Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 38

The federal government has no visible long-term strategy for handling the crisis in the North Caucasus, one of Russia’s leading specialists in the region told correspondent Dmitry Taratorin of Novye izvestia in an interview published on October 15. “The federal center’s policy for the Caucasus can be stated exhaustively in the phrase ‘we have power, so we don’t need wisdom,'” said Sergei Arutiunov, director of the section for the study of the peoples of the Caucasus in Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology.

Arutiunov said that he was especially disturbed by the Putin administration’s plan to impose centrally appointed governors on the North Caucasus (along with the rest of the country). “In the Caucasus,” he said, “the practice of appointments might be taken as an ethnic insult. Consider, for example, Dagestan. In that republic attempts to build a [Putin-style] power vertical from the top down might well lead to simply catastrophic consequences. The republic has 14 ethnic groups formally identified in its constitution, plus another 16 not formally recognized….The State Council, which is currently the highest organ of power, embodies a kind of consensual democracy; it more or less balances the interests of these groups….But if a president should appear, or even worse a governor who has simply been appointed [by Moscow], immediately the question of his ethnic identity would arise. It might not be so bad if he were a member of one of the small ethnic groups, but if he were from one of the largest—such as the Dargins or Avars—then all the others would most likely rise up against him.”

The ethnologist suggested that part of the tense Prigorodny district, currently within the boundaries of North Ossetia, be placed under the joint jurisdiction of North Ossetia and Ingushetia—with a presidential “moderator” appointed to try to damp down conflicts between the two ethnic groups.

Arutiunov said that only about 5 to 7 percent of the Chechen populace still adhere to the ancient, pre-Islamic adat traditions of governance and dispute settlement. As for the Islamic Sharia laws, he estimated that only 7 to 8 percent of the populace in Dagestan support them—and even fewer in Chechnya. He said that the terrorist warlord Shamil Basaev is “illiterate” about both these bodies of tradition: “When he was asked about the contradictions between Sharia and the teip laws, he answered that Sharia is the same thing as adat.”

“I am deeply convinced,” said the ethnologist, “that the great majority of the populace of Chechnya are willing to live by Russian laws and to be citizens of Russia—but only if the [Russian] authorities themselves are willing to observe their own laws—if they are willing to imprison their own war criminals, murders, rapists and marauders rather than defending or amnestying them.”