MOSCOW (Reuters) - The decision by Russia’s most wanted rebel to step down as leader of the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus is unlikely to give Moscow a breather in its efforts to pacify its volatile southern flank.
Doku Umarov, who is also listed as a terrorist by the United States, announced on Sunday he had appointed Aslambek Vadalov as his successor to fight Moscow’s rule over the mainly Muslim North Caucasus.
As the self-styled Emir of the Caucasus, Umarov sought to create an independent Muslim state in the region. He oversaw a increase in attacks in the Dagestan and Ingushetia regions, which replaced Chechnya as the focus of the insurgency.
Although little is known about Vadalov, analysts said any change in leadership would likely spark a new surge in rebel violence.
“It would be quite logical right now to expect increased (rebel) activity — because new people are keen to demonstrate that they are able to carry out new kinds of actions,” said Grigory Shvedov, editor-in-chief of the Caucasian Knot www.kavkaz-uzel.ru Internet news agency.
Experts said that an attack on a hydroelectric plant in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria last month appeared to signal a shift in rebel priorities to economic targets — a move long threatened by the insurgents.
Umarov said he was stepping down for health reasons to give a younger person a chance, but he pledged to continue his “jihad” against Russia.
“Beyond all doubt, economic targets may come under attack,” Shvedov said. “Umarov might personally lead one such attack. This is why it is logical to announce a successor.”
Umarov has claimed responsibility for a series of attacks in the past few months, including the March 29 bombings of the Moscow metro that killed at least 40 people and wounded 100.
But analysts have called some of his claims into question, including when he said last August that he was behind an attack on Russia’s largest hydroelectric plant, Sayano-Shushenskaya.
Seventy-five people died in the incident, which officials said was purely technical and had occurred when a turbine room was flooded at the station’s dam.
“His claims of responsibility for various attacks were becoming less and less convincing,” said Pavel Baev, an analyst with the Oslo-based International Peace Research Institute.
“There was a feeling that someone younger should come along to try to create more coherence, to reinvigorate the common cause. Whether the young wolves can do it remains to be seen.”
Umarov’s successor is a native of Chechnya who has fought against federal troops sent in by Moscow since 1994, the unofficial Islamist site www.kavkazcenter.com said.
It said that in 2007 he was one of the first Chechen rebel leaders to support Umarov and pledge allegiance to him.
But whoever heads the rebels, they will not lack new fighters as long as Moscow continues to carry out its often repressive policies in the region, said Alexander Cherkasov, a North Caucasus expert from Russian rights group Memorial.
“If Umarov had been killed, his place would have been taken by someone else,” he said. “This is not a personality issue.”
“But this disproportionate use of force (by the authorities) creates this mobilisation potential recruiting young men (for the rebels).”
Chechnya’s pro-Moscow leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, pledged on Monday to track down Umarov. He dismissed the change of rebel leadership as “sheer propaganda” and said that “Umarov is not backed by any force and has no detachments under his command”.
“He is sick, hiding like a rat in a hole and crushing lice, has lost his teeth and is not able to command anyone,” Kadyrov said in a statement. “For Chechnya’s population, Umarov has long been a living corpse.”
Additional reporting Conor Humphries; Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Mark Heinrich