Time flies so very fast. These days, all news from the post-Soviet space seem to concern the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. And rightly so, you might say. Russian troops have now almost complete control over Crimea. The peninsula shall witness a referendum in a few days; an event that may well result in the most far-reaching challenge to sovereignty in the post-Soviet world, and beyond.
Yet noteworthy events have a tendency to take place in this region; and right now we are in danger of forgetting about one such event. Before the toppling of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, before the Sochi Winter Olympics even, all talk was of the terrifying bombings killing and maiming scores of people in the Russian city of Volgograd. This horror is worth remembering still, for several reasons.
To quickly recap, on October 21st, 2013, a suicide bomber on a Volgograd bus killed seven people and injured almost forty. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24608694) Just as the shock from this event had subsided, on December 29th and again the following day, further suicide bombs in the city killed thirty four people in total, injuring more than eighty. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-25959746)
Why did the bombings take place?
For a while these acts of terror unsurprisingly dominated debate in Russia, and to some extent abroad. It was quickly stated that the suicide bombers were connected to the North Caucasus. More precisely, Dagestan and its militant Islamic groups appeared to have fostered the attacks - at least according to the Russian authorities, who later arrested and killed people suspected of involvement in the attacks. (http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/30/us-russia-blasts-idUSBREA0T0LT20140130)
While statements from the Russian authorities cannot always be taken at face value there seems little immediate reason to doubt the bombings were planned from the North Caucasus. Volgograd is the first larger city travelling north from the Caucasus and would consequently be the easiest for Caucasian militants to reach. The city has obvious connections to Russian rule, connected as it is to the Second World War that still forms much of Russian state identity. Going further back, of course, Volgograd was founded in the late 16th century (as Tsaritsyn) to protect the southern frontier of Russia. Such symbolics makes the city an obvious target for anyone seeking to terrorise the Russian state. (see also: http://www.rferl.org/content/why-volgograd-bombing/25216682.html)
Yet, beyond the terrible human cost involved in these bombings it is worth remembering that terror attacks are nothing new for post-Soviet Russia. Following the third of the recent attacks, the British newspaper The Guardian provided a very helpful map of all registered terrorist attacks in Russia since 1991. (http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/interactive/2013/dec/30/every-terrorist-attack-in-russia-since-1991-mapped) Looking at this map it is immediately visible that a vast majority of all attacks have taken place in the miniscule Caucasian republics, such as Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia. Not always names familiar abroad perhaps, but these are areas that still witness almost daily killings, by gun, bomb, or simply "disappearance." It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine with any certainty the background for most of these acts of violence - in this region, law enforcement agencies and militants alike are not known for their willingness or ability to inform. What remains certain, though, is the continued volatility of the Russian Caucasus and the sheer inability (or unwillingness?) by the Russian state to lessen the problem by non-violent means. It is certainly too simplistic to state that the Volgograd bombings were directly caused by the misery of the North Caucasus, yet it does remain clear that Russia cannot hope for freedom from terror as long as parts of its territory remain so unstable.
What has happened since the attacks?
Given the scale of the problem suddenly so visible in the wake of Volgograd, it might have been expected that decisive action would be taken by the Russian authorities to prevent repetition. Clearly, Russian law enforcement must have done something right for the high-profile Sochi Winter Olympics passed without a glitch (outside the Caucasian republics that is). Sochi itself and the Olympic venues were so heavily guarded that the risk of a renewed Munich was always minimal. Nevertheless, it is pleasantly surprising that other areas of Russia were not subject to spectacular terror while the Games took place. The lack of violence might have to do with lack of resources amongst perpetrators; or it might have to do with the response of the authorities. President Vladimir Putin, in his practiced He-Man style, vowed the "total annihilation" of terrorists immediately after the bombings (well, immediately after the second round of bombings, anyway). (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/10544617/Vladimir-Putin-vows-total-annihilation-of-terrorists-after-Volgograd-bombings.html) Certainly, as mentioned above, before the beginning of the Olympics the Russian authorities did claim to arrest or kill several people connected to the bombings. Subsequently, stricter anti-terrorist laws have been adopted by parliament in order to stymie future attacks. (http://en.itar-tass.com/opinions/1687) Yet it remains to be seen how effective such laws are - given the tendency of terrorist suspects to die "following shootouts with Russian security services" wanna-be terrorists might expect to be killed during or after their crime without having time to consider whether to commit a ten-year or a twenty-year terrorist offence...
It would probably be more effective - in the shorter, medium, and longer term - if the Russian state helped to turn the spiral of violence in its Caucasian republics. The Kremlin can with some justification state that Chechnya, previously centre for vicious civil war and general lawlessness, has now been pacified under former rebel turned Kremlin strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Yet Kadyrov is probably not the man to foster widespread dialogue and conciliation in his community (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/8809241/Ramzan-Kadyrov-profile.html) despite his recent, generous offer to send peacekeepers to Crimea... (http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/kadyrov-chechens-ready-to-keep-peace-in-crimea-337720.html). It may therefore be feared that violent tension remains close to the surface in Chechnya. As was mentioned previously, terror attacks and violent deaths show no sign of abating in the North Caucasus, which also suffers from widespread socio-economic deprivation and, pace Kadyrov, local regimes that are not as democratically accountable to the local populace, as one might wish. And the Russian state with President Putin seems quite unwilling, or unable, to address this issue.
What can we expect in future?
The immediate answer to what might be expected in future is, unfortunately, further terrorist attacks. Not because unsavoury individuals in Ukraine suggest "armed rebellion" in Russia as nationalist leader Dmytro Yarosh may or may not have said in some unspecified context. Not because terrorist attacks are part of some cunning, evil plan by the Russian authorities to keep its population fearful by using the constant threat of terror. But because the Russian authorities have long since (ever since the outbreak of the first fighting in Chechnya in 1994, one might say) lost the plot over what to do with the Caucasus. Anti-Caucasian and anti-Muslim sentiments might appear in Russia with somewhat unpleasant frequency, but there is little reason to believe that Putin and his elites share such automatic antipathy. The Russian state instead adds to the problem by continuing to promote authoritarianism and support for individual strongmen in the area - a technique used to some stabilising effect elsewhere in Russia but not here where, among other things, memories from the Chechen Wars and other regional violence has now damaged entire generations to the point where original nationalism has been significantly challenged and partly upstaged by militant Islam, so-called.
Why does this matter? Well, apart from the obvious interest for Russia and all who care about it to prevent future attacks on civilians (whomever may be the perpetrators) the Caucasian Republics remains yet another problem questioning the stability of the Russian state. Unless Moscow lets these republics go - which is extremely unlikely to happen - the Caucasian unrest is a persistent example that the Russian state cannot, over a period of years, pacify troubled, ethnically heterogenous areas with its usual method of strong central control. It almost makes one wonder how Russia could ever contemplate taking over Crimea. The peninsula may not be fertile ground for terrorism, and its socio-economic situation may be a whole lot better than that of the North Caucasus - but might it not be sensible for the Russian state to solve its domestic problems before venturing abroad?