LIANE HANSEN, host:
The level of violence in the Russian republic of Chechnya appears to have dropped recently, and there are signs that some aspects of normal life are returning. Moscow said the recent elections there were a major step forward for democracy. But the spread of violence outside Chechnya is now the biggest concern, according to many analysts. They say the Kremlin's continued mishandling of the Chechen conflict is leading to a conflagration that will engulf the entire North Caucasus. NPR's Gregory Pfeiffer reports from Moscow.
GREGORY PFEIFFER reporting:
Human rights activists in the Caucasus say any hope the region would stabilize disappeared along with Ruslan Nahushev. The scholar had ties to local Islamic organizations. He was considered the best go-between to the region's increasingly militant Muslim groups. Last month, he was summoned to the Federal Security Service, the FSB, in the region of Kabardino-Balkaria. He hasn't been seen since. Law enforcement officials deny they're holding Nahushev, and the FSB has launched an investigation into his disappearance. But Nahushev's sister, Fatima(ph), blames the government. She says its actions are symptomatic of an intimidation campaign against local Muslims.
FATIMA (Ruslan Nahushev's Sister): (Through Translator) Everyone here has become very afraid. I don't see the happy faces that used to be here before. We used to live in a corner of paradise.
PFEIFFER: Violence is spreading throughout North Caucasus. In the region of Dagestan, which neighbors Chechnya to the east, hundreds of shootings and bombings take place each year. Officials there say they've killed 21 militants over the past three months. Last year, rebels seized hostages in the north Ossetian town of Beslan. Around 350 people, half of them children, died during an operation to free them. Last October in the region of Kabardino-Balkaria to the west, militants staged a series of attacks against police stations and other official buildings in the city of Nalchik. About 150 people died in the violence there.
Larisa Aramisova's(ph) son-in-law died that day. He was 24 years old. She says he left for work in the morning. She never saw him again.
(Soundbite of voices)
PFEIFFER: Speaking at a meeting of victims' families, she says he was a normal son of a local family, not an extremist.
Ms. LARISA ARAMISOVA (Victim's Mother-in-Law): (Through Translator) It's the same situation for almost everyone else here. In the morning, they left for work, and that was it. Who gathered them together? Who shot them? We want to know.
PFEIFFER: After October's uprising, police conducted large-scale security sweeps to round up alleged militants.
Ms. ZAMIRA IRIZHOKOVA(ph): (Russian spoken)
PFEIFFER: Zamira Irizhokova says police came to her house, beat and choked her, then set the building on fire.
Ms. IRIZHOKOVA: (Through Translator) My two children were left with only tights on, and my husband and I were wearing only bathrobes. They didn't want to take any of our documents or anything else.
PFEIFFER: Locals say far from containing violence in the Caucasus, such actions are pushing young Muslim men toward extremism. They say in Nalchik, Muslim worshipers have been arrested, tortured and even killed. Sociologist Yuri Shanibov(ph) conducted a study of the October uprising and says the militants wanted to draw attention to the dire situation of Muslims in Nalchik. Like many in Russia, he refers to the strict Wahhabi sect as synonymous with Islamist extremism.
Mr. YURI SHANIBOV (Sociologist): (Through Translator) Wahhabism in Russia was born through torture. Everyone's already seen that, and neither the government nor the police can deny that any longer.
PFEIFFER: The Kremlin says it's stabilizing the region. President Vladimir Putin says a parliamentary vote in Chechnya last month, its first since the renewal of hostilities there in 1999, was a key step toward normalizing the region. After the vote, Chechen President Alu Alkhanov rejected widespread criticism of the elections, saying they were free and fair. He said they were an important step after over a decade of war.
President ALU ALKHANOV (Chechnya): (Through Translator) The parliament must help and nurture both the democratic process and the social and economic development of our society.
PFEIFFER: Others say matters are far more complicated. Ruslan Khasbulatov is a former speaker of the Russian parliament. He's also a Chechen. He says the elections were a joke.
Mr. RUSLAN KHASBULATOV (Former Russian Parliamentary Speaker): (Russian spoken)
PFEIFFER: `You can't have even theoretical democratic elections in those conditions.'
Khasbulatov says the Kremlin is doing nothing to address Chechnya's real issues: its massive economic and social problems. He says the only way for the government to improve conditions would be to turn the whole region into a construction site.
Aleksei Malashenko is a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. He says while the Chechen war continues at a low level, the antagonisms it creates are helping fuel the violence elsewhere in the North Caucasus, making the problem increasingly difficult to address.
Mr. ALEKSEI MALASHENKO (Carnegie Moscow Center): And I cannot believe--I cannot believe--that it's possible to find a final solution in Chechnya without--without--doing something in the area, in the whole region.
PFEIFFER: Residents of the North Caucasus say unless the Kremlin changes its policy of repression, it's just a matter of time until another Nalchik or Beslan explodes. Gregory Pfeiffer, NPR News, Moscow.
HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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