Absence of Clear Strategy Indicates Moscow’s Declining Interest in the North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 75

Yuri Oleinikov, spokesperson for Moscow's envoy to the North Caucasus Aleksandr Khloponin (Source: Caucasian Knot)

On April 12-13, high-profile experts close to the Russian government participated in a conference on the North Caucasus in the city of Pyatigorsk, the seat of the Moscow’s envoy to the region, Aleksandr Khloponin. A deputy to Khloponin, Yuri Oleinikov, stated that the administration had developed a “road map” for the North Caucasus that was discussed with both the current president, Dmitry Medvedev, and the next president, Vladimir Putin. The “road map,” according to Oleinikov, included describing the socio-economic problems of the region and possible ways to tackle them, as well as administrative issues, such as key personalities in the regional governments. Oleinikov conceded that “the credibility of the authorities from the municipal level to the heads of republics is going down.” The existing administrations in the region were allegedly not allowing younger leaders to emerge, and Moscow needed to push for change (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/204729/, April 12).

The remarks by the deputy to the Moscow envoy illuminate the delusions Moscow harbors regarding the North Caucasus. The Russian authorities installed and propped up regimes in the North Caucasus starting at least in the late 1990s, and abolished regional elections altogether in 2004, adopting a system of appointment of regional heads by the Russian president. Now that the regional political systems have solidified into rigid, counter-reformist structures, the Russian authorities are putting the blame on the regions themselves. It must be added that after the quasi-elections for Russian president in March 2012, the legitimacy of the Russian authorities themselves is increasingly coming under public scrutiny. So both the regional and federal authorities may be facing the same problem.

Khloponin’s deputy also implied that Moscow was considering how to limit the choice of candidates for regional heads as Russia prepares to reintroduce elections for regional governors in the fall of 2012 (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/204729/, April 12). This means that Moscow will try to hold on to the current system of handpicking regional governors in the North Caucasus and, probably, elsewhere in the Russian Federation. Indeed, it is hard to imagine Vladimir Putin, with his dubious reelection, coexisting with freely-elected regional governors in Russia.

Vladimir Mau, a well-known Russian economist who is working on the government’s strategy for the country’s development through 2020, stated at the conference that Russia’s regions should be granted more autonomy in handling their economic activities. This view is widely shared by many Russian experts and the latest trend seems to be that the regions themselves are also demanding more autonomy. However, Moscow has special reservations regarding autonomy for the North Caucasus – namely, the Russian government, fearing separatism in the region, has tried to tie it to the Russian mainland through increased economic dependency, such as disbursing significant lump budgetary handouts. Therefore, giving more economic autonomy and responsibilities to the republics of the North Caucasus would undercut all the previous efforts and the Russian government’s strategy in the region. Given Putin’s habit of “hands-on management” of the North Caucasus, the possibility of greater economic freedoms for the region are largely precluded at this point. Instead, Moscow has opted for an infusion of Russian private capital that would overtake the local businesses and economic life. So far, however, this strategy has yielded few results, as there are many more lucrative and safer areas in Russia and abroad where Russian capital can be invested.

The Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website put the total number of casualties in the North Caucasus in the first quarter of 2012 at 258 – 163 killed and 95 wounded people. Of those killed, 24 were civilians, 57 were law enforcement agents and 82 were suspect rebels. Dagestan was the most deadly republic with 83 killed, followed by Chechnya with 36 deaths, Kabardino-Balkaria with 32 people killed, Ingushetia with nine people killed and North Ossetia with two killed in attacks. Even in the predominantly Russian-speaking Stavropol region, which is part of the North Caucasus Federal District, there was at least one death in a terror attack. According to Kavkazsky Uzel, only Adygea and Karachaevo-Cherkessia did not suffer insurgency-related violence in this period (https://stavropol.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/204776/, April 12). It is still symptomatic of the conflict in the North Caucasus that the figures for deaths outnumber or equal the number of persons injured in the region. This trend has been consistent for the past several years in the North Caucasus and probably reflects the government’s “scorched earth” policy in the region.  

The issue of land ownership particularly caught the attention of Russian experts at the recent conference. Economist Irina Starodubrovskaya, for example, attributed a large part of the region’s problems to incomplete land reform. As the North Caucasus is one of the most densely populated and arguably the most ethnically diverse area in the Russian Federation, all the region’s republics expressly prohibit the private ownership of land. Starodubovskaya stated that this resulted in lost investment and non-transparent rules for land-related transactions (https://stavropol.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/204741/, April 12). While outright privatization of land may seem to be a sensible thing, in the North Caucasus, where the notion of ethnic ownership of land is strong, a Russian push for privatization might spark additional conflicts rather than solve existing tensions.

The high-profile conference of Russian government experts in Pyatigorsk indicated a glaring divergence between the experts’ recommendations and the policies the government has pursued in the North Caucasus. In their turn, even the experts displayed dismal knowledge of the region, often attempting to apply exactly the same measures to the North Caucasus as they do in the rest of Russia, such as fighting the problem of abandonment of villages. This issue is very important in central Russia, but of much less concern in the North Caucasus, because population density there is extremely high. The low quality of policy recommendations may indicate Moscow’s growing lack of deep-rooted interest in the North Caucasus and that the government is primarily concerned with short-term security issues while ignoring the long-term developmental ones.