Russia's Caucasus Region Ripe For Trouble

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A Chechen militant group has claimed responsibility for Monday's double bombing on the Moscow subway that killed dozens. There were also attacks in Dagestan. Analysts say the bombings are part of the long-running campaign for independence by militant Muslims in Russia's North Caucasus region. It's an impoverished area that has become a battleground involving an Islamist insurgency.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A pair of shocking suicide bombings in the Moscow metro has got us talking this week about the Caucasus, in particular the mostly Muslim north, which is part of Russia. It contains Chechnya and its troubled neighbor Dagestan, which was also hit this week with suicide bombings.

We'll be hearing more in the coming days, so we asked NPR Moscow correspondent David Greene to help us out with some background.

David, let's begin this primer, this lesson, if you will, on the Caucasus, with geography, because I imagine listeners are beginning to get lost in the Caucasus.

DAVID GREENE: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: In relation to Russia, where is this North Caucasus region that we've been hearing about?

GREENE: And that is really important, Renee, because a lot of people, when they think of Russia, I think, have a picture of eastern Europe and maybe traveling from, you know, Berlin or Ukraine into Russia. I want to take you to a totally different area. I want you to think more about Iraq and Iran, because the Caucasus are closer to those countries that they are to Moscow.

And it's been an area that has been one of the most diverse over the centuries. It has been fought over by different countries and different cultures for centuries. There are endless numbers of ethnic clans and languages. But now, in the world we live in today, it has all the ingredients for trouble.

It's very impoverished. Unemployment is incredibly high. There's a lot of anger at the world. And so it's become one of these real battlegrounds involving an Islamist insurgency.

MONTAGNE: Okay. So you've just came back from Dagestan and they've been fighting for independents from Russia for, as you say, centuries. What do the people there that you met in Dagestan say to you about the strive to escape Moscow's rule?

GREENE: We should say there are people even there who believe in Russia and who support Russian leaders, but there's also a lot of frustration among people who don't feel part of Russian society, if you will. There's complaints of workplace discrimination against Muslims. There's a feeling that Russia is not incredibly tolerant of Muslim traditions.

And, you know, one of the uneasy things to see, Renee, is when people from the Caucasus travel to Moscow and go to some other Russian cities up to the north. You know, you can see it in train stations. They're the first to be stopped and searched for documents.

MONTAGNE: But why are the Russians so determined to maintain their dominance of the region?

GREENE: Part of the deal current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin - who's former President Vladimir Putin. Part of the deal he made with the Russian people was, you know, we're going to make life better for you, but you have to accept some level of an iron fist, some level of control. I will keep you safe. We'll have a powerful government. I will protect you from terrorism. And so it's very politically important for Prime Minister Putin to keep control of that area. It's politically beneficial for him to show that, you know, he's sending Russian Special Forces down there to control the region. And so this is a big battle for Putin and his prestige.

MONTAGNE: After hideous wars in Chechnya, the school massacre in Beslan, the theater siege in Moscow where hundreds of people died, airliner, metro bombings - is there any sign of an end to the cycle of terrorist attacks and then state repression?

GREENE: The suicide bombings in the metro this week sadly are nothing new. I mean, it hasn't happened in Moscow for some time, but this is something that Russians have learned to experience. But the timing was interesting, because Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has tried to change the policy strategy in the last few months.

He said he wants to improve the economy in the North Caucasus. That's absolutely vital. Give people, you know, something to look to that is not, you know, joining an insurgent group. And now, you know, we have these two bombings. Medvedev, Prime Minister Putin both come out. They say we're going to go after, we're going to kill these terrorists. And whether Medvedev can return to that policy now in this current climate of actually focusing on the economy instead of just making this something very close to a war will be very interesting. I think people will be wondering right if that effort is going to go by the wayside.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Moscow correspondent David Greene, thanks very much for joining us.

GREENE: Always a pleasure, Renee.

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