At the crossroads between Europe and Asia, the Caucusus has, for centuries, fought foreign rule. And while Chechnya has been at the centre of conflict since the breakup of the Soviet Union, skirmishes and guerrilla attacks have also tested pro-Moscow authorities in neighbouring regions like Dagestan.
Every time the rebels appear, the spotlight returns to Chechnya. Blocked from independence by Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s, its fight for self rule in recent years been exported, with the bloodshed now spreading to Kabardino-Balkaria. The latest efforts to calm the flames of conflict come in the form of Chechnya’s parliamentary elections next month. However there is widespread scepticism that the vote will be free and fair among the local population, especially after the contested elections of the past two years. There were claims of ballot stuffing, voter inimidation and key candidates being excluded from presidential elections in 2003 and 2004. What is more, Chechen separatist groups often do not share political, economic or ideological motivations. Ahmad Khadyrov, a former separatist warlord who won one of the disputed polls, was among those to call for an end to the violence. He became associated with the Moscow-backed regime, and was assassinated in August last year. Much of the separatist movement is now dominated by Wahibbis. They are Islamists who have always tried to internationalise the conflict, as with the deadly hostage crisis at the Budyonnovsk hospital in 1995. It was the most high profile of a series of raids on Russian soil, and drewworld attention to the conflict. Fruitless peace talks that followed gave way to the second Chechen war in 1999, and for the separatists yet more bloody attacks. There was the Moscow theatre siege in late 2003, and the Beslan hostage drama just over a year ago. Again this was aimed at destablizing a region neighbouring Chechnya in a bid to challenge Moscow. Control of the Caucusus is strategically important for the Russian government not least because it is an oil-rich region. Separatists destroyed a Soviet-era pipeline in the second Chechen war. Its replacement, through Dagestan, is also a target for attacks.