The recent terrorist attack in Russia’s Stavropol Region should be a warning sign for the central and regional authorities. Given the external threat of ISIS, more needs to be done to alleviate the future risk of terrorism in the region.
The geography of terrorist acts in the North Caucasus may be gradually expanding, which is not a good sign. Pictured: A police officer after a terrorist attack in a Chechen town. Photo: RIA Novosti
This week another terrorist attack took place in Russia, this time in the Stavropol Region, located in the southwest of the country. On Apr. 11, three suicide bombers attacked a local police department in the Novoselitsky District, not far from the infamous town of Budyonnovsk, which became a terrorism hotspot in the mid-1990s during the Chechen campaigns.
This recent terrorist attack is very important for several reasons.
First, the Apr. 11 attack has brought the issue of anti-terrorism back to the top of the agenda. Journalists and politicians have been discussing the problem of the jihadist underground in Russia in the context of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), and this attack now gives new urgency to solving this problem specifically in the North Caucasus context.
This threat has been primarily relevant for Dagestan. However, the incident in the Stavropol Region became the first terrorist attack there since the explosion in December 2013 on New Year’s Eve. This indicates that the geography of terrorist acts in the North Caucasus may be gradually expanding, which is not a good sign.
Second, the April attack became the first one in the Stavropol Region conducted by suicide bombers. In addition, this region is seen as one of the most important in Russia – after all, this is where the residence of the Russian President’s Envoy in the North Caucasus Federal District is located. Amidst increasing optimism among Russian officials, spurred by the decrease of terror attacks in this turbulent region, the event is a warning sign.
According to Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee, 2015 saw a sharp decrease in terror attacks. However, the attack in April seems to refute this positive data. Moreover, it reflects a certain trend. A series of terrorist acts, allegedly orchestrated by ISIS supporters, took place in neighboring Dagestan. All these events raise urgent and inconvenient questions.
Russia’s well-known expert Andrei Serenko sees the terror attack in the Novoselitsky District as an introduction of ISIS “sleeper cells” into Russia and an attempt to expand the scope of confrontation with the Russian authorities. In this regard, the Stavropol Region carries symbolic meaning. Although pundits are currently focusing on ISIS’s influence in Syria and the Middle East in general, they are paying less attention to the Stavropol Region, which has domestic preconditions for the development of extremist sentiments.
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The problem is that Stavropol is very diverse and complicated both ethnically and religiously. Even in the North Caucasus, it stands out as being unique. It is located in the center of the North Caucasus region and shares borders with six different Russia’s North Caucasus republics, so that many see it as a “safe haven.” Stavropol became the second home for those Russians who left neighboring Chechnya and Ingushetia.
Officially, about 80,000 ethnic Russians from the Chechen Republic live in this region, with some experts claiming that the number of them is twice as many as presented by the official statistics. That’s because many Russians didn’t receive the status of internally displaced persons (IDP) because of the tedious bureaucratic procedures.
The Stavropol Region also brings together the people from Dagestan with the representatives of different nationalities as well as Chechens – living there. Such internal migration creates a major challenge: the harmonious integration of different nationalities with diverse backgrounds into one society. However, the interethnic relationships there are not limited by domestic migration of the post-Soviet time. The Stavropol region is a long-time home for such ethnic groups as Nogays and Stavropol Turkmen.
Experts search a site of the Apr. 11 explosion at the town of Novoselitskoye in the southern Russian Stavropol region. Photo: AP / Russia's National Anti-Terrorist Committee
The local officials are aware of this problem. That’s why they have been trying to negotiate between different ethnic groups and foster dialogue between various nationalities, taking into account their different interests.
On the other hand, the fact that the Stavropol Region neighbors the previously turbulent republic of Chechnya has resulted in the development of a “defensive mentality” among locals and officials. This hypothetically might hamper any dialogue and cause ethnic tensions, as indicated by previous experience.
This challenge has been dormant for a long period of time. Yet, if anything, the problem is now becoming even more relevant, given Russia’s increasing activity in the international arena, especially in the Middle East. As a result, it requires a great deal of attention within the North Caucasus domestic agenda.
That’s why the Kremlin should focus on the Stavropol Region. With the threat of terrorism and ethnic tensions, the region is now at the crossroads. On the one hand, it might become a model region, exemplifying the development of Russia’s political and civil identity as well as co-existence of different ethnic groups. On the other hand, it might become a hotbed of tensions and extremism, which threatens the very integrity of the country.
Hopefully, the second scenario will remain just a speculative nightmare. The more preferable scenario is the successful testing of social and educational programs, intended to incorporate different ethnic groups into Russian society and regulate domestic migration within the country.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.