Fri, Jul 09, 2010 - Page 6 News List

Caucasus ‘viceroy’ is man with a plan

AFP , KISLOVODSK, RUSSIA

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Khloponin may be Russia’s biggest optimist.

The senior official in charge of the violence-plagued North Caucasus, he largely dismisses Islamists’ fight for a Shariah-based state as a cause of violence in the region and says alcoholism and fires in Siberia kill more people.

“This is just the redistribution of property, just criminals,” Khloponin, a former governor of Krasnoyarsk region, said in the spa town of Kislovodsk as he laid out plans to build ski resorts, ports and refineries in a region famous for its dramatic mountains.

The Kremlin calls the unrest in the Caucasus, where it is battling a violent Islamist insurgency, its biggest headache. Russia fought two wars against in Chechen separatists in the 1990s.

While relative normalcy has recently returned there, the unrest spread to neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia exposing Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s inability to bring order to the Caucasus by way of force alone.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev tried a new tack in January when he appointed businessman Khloponin as a new Kremlin envoy responsible for the Caucasus.

Several months into his new job, Khloponin appears to have sold his recipe for the Caucasus to Putin, who this week unveiled a new drive for the region where economic prosperity will ultimately lead to peace.

Putin, who once famously said rebels should be “wiped out in the outhouse,” said in much more mellow remarks in Kislovodsk that he “sometimes feels sorry” for the militants who run around the mountains as they do not have any other opportunities.

Unlike earlier strategies for the region, Khloponin’s plan, leaked to several Russian media in the past days, focuses primarily on economic development, the creation of new jobs and the establishment of development institutions to help foreign and Russian investors with projects there. Putin said that a branch of state bank Vnesheconombank would be set up in the region to handle promising projects and the finance ministry would provide investors with loan guarantees.

Around 2,500 projects worth 3.4 trillion rubles (US$100 billion) are now under consideration, said Khloponin, noting that Russia’s billionaires are keen to commit their wealth to the region.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader and a former rebel despised by rights activists for his heavy-handed tactics, said the new plan gave him hope.

“If the government chairman is engaged in this and the United Russia party turned its sights on us, then I am seven million percent certain that all economic problems will be solved,” Kadyrov said.

Critics charge, however, that no one knows how much money Moscow will need to spend on the new strategy — and more importantly — how to spend the money in a region where graft is a way of life.

Observers say that Khloponin would have to change centuries-old attitudes.

“The Northern Caucasus is a colony and Khloponin is its viceroy,” political analyst Boris Makarenko said in remarks to Russia’s top financial daily Vedomosti.

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