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Bomb carnage at airport proves Russia is losing separatist battle

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A man lights a candle at the Moskovsky railway station in St Petersburg, Russia, yesterday, to commemorate the victims of a suicide bombing at Domodedovo airport

A man lights a candle at the Moskovsky railway station in St Petersburg, Russia, yesterday, to commemorate the victims of a suicide bombing at Domodedovo airport

A man lights a candle at the Moskovsky railway station in St Petersburg, Russia, yesterday, to commemorate the victims of a suicide bombing at Domodedovo airport

If terrorists had not just bombed Moscow's busiest airport, Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, would have been in Davos, Switzerland, today to play salesman for a scheme of almost outlandish ambition.

Primed with a glitzy presentation package, he planned to persuade investors to stump up as much as £10bn (€11.5bn) to build ski resorts in five of the seven semi-autonomous republics that make up Russia's troubled North Caucasus region.

On paper, the project sounds tempting. Russia predicts that the resorts would draw five million tourists a year and that investors would recoup their initial outlay within a decade. Some members of the World Economic Forum listening in Davos would have felt obliged to lend their support, of course -- the price of profiting from Russia's riches is often to indulge the Kremlin's whims. Yet even the dutiful would have had misgivings. According to human rights groups, at least 110 civilians were killed, either by Islamist insurgents or Russian security services, in the North Caucasus last year.

Those behind the deaths of 35 people in the arrivals hall at Domodedovo airport on Monday almost certainly hailed from a region that Russia has struggled to govern for a century-and-a-half. The timing could not have been worse for Russia, and the suicide bomber responsible for the blast knew it.

In 2014, the resort of Sochi, which borders the North Caucasus region, plays host to the Winter Olympics. Four years later, Russia will welcome a legion of fans for the 2018 World Cup. Convincing the world that Russia is a safe place to hold such major events has just become much harder.

And the truth is that the situation in the North Caucasus is getting worse, not better. Medvedev acknowledged as much himself in his state of the nation address in 2009 when he described the instability in the region as the single biggest internal threat to Russia.

Since then, the situation has deteriorated still further. The number of terrorist attacks in the North Caucasus doubled in 2010 on the previous year.

In a desperate attempt to stem the violence, officials in Moscow came up with a plan to flush the region with vast quantities of money. Medvedev gave control of the project to Alexander Khloponin, an economist by training and a friend of Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, whose strongman reputation was established in the Caucasus through his brutal suppression of the Second Chechen War a decade ago.

By turning the North Caucasus into a development hub, Khloponin hoped he could lure youngsters away from the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism with the promise of well-paying jobs. But he was also told the money would have to be raised through investors. The economist came up with ever bolder ideas, culminating in the ski-resort proposal.

Despite Kremlin pressure, too few investors were willing to take on the risk of venturing into Russia's lawless borderlands. At the same time, Moscow cut aid to six of the seven North Caucasus republics by up to 20pc. Promised so much, the locals were unimpressed and the position of insurgent groups grew stronger.

By the middle of the past decade, the insurgency had mutated. Separatist groups that had waged separate rebellions began to coalesce, bound together by the doctrine of radical Islam. Unless the Kremlin loosened its grip on the Caucasus, liberal critics warned, it was only a matter of time before the insurgency became a serious problem.

In the past year, the Russian military has had successes against the rebels, killing leading insurgents in three Caucasian republics. Yet that has only seen the violence worsen and spread. Already, the insurgents have made clear that the Winter Olympics will be a target. In recent months, they have bombed a train near Sochi, while weapons and ammunition caches have been found in the resort.

Putin emerged as Russia's unquestioned leader because of the Caucasus. At the outset of the Second Chechen War, when he was still prime minister, his approval ratings were just 2pc. By the end of it he was president, at 80pc.

Amid the threat of Caucasus-related terrorism again, most Russians believe that the Caucasus only understands brutal language, and Putin is the man they trust to deliver it. As it did in 2000, Caucasus-related terrorism could be the springboard that returns him to the presidency in next year's election. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent