CHECHNYA, INGUSHETIA, Dagestan, North Ossetia and now Kabardino-Balkariya: Once again, one of the republics of Russia's North Caucasus region -- places whose names were once almost unknown in the West -- has become the scene of excruciating terrorist violence. Following a pattern that has become familiar in the region, Islamic militants simultaneously attacked a group of targets Thursday in the city of Nalchik, capital of Kabardino-Balkariya, including three police stations, the city airport and the regional headquarters of Russia's interior ministry police. More than 100 people were killed, a previously peaceful city was turned into a war zone and Russian troops were forced to set up a blockade around its periphery.
Just like the horrific attack on a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, last year, the incident proves that the "stability" that the Russian government claims to have imposed on the Caucasus is a mirage. The insurgents seem, if anything, to be growing better organized, more numerous and more bloodthirsty. Their goals, once limited to the independence of Chechnya, have apparently expanded to include the destabilization of the entire region. Local leaders -- mini-strongmen, backed by the Kremlin -- have cracked down on all forms of dissent, religious and political, thereby increasing the recruiting pool for the terrorist groups. Because more moderate Chechen separatist leaders are either in exile or dead, there is no obvious political solution to what is, despite Russian efforts to claim otherwise, a true crisis in the region.
In the last few years, the international community has mostly stayed away from the north Caucasus, on the grounds that unrest in the region was an internal Russian affair. The Russians, meanwhile, still pick and choose whom they will recognize as an "authentic" political leader, and manipulate local elites to make sure their friends stay in power. There cannot be negotiations with terrorists like those who struck in Nalchik.
Yet in the end, no real peace will be possible without the involvement of all the region's ethnic, political and religious groups, preferably monitored by a neutral outsider. If the United States is not the right country for this role, then the U.S. administration should encourage others to take on that task. Whether or not Chechen rebels really have an established relationship with al Qaeda, as the Russians claim, it's clear they are capable of wider damage: A well-funded, well-organized terrorist group with ill-defined goals is unlikely to remain confined to its home territory forever. However obscure its name, Kabardino-Balkaria isn't as far from Turkey, from Iran, or even from Europe as most Europeans imagine.