With the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in mind, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed a new and harsher anti-terrorism law. The first part of this new law is aimed at forcing relatives of insurgents to repay any damage resulting from terrorist acts committed in Russia. It specifies that relatives and/or people close to the terrorist should compensate for damages if it is proven that they obtained money or other goods due to terrorist activities. The concept of “close people” is so broadly defined that it encompasses anyone with a personal relationship with the suspected terrorist or militant. This new law delegates enormous power to the Russian security apparatus, and particularly the North Caucasus branch of the police and the Federal Security Service (FSB). Instead of creating new investigative powers and capacities, it simply offers policemen a new way to abuse the counter-terrorist operations in order to extract bribes from ordinary people in the region.
In fact, security forces in Russia have regularly abused new anti-terrorism laws in order to extract bribes and eliminate political opponents by labeling them as extremists. The most notable examples of these abuses were observed with the anti-Wahhabism law in Dagestan in September of 1999, which was unofficially extended to the entire North Caucasus region throughout the 2000s. Following the Chechen invasion of Dagestan in 1999, the Dagestani government outlawed “Wahhabism” as a whole movement or ideology, as well as “other extremist activities,” without fully defining the concepts. There are no details outlined in the law regarding how it should be applied and whether it is aiding the counter-terrorist operation, nor does anyone supervise or review how the law is being applied by police forces. The anti-Wahhabi law opened Pandora’s Box, and has lead to corruption and abuses that have helped feed the insurgency in areas like Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan.
I personally witnessed the arbitrary nature of security force behaviors and decisions associated with the anti-Wahhabi law. Just my having a beard labeled me as a “Wahhabi” and was enough for police in Dagestan to control, search, and try to extract bribes from me on a daily basis. For many local Dagestanis, it also means arbitrary arrests and other abuses, including torture, disappearances, and extra-judicial killings. In the best case scenario, the new law will create a system of collective responsibility and justice inspired by the abuses committed in Chechnya against the militants’ families (torching and bombing houses, torture, and disappearances). Trying to emulate the brutal counter-insurgency techniques of Chechnya in other North Caucasus republics has proven to be a catastrophe. Nothing seems to indicate that this new law will differ from previous tendencies.
The new law will also boost the penalties for participating in and financing insurgent groups by doubling most of the associated prison terms and fines. It will criminalize the act of undergoing training in order to commit a “terrorist act.” This might act as a deterrent for lower-level and part-time members of the insurgency, but it is very doubtful to have any effect on the committed leaders and followers involved in insurgent attacks. This addition to the anti-terrorism law will also inadvertently mark journalists, human-rights workers, and academics trying to access and interview insurgents as individuals linked with terrorist activities. The local police and the Russian government might use the new law as way to suppress and scare people from documenting abuses committed against ordinary people and insurgents. The concept of undergoing training might be stretched to the point that meeting with insurgents will be enough to undergo criminal proceedings in the North Caucasus. There are more chances that the law will be used for political reasons than for reasons of security.
In recent years, academic researchers, international organizations and the Russian government itself have clearly identified that the insurgency is the result of corruption, low economic development, and security force abuses rather than a growing problem of religious extremism. Instead of building on these findings and the recent success against extremism, this new law seems to reinforce the major structural problems in the North Caucasus. The Russian government and its security forces in the region have been successful in combating extremism by infiltrating the insurgency and conducting crucial counter-terrorist operations. The new law does not provide new tools for the security services to fight extremism; it simply reinforces the lawlessness and high-level of corruption amongst policemen in the North Caucasus.
It is extremely doubtful that this new law will contribute to fighting terrorism in the region. It will probably simply further antagonize the local population and reinforce the insurgency’s recruitment capacity in the near future. This situation will only increase the possibility of witnessing a terrorist attack against Sochi Olympic installations or a “soft” undefended target, such as tourist places and transportation infrastructure in the vicinity of the Russian capital.
Jean-François Ratelle is a postdoctoral fellow at the George Washington University, with research interests including the micro-dynamics of violence, civil wars, terrorism, Islamic radicalization, the North Caucasus, and the Balkans. He completed his PhD in political science at the University of Ottawa in 2013, with a dissertation dealing with the recent upsurge of insurgent violence in the North Caucasus.