A dark storm is brewing yet again in Russia's North Caucasus.
For the most part, the world pays little attention to this violent little backwater. That is, unless something truly catastrophic happens -- such as the time, 7 years ago, when masked gunmen from Chechnya held hundreds hostage in a downtown Moscow theater. That standoff ended with 129 of the hostages dead, asphyxiated by gas released in a rescue attempt. Or, five years ago this September, when hundreds of children were held captive in Beslan, North Ossetia, by guerillas strapped with guns, grenades, and -- ultimately - dripping in blood. Three excruciating days later, hundreds died in a botched rescue operation.
The murders of journalists, lawyers, and human rights and humanitarian activists rate even less attention. Three years ago, when investigative journalist Anna Politkovaskaya was murdered in her apartment building in Moscow one Saturday afternoon, shock and outrage emanated from Washington and capitals across Europe. Everyone thinks she was killed for her investigative journalism on the North Caucasus. But a long period of ambivalence, indifference, and silence followed that brief spasm of anger.
The murder on a Moscow street of her young lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, happened the day before Barack Obama's inauguration, this past January; attention was elsewhere. A few weeks ago, another murder took place -- this time of human rights activist Natasha Estemirova. She was kidnapped outside her home in Grozny, the Chechen capital, shot, and left in a field, in neighboring Ingushetia. The day before her murder, Human Rights Watch had published a report based in part on information she provided on summary executions and house-burnings in Chechnya.
And, this week, word came that two more activists, Zarema Sadulayeva and Alik Dzhabrailov, had been kidnapped in Grozny. An e-mail subsequently informed me that the bodies of this director of an orphans' charity and her husband had been found in the trunk of their car.
This year, and especially this summer, violence in the North Caucasus has spiked sharply. July was by far the most deadly month in years. Yet Chechnya and the rest of the North Caucasus have dropped off the map politically. Western policymakers have no practical solutions and no sense of how to engage the Russian authorities about the situation. Numerous diplomats have told me that, during the Bush administration, U.S.-perpetrated human rights abuses -- Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary renditions, "black site" prisons -- made raising concerns about the North Caucasus all but impossible with Russian authorities. A recent exhaustive report by a panel of international lawyers and published by the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists finds that these damaging American policies hampered efforts to stop or push back against the atrocities committed in places like Grozny and North Ossetia.
And so, it is time to put the North Caucasus back on the policy agenda. As the Obama administration works to close Guantánamo, end torture, and "reset" its relationship with Russia, it needs to help change a culture of impunity in which activists, lawyers, and journalists are killed for doing their job.