Judge Assassinated in Russia's Caucasus; 2nd Killing in a Week

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 11, 2009

MOSCOW, June 10 -- Gunmen killed a senior judge outside a kindergarten in Russia's turbulent North Caucasus on Wednesday in the second assassination of a top law enforcement official there in a week.

The daylight shooting followed a high-profile visit to the region a day earlier by President Dmitry Medvedev, who blamed escalating violence across the area on "freaks" and "terrorist scum" and vowed to defeat them.

The killing of Aza Gazgireeva, deputy chief justice of a local supreme court, occurred in the city of Nazran, in Ingushetia, the province west of Chechnya. Assailants firing automatic weapons also wounded at least four other people, including a year-old girl, authorities said.

Five days earlier, the highest-ranking law enforcement official in Dagestan, located east of Chechnya, was gunned down at a wedding celebration in the provincial capital, Makhachkala. There have been conflicting reports about whether Interior Minister Adilgerei Magomedtagirov was killed by machine-gun fire from a passing vehicle or shot by a distant sniper.

In a surprise visit to Dagestan on Tuesday, Medvedev condemned Magomedtagirov's killing as an act of terrorism and called it "a gauntlet thrown down to the authorities, to the state," the Interfax news agency reported. "The law enforcement structures must do everything possible to find the criminals and bring them to justice," he said.

Analysts said the visit was Medvedev's first major foray into the region since taking office a year ago and could mark a shift of the counterterrorism portfolio from his predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. State-controlled television showed Medvedev touring police bases, inspecting troops and, in a meeting of the Kremlin's security council, adopting the tough-guy rhetoric usually associated with Putin.

"We must continue our efforts to restore order and eliminate terrorist scum," he said, adding later that the violence in the region was due in part to "extremism brought from abroad, by some freaks who come to our country for the sole purpose of defecating on it."

But in a shift, Medvedev also emphasized that the "root causes" of the violence were "systemic."

"By saying that, I am referring to the low living standards, high unemployment and massive, horrifyingly widespread corruption," he said. "I am also referring to the systemically crippled regional governance and extraordinary inefficiency of local authorities."

If the government did not address the "tribalism, crony relationships, thievery and widespread bribery" in the region, Medvedev argued, "our incessant fight against terrorists will last forever."

Alexey Malashenko, an expert on the region at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the bargain that the Kremlin struck with local leaders in the Caucasus -- granting them unusual autonomy in exchange for guarantees of loyalty and stability -- was coming undone as violence has surged this spring. "That's why Medvedev went there, to look in their eyes and ask them, 'What are you doing?' " he said.

Grigory Shvedov, editor in chief of Caucasian Knot, a Web site that monitors the region, said Medvedev's focus on corruption was undercut by the Kremlin's assumption that both assassinations were organized by Islamist terrorists. He said Magomedtagirov was notorious for requiring police to extort money from residents, and even Dagestan's president has suggested that corrupt security officials were involved in his killing.

In Ingushetia, the authorities suggested the judge was killed for her role in investigating a deadly attack on Ingush police forces in 2004 by Chechen militants. But Shvedov noted that Ingushetia's new leader, a Medvedev appointee, has launched a drive against corruption. Gazgireeva served as one of his advisers in the effort and may have been targeted for it, he said.

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