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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Following Europe's Caucasus Lead

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While it is prevailing in the military struggle in Chechnya, Russia is losing the struggle for democracy and socioeconomic development in the North Caucasus. As Moscow and its Chechen allies have placed increasing pressure upon militants and extremists in Chechnya, the low-intensity conflict has been spreading outward through neighboring republics where frustrations have been increasing. Survey research shows that there are many causes of Islamist extremism in this region, but chief among them are poverty, unemployment and political corruption.

Focusing narrowly on military and political control, Moscow has largely ignored the socioeconomic roots of extremism. Russia faces staggering challenges in the reconstruction of war-ravaged Chechnya, but conditions in the neighboring republics are scarcely better. Grinding poverty, collapsing infrastructure, environmental degradation and unemployment as high as 80 percent breed anger and despair which, in turn, nourish extremism.

In the aftermath of the bloody Beslan hostage tragedy last September, President Vladimir Putin's envoy to the Southern Federal District, Dmitry Kozak, quietly signaled that the Russian government might welcome international economic assistance in the North Caucasus. His remarks were a watershed in the history of this deeply troubled and highly strategic region along Russia's southern border. Kozak had previously insisted that the problems of the region were Russia's internal affairs and off-limits to the international community. After the carnage at Beslan, however, the Kremlin seemed to realize that it needed help.

Then, in December, Putin told German Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der that he would welcome Western economic assistance for the North Caucasus. So began European efforts to mount programs of assistance well beyond the current humanitarian aid. Following meetings with Russian officials, senior members of the German Bundestag proposed a program for reconstruction assistance from Europe.

A delegation from the European Commission is currently preparing a needs assessment plan inside Chechnya, and the commission has already approved 22.5 million euros ($29.3 million) in humanitarian aid for displaced persons in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. Meanwhile, Britain has offered ?10 million ($20 million) in support for vocational training for young people in the North Caucasus. Meeting last week with the EC delegation, Chechen President Alu Alkhanov welcomed the EU initiative for reconstruction projects. He focused on rebuilding schools and orphanages, as well as healthcare, agricultural and waste disposal facilities.

It is important that the United States join Europe in this new approach. When it was locked in an ideological struggle with communism, the United States did not hesitate to assist any part of the world in its effort to offer a constructive alternative. Now that it is locked in a new ideological struggle with Islamism, it should be no less hesitant.

The West needs to help Russia assist small businesses in the region. If there is one single, simple thing that would help the region, it is the construction of plants to process farm produce in remote areas. Mountain villages have underdeveloped economies. People live primarily by subsistence farming, but they grow large quantities of excellent fruit and vegetables. The problem is that they have no local markets for their produce and little transportation. When they do get their produce to market, over perhaps 80 kilometers of abysmal roads, then much of it is damaged and lost. Highland plants would create local jobs, provide goods for local markets, increase local production, stimulate local economies and thereby reduce poverty, radicalism and militancy. True, the region poses daunting problems of oversight and security, but these are not insurmountable.

Bashing Russia over human rights and other abuses in the region has served only to strengthen the positions of hard-liners on all sides. If we in the West are truly concerned about the people of the North Caucasus, then it is time to roll up our sleeves and offer them assistance.

Robert Bruce Ware conducts field research in the North Caucasus and is an associate professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.