By Paul Goble
The Russian Procuracy has told the Federation Council (upper chamber of parliament) that “the greatest threat to security and stability in the North Caucasus region comes from organized criminal formations of a religious-extremist direction, which have formed diversionary groups” (interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=55156).
Moscow officials clearly intend this to be a sign of progress in their fight against the militants, an indication that militant groups are no longer receiving as much funding from abroad as they did, and that the militants are having to return to methods they used in the early 1990s to finance their operations. But the situation is more complicated than that, and the convergence of criminal and militant groups in the North Caucasus may make it more difficult for the authorities there to root out either. Indeed, this symbiosis could lead to a new growth in both.
While Moscow’s latest statement is little more than a combination of charges Russian officials have made against the militants in the North Caucasus in the past, it calls attention to three new developments, each of which bears watching. First, it suggests that the militants now have an increasingly effective way of financing themselves domestically even if Moscow is able to cut off their funding from abroad. Indeed, the report says that one of the most common kinds of criminal-militant interaction is the use of stolen or lost bank cards to funnel money to anti-Russian groups in the countryside.
Second, the new terminology suggests that Russian officials now plan to charge at least some “ordinary” criminals with links to those Moscow identifies as terrorists. That would significantly increase the sentences of anyone so charged. Russian prosecutors clearly believe that this will act as a deterrent against the willingness of any criminal to cooperate with militants. But the result could be exactly the opposite: If ordinary criminals are likely to face such charges, they may have good reason to link up with militants who may be in a position to provide them with some protection against judicial overreach. Indeed, such a change in Russian prosecutorial behavior could lead to the growth of militant groups rather than the reverse.
And third, this new term suggests that Moscow now faces a far more deep-rooted problem than it did in the past. If criminal groups and militant ones are linking up in the ways that the prosecutors say, then the Russian authorities face a far more difficult challenge in the North Caucasus than they have been claiming in recent years. That such a conclusion is justified is suggested by the report itself: it says that given what is taking place, the authorities must set up “a reliable organization of operational-investigative activity directed in the first instance at uncovering criminal intensions and also at the identification and location of persons involved in the preparation and carrying out of crimes of a terrorist character.”