSCOW – Agence France-Presse | 10/19/2010 12:00:00 AM |

Ten years after the end of the last the of two separatist wars to hit Chechnya, the region remains a bleeding wound for Russia that the Kremlin has yet to come close to healing. The deadly attack on the Chechen parliament has exposed the hollowness of Russia's claims to have imposed stability in the region

The deadly attack on the Chechen parliament on Tuesday has exposed the hollowness of Russia's claims to have imposed control and stability in the region under hard-line leader Ramzan Kadryov.

A group of rebels were able to storm the building housing parliament, killing four and briefly holding deputies before being killed in a bloody standoff with security forces. The brazen morning attack was a heavy blow to Kremlin hopes that stability was finally returning to Chechnya under Kadyrov's controversial leadership, a decade after the end of the second war Moscow fought with separatist rebels.

"It's a slap in the face for Ramzan Kadyrov," said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Centre. "The war is not finished if you can seize the parliament in the centre of the city. All Ramzan's claims of victory over rebels are worthless."

The attack was particularly symbolic, coming amid high security as the Russian interior minister visited Grozny. Russia in 2009 formally ended a decade-long "counter-terror" operation in Chechnya, the scene of two separatist wars since the collapse of the Soviet Union, citing the return of relative stability to the mainly Muslim region.

Chechnya has in recent years seen a relative improvement in security Kadyrov, but the unrest has continued with regular clashes between militants and police. The region's flamboyant leader, who has a personal zoo and Kalashnikov-toting guards has been heavily criticized by rights groups, who accuse him of torture and using his security forces to crack down on critics.

Experts said it was unclear who was behind the attacks. Islamist militants led by Doku Umarov have previously claimed responsibility for attacks including the twin suicide bombings in the Moscow metro in March which killed 40 people. "The rebels have shown who is boss," said Alexei Vanchenko, an expert on the Caucasus.

"Kadyrov can still not deal with the underground movement of Doku Umarov," despite his vast resources, including what amounts to his personal police force and army, Vanchenko said. The Kremlin has been fighting insurgents in the Northern Caucasus since the collapse of the Soviet Union, waging a war in 1994-1996 against separatist rebels in Chechnya.

However, after a second war broke out in Chechnya in 1999, the rebellion's inspiration moved towards Islam with the aim of imposing an Islamic state in the region. Although the war ended in 2000, rebels have waged an increasingly deadly insurgency with unrest spreading into other areas of the Northern Caucasus such as Dagestan and Ingushetia.

In an attempt to improve the situation, President Dmitry Medvedev recently appointed a new envoy to the North Caucasus region, tasking him with improving the economy in the largely jobless region. "The situation in Chechnya long ago spilled out of the control of the central government," said Vanchenko.

As Islamist rebels increase attacks in the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, and neighbouring Kyrgyzstan experiences political turmoil, Russia could face a doubly volatile situation, Vanchenko said.

"The situation is in a dead end. The Kremlin does not understand how to get out of it. If the destabilisation in the Caucasus coincides with destabilisation in Central Asia, it's extremely dangerous for Russia."

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