The five non-Russian republics in the eastern half of the North Caucasus—Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, North Ossetia and Kalmykia—have enough in common that they deserve to be treated as a region distinct not only from the rest of the North Caucasus but also from areas to the south and north. Not only have they been Islamic (though Kalmykia is currently plurality Buddhist) far longer than most of the others, but they remain poorer and receive more subsidies from Moscow, are more traditional and resistant to modernity as well as Russian rule, and, at present, are more rapidly growing than the rest of the North Caucasus—all of which creates problems for their own societies and for Moscow. But in the last year in particular, each of the five has moved in its own specific direction. That centrifugal divergence is both an indication of just how diverse even this sub-region is as well as how many problems Moscow faces or has provoked by trying to impose on it a single Procrustean bed of Vladimir Putin’s notorious “power vertical.”
Those five Northeast Caucasus republics can be expected to continue on their varying trajectories in the future, while almost certainly accompanied by serious instability and major changes in 2020:
Over the past year, Chechnya retained its dual role as Moscow’s agent and the base for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who hopes to expand his republic and make it and himself the dominant player in the region. During 2019, Kadyrov sent his paramilitary troops (kadyrovtsy) to help Moscow in Syria, and he appears to be behind several murderous attacks on Chechen emigres in Germany. But his most significant actions last year were in the region itself, where his September 2018 border accord with then–Ingush head Yunus-bek Yevkurov continued to destabilize the latter republic. Additionally, Kadyrov’s January 2019 claims on territory in Dagestan forced Makhachkala to strain to prevent an Ingushetia-like scenario there as well (see EDM, April 9, 2019). Moreover, Kadyrov has shown no signs that he plans to stop. The Chechen head has even said he plans to take more territory from Ingushetia in the future (Grozny.tv, December 23, 2019; 6portal.ru, January 4, 2020).
The Kremlin came down on Kadyrov’s side on all these moves, apparently convinced that only the Chechen strongman can keep the lid on his republic and that he may actually be able to play the role in the region he hopes for. But if Kadyrov’s neo-totalitarian Islamist regime in Grozny has, in fact, kept Chechnya quiet domestically—precisely what the Kremlin has wanted—his actions with regard to neighboring republics have destabilized things there. That turmoil will make it more likely that, in the future, some in Moscow will finally begin to ask whether uncritical backing of Kadyrov still makes sense. Twenty years ago, Chechnya was in revolt, but the remainder of the eastern North Caucasus stayed relatively quiet. It seems unlikely that Moscow has benefitted from suddenly having this situation reversed.
In other actions during 2019, Kadyrov oversaw the return of dozens of children from Iraq and Syria who accompanied their parents as they traveled to fight for the Islamic State; he additionally took a series of diplomatic visits to Middle Eastern capitals, opened the largest mosque in the region, and blocked the hopes of some for a highway connecting Georgia and the Russian Federation.
The border accord in which Ingushetia, the smallest federal subject (except for the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg), gave away 26,000 hectares of land to Chechnya, had led to weeks of demonstrations at the end of 2018. These protests continued to be the focal point of public life in that republic throughout 2019. In March, there was another mass protest, which culminated in the arrest of several hundred activists. Subsequent complaints about those detentions raised the temperature in Ingushetia to the point that Yevkurov was forced to resign as head of the republic, despite oft-repeated statements that he would never do so.
Moscow replaced him with Makhmud-Ali Kalimatov, an Ingush who had been working outside Ingushetia in recent years. Kalimatov has refused to embroil himself in the controversy, an indication of his weakness relative to the presidential plenipotentiary for the North Caucasus and Moscow. That deferential posture undercut whatever hopes Ingush activists may have had when he was named to the post. Those who are against the border accord with Chechnya thus focused their attention for most of 2019 on the fate of the more than 30 political prisoners arrested in March. They have formed organizations to help them and their families, provide legal assistance, and mount public protests whenever possible.
Because of this, the Russian authorities have moved all the trials and hearings out of the republic, making it more difficult for Ingush supporters to appear. But it also has had the effect of delegitimizing the government in Magas and resulted in the rise of the Council of Teips (which the authorities have tried to ban) as an alternative government. Some observers pointedly characterized this development as a kind of Ingush “Maidan” (Kavkazsky Uzel, December 30, 2019; Kavkazr.com, January 4, 2020; Afterempire.info, October 31, 2018).
A major reason why Kadyrov’s claims on Dagestani territory did not spark the same mass public reaction there that they did in Ingushetia is that unlike ethnically homogeneous Ingushetia, Dagestan is divided into a variety of different nationalities, none of which is dominant. Consequently, it has always been possible to play one group in Dagestan off against another, something that the Russian-Kazakh outsider Vladimir Vasiliyev, as republic head, has already shown himself skilled at (Kavkazr.com, January 2, 2020).
But playing on those divides has had three consequences, none of which Vasilyev or Moscow welcomes. First, it has deepened ethnic divisions in the republic, making it even more difficult to reach agreements on many key issues. Second, it has opened the way for an increase in corruption, given that each group seeks to take care of its own. And third, and most seriously, it has meant that armed resistance or at least the basis for it has persisted in the republic’s mountainous regions. Magomed Baachilov of the Russian National Guard organization in Dagestan, claimed the republic does not have “a single active bandit: they have all been destroyed. But there is a large support base for them. More than 1,300 people in Dagestan continue to take part in military actions on the side of illegal armed formations.” And these fighters present a serious threat to the North Caucasus Federal District (Kavkazr.com, January 2, 2020).
Of the five republics in this group, North Ossetia was the quietest during 2019. However, two developments last year point to more problems ahead. First, elections unexpectedly brought to power opposition groups in various positions. And second, ethnic Ingush in the Prigorodny district began to demand better treatment, something they are gaining support for from their co-ethnics in Ingushetia alarmed by the loss of territory to Chechnya (Fortanga.org, November 18, 2019). The Prigorodny district, which has been part of North Ossetia since 1944, when the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) was disbanded, was also an area over which North Ossetia and Ingushetia fought a brief war in 1992.
Kalmykia had been relatively quiet politically for the last 15 years. But the Kremlin’s decision to impose Dmitry Trapeznikov, a former head of the Moscow-backed separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), as mayor of Elista has changed that, sparking large and sustained protests over the last several months (see EDM, November 15, 2019). The situation is yet another illustration of how Russian aggression in Ukraine is spilling back into the Russian Federation itself; and at the same time, it underscores how Moscow’s appointment of outsiders to local positions of power is backfiring. Vladimir Dovdanov, a Kalmyk activist, said the current wave of protests in his republic, the largest since 2004, shows no sign of ending (Idelreal.org, November 17, 2019). And now, the protesters are demanding that the governor be sacked as well because of Trapeznikov’s actions: After being installed as mayor, he sought to block commemorations of the 1944 Kalmyk deportation and also of the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Kalmyk Popular Front in 1989 (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, December 31, 2019).
Three things are likely to happen in the republics of the eastern North Caucasus over the next 12 months. First, each is likely to continue to act as it has. Second, what each is doing will spill over into the others, with the actions of Chechnya being especially influential. And third, Moscow almost certainly will be forced to intervene lest the dominos fall too quickly and Russian control of the region be threatened in ways not seen since the late 1990s.