SOCHI Russia (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday replaced a former businessman with a military general as his envoy to the North Caucasus region, signalling a more hawkish approach to battling an Islamist insurgency there.
As part of a reshuffle that appeared to be aimed to tighten control over the volatile North Caucasus, Putin also created a new government ministry to oversee the heavily Muslim region on Russia's southern border.
Putin named General Sergei Melikov, who had headed the interior ministry troops in the North Caucasus, as his envoy to the region, and appointed Lev Kuznetsov as minister of North Caucasus affairs.
"We are creating a new body: a ministry for North Caucasus affairs, for the development of the North Caucasus," Putin told Kuznetsov, who until now was governor of the Krasnoyarsk region in Siberia, in a televised meeting.
Throughout the 14 years since Putin rose to power and crushed a Chechen separatist revolt, Russia has battled an insurgency seeking to carve an Islamic state out of the provinces of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan.
Kuznetsov formerly served as an advisor to the Kremlin's former envoy to the North Caucasus, Alexander Khloponin.
Experts say the changes are an acknowledgment by the Kremlin of the scale of the problems it faces in a region where officials say the ranks of fighters are filled by youths disillusioned over corruption and joblessness. "Khloponin alone could not handle such a complex economy, so an additional management vertical has been created," Alexei Mukhin, the head of the independent Russian think-tank Centre for Political Technologies, told the Ekho Moskvy radio.
Khloponin's own appointment by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 signalled a shift from a Kremlin policy that had focused mainly on force to combat the insurgency to one that hoped to fight poverty and violence in the region including by promoting economic development.
Some experts saw this and the replacement of Khloponin, a former businessmen who spearheaded multi-billion dollar state investment in the region, as a sign Putin has turned his back on dialogue with moderate but non-establishment Muslim clerics and other policies to ease the conflict by means other than force.
Melikov has been in charge of the interior ministry troops who are the most active security forces involved in counter-insurgency operations in the North Caucasus.
"I fear that the task of the envoy will fundamentally change now and it will be a body that only answers to security issues," said Varvara Pakhomenko, a Moscow-based researcher with think-tank the International Crisis Group.
(Reporting by Denis Dyomkin; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Steve Gutterman)