Mt. Elbrus’ Slippery Slopes
Kabardino-Balkaria’s Insurgents Have Changed Their Tactics – Do the Authorities Think It Is Time to Change Theirs?
By Tom Balmforth
The Russian security services on Sunday beefed up security in two parts of the southern region of Kabardino-Balkaria with a new “counterterrorist operation” regime, in response to a rash of insurgent attacks directed at tourists over the weekend. Analysts say that the insurgents were not just trying to blight the region’s fledgling tourist industry, but were also trying to deal a blow to the preparation for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi.
On February 18 insurgents opened fire on a minivan carrying tourists from Moscow on a highway in the Elbrus region, killing three Russians and hospitalizing two. The following day, a car laden with explosives equivalent to 70 kilograms of TNT was discovered next to a hotel in the nearby town of Terskol. The three homemade bombs in it were defused before they detonated, but a police spokesperson later said it would have been “impossible to avoid a considerable number of victims and considerable destruction” had they gone off. Hours later, a cable car at the foot of the highest peak in Europe was blown up, although no one was injured.
The most recent spike in terrorist attacks in the troubled republic is the latest incidence of a growing trend in Kabardino-Balkaria in recent years. Last November the Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev said that terrorist crimes rose five times in the predominantly Muslim republic of 900,000 in 2010 alone. Kabardino-Balkaria was also rocked last year by an explosion at the Baksanskaya hydroelectric power station in July, at the time seen as a bold attack on the region’s ailing infrastructure.
The latest shift in the terrorist strategy, which appears to be targeting the tourism industry, will undermine the local government’s program to stimulate the region’s struggling economy, said Irina Borogan, a security expert and deputy editor of the Agentura.Ru Web site. “Everyone knows that huge amounts have been invested. Attacking tourists is the best way to halt the tourism industry’s development in the North Caucasus.”
The assailants may also have been trying to draw attention to the problems of security in the tourism industry as the authorities start to worry about the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games, said Nikolai Petrov, an expert in regional politics with Carnegie Moscow Center.
Petrov pointed to last week’s government meeting dedicated to the Sochi games, which came a day before the spate of attacks. President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin personally visited the ski resort at Krasnaya Polyana, where a test run was later supposed to take place. In the end, it was abandoned due to heavy snowfall, although the visiting chair of the International Olympic Committee still gave the games’ preparation his full backing.
Medvedev in January ordered five resorts to be built in the region at a projected cost of $15 billion, and the North Caucasus’ mountains already boast a famous ski resort at Elbrus. However, continuing violence and instability have prevented a steady stream of tourists from visiting the region, and even the recent appointment of Alexander Khloponin as the Presidential Envoy to the North Caucasus, which had produced some optimism among analysts, has had little to no positive effect.
By Monday the insurgents had already appeared to have got their way when Khloponin told tourists to stay away from the republic while the counterterrorist operation is ongoing. The Agentura Web site writes that the weekend attacks show that the republic’s President, Arsen Kanokov, has had little success fulfilling his campaign pledges from 2005 to expand the local tourism industry.
The terrorists may lose what little credibility they once had among the local population, however. “The insurgents in Kabardino-Balkaria have always said they do not harm peaceful people. The only exceptions to this were people going into the woods who they said they would assume were FSB agents. Now they’ve changed tactics to firing at tourists and locals,” said Borogan.
In the Kabardino-Balkaria insurgency there is thought to be more of an ethnic component than in the pan-Caucasus Islamized jihad avowed by Doku Umarov, the terrorist who claimed responsibility for the January bombings at the Domodedovo Airport in the Moscow Region. Historic animosity between the two dominant ethnic groups in the region, the Balkars and the Kabardins, has been aggravated by the region’s leaders both being Kabardins, most colorfully illustrated when a small band of Balkars came to Moscow to petition the federal authorities to intervene in a local dispute over land rights. Petrov played down the relevance of the ethnic question to the weekend’s attacks.