In the course of 2011, the North Caucasus remained Russia’s most unsettled region but what is likely to prove more significant, it became a problem not only for Moscow, which clearly lacks any effective strategy for pacifying it, but also in Moscow, where an increasing number of Russians including some who had been active supporters of the current regime are now saying that the time has come to stop funding the region’s corrupt authoritarian rulers who have traded declarations of undying loyalty to Vladimir Putin and absurdly falsified vote totals for the party of power in exchange for massive federal subventions and the possibility of running their own republics with little regard to the Russian Constitution or Russian law.
That raises two critically important questions as the presidential elections in the Russian Federation approach: First, will Putin, as he has done in the past, seek to exploit the North Caucasus in order to justify his authoritarian approach and generate popular support for tough Kremlin action? And second, can he in fact do so, given his own responsibility for the situation in the region and unhappiness among many Russian voters about money being spent on such noxious regimes as Ramzan Kadyrov’s in Chechnya? On the answers to these questions more than perhaps any others depends not only the future of the North Caucasus but also the future of Russian politics more generally.
Since his emergence as a Russian national political figure in 1999, Putin has been closely tied with events in the North Caucasus. In that year, he orchestrated in the views of many observers or at least cleverly exploited purportedly Chechen terrorist attacks that killed 300 Russians in order to win the support of the Russian population for tough measures in the North Caucasus and for himself. Over the past decade, he routinely made use of violence against Russians and in the North Caucasus to gain backing for his increasingly authoritarian system.
But at no time did Putin, despite his willingness to use violence, effectively pacify and integrate into Russia’s legal space the republics of the North Caucasus. Instead, he was satisfied with a simulacrum of stability, allowing local authoritarian leaders like Chechnya’s Kadyrov to run things according to their own lights and providing them with the resources to do so in exchange for their frequent declarations of loyalty to himself and the Kremlin. Because violence appeared to be on the wane, many in Russia and even more beyond its borders gave Putin credit, admitting to themselves that this was far from an ideal arrangement but professing to see no better alternative, at least in the short term.
Consequently, it seems entirely reasonable to think that Putin, currently facing greater popular opposition than at any time in his career, might be thinking about another “small victorious war” or allowing for the kind of terrorist action that he could exploit to win support much as he has done in the past.
But there are three reasons for thinking that if he were to do so, he would be making the most serious miscalculation of his career. First, in contrast to 12 years ago, Putin is unlikely to be able to shift the blame to others for any new upsurge in violence. He has taken credit for the relative quiet of today in parts of the North Caucasus, and if there is a major militant action, he would have to explain why he, his appointees, and Russia’s money have not prevented them. Given Putin’s recent practice, he would likely try to blame outside “dark forces” like Islamic fundamentalism or the West, but ever fewer Russians are prepared to accept such explanations, at least from Putin.
Second, Russians are increasingly outraged not only by the money Putin insists on sending to the North Caucasus – “Novaya gazeta” recently said ending the dispatch of money to that region is the third most popular slogan in Russia today (www.novayagazeta.ru/society/50279.html), and Yuliya Latynina has suggested that Putin has in effect made Russia a vassal state to Chechnya, an appalling arrangement in the eyes of most Russians especially given Kadyrov’s outrageous suggestion that there are no Chechen organized criminal groups in the Russian Federation (echo.msk.ru/programs/code/844324-echo/).
And third, both because of Russian disgust at throwing good money after bad and because any new use of force against the North Caucasus would be like throwing water at a grease fire, any attempt by Putin to save himself by exploiting violence there would likely trigger new demands for independence by North Caucasian groups and a new acceptance by Russians that thanks to Putin that may be the best outcome Russians can currently hope for.
Thus and for the very first time, the North Caucasus does not present an opportunity for Putin but rather has become in the eyes of Russians – if not yet of the West – of the fundamental flaws of his political approach. And consequently, the very issue that propelled him to the Russian presidency a dozen years ago could become the one that will prevent him from taking office in the Kremlin again.