Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 45

In the past decade, the Chechen war has had a profound and total impact on life in Russia. Its direct consequences include the death of thousands of human victims, enormous material expenditures that can be counted in millions of rubles, and the devastation of the Chechen Republic. And it indirect consequences, though less noticeable, are no less serious.

The war caused an unprecedented surge of xenophobia in Russia. Anti-Chechen sentiment has been growing since 1994, and in 2004 over three fourths of those surveyed expressed feelings of resentment towards Chechens. Most of the respondents were ethnic Russians. It must be noted that 67.2 percent of Russian citizens are convinced that Chechens only understand the “language of force,” and any attempt to establish a dialogue with them on “equal” conditions is perceived as a sign of weakness. In addition to this, 68 percent are convinced that the next generation of Chechens will be even more hostile towards Russia than the present one. Moreover, more Russian citizens (78 percent) fear that they might become victims of terrorist acts by Chechen militants in the foreseeable future. Such fears drive the demonization of the Chechen people in the minds of average Russians.

The war in Chechnya continues to be the main politically mobilizing issue in Russian society, which explains why president Putin pays constant attention to it. According to the latest sociological studies, the periods in which the president’s ratings have been at their highest coincide with moments of great political mobilization within Russia. Each of these moments were related to the war in Chechnya: October 1999 – Putin’s speeches in the aftermath of the terrorist acts in Russia’s cities; January 2000 – the beginning of the second Chechen campaign and the siege of Grozny; November 2002 – after the tragic hostage taking incident at the Dubrovka theater. Only the most recent events in Beslan in September 2004 did not increase the president’s rating, but on the contrary dealt a vicious blow to his standing.

Another very important indirect consequence of the war in Chechnya has been the emergence of Putin’s project for reforming regional administration. The conflict has given a certain moral legitimacy to this plan by providing as its basis the rationale of fighting separatism and terrorism. Today there are two counterterrorist operations underway in Russia – one in Chechnya, and another across the Russian Federation. It is therefore natural that the same public figures appear to cross each other in the contexts of these campaigns. It is no coincidence that the new administrative regions created by Putin – the Federal Districts – were created based on the borders of former military districts. Moreover, five of the seven initial plenipotentiary presidential representatives in these formations were generals, including two (Victor Kazantsev and Konstantin Pulikovsky), who participated in the Chechen war.

This is only one example of how the war has been used to increase the influence of generals and high-ranking officials from the Army, Ministry of Internal Affairs and security services on the political life of the country. Compared with the Yeltsin era, the number of scientists presently within government structures has decreased threefold, while the number of military has increased by as much. Such changes in the elite structures reflect changing attitudes and dispositions within society in general.

The Chechen war, more than any other factor, has lead to the rise in traditionalist and state-centric attitudes in Russian society, and increased popular hope for the rule of a “strong arm.” Since the end of 1990s, value-based orientations, which are characteristic features of Empires, have become more prevalent in Russia. Only three social institutions enjoy popular respect: the ruler (in a personal manifestation and not as an institution of presidency), the church and the armed forces, including the Federal Security Services. Furthermore, these attitudes are manifesting themselves against a background of overwhelming popular distrust for government, parliament and the judiciary, let alone political parties.

The natural question to ask then is how justified is the hope that by carrying out imperial policies effectiveness of governance can be increased?

The designation of Chechnya under the rubric of the “war on terrorism” has only led to the spread of the conflict, such that it is no longer circumscribed by Chechnya’s borders but now involves the entire Russian Federation. The imperial mindset that has grown out of this process can already be seen in the inefficiency of appointing the regional leaders as opposed to their election. At least the level of infiltration of terrorism into Ingushetia was far less under the republic’s elected president Ruslan Aushev than during the reign of the appointed Murat Ziyazikov. Today, not only the Chechens, but also the Ingush, are gradually acquiring the skills of militants.

Nor did the “war on terrorism” create more national order in the sphere of state reforms. In fact, it contradicts national traditions. Thus, for the peoples of North Caucasus, elections represent a traditional social attribute and an integral part of everyday life. Elections there are held on almost every occasion, ranging from selecting a tamada (feast leader) at the dinner table or a village elder, to electing a mufti (Muslim cleric) to the head the local jamaat (Muslim congregation). The viceroy appointed by the tsar or president often represented only the visible dimension of Russian authority, while the locally and informally elected authorities wielded the real power; The greater the gap between the formal and informal authority, the more likely a division in administration.

One of the more telling examples of such a divide is the August events in Dagestan, where the Khasavyurt mayor openly challenged the head of the republic who manages to still cling to power only because of the Kremlin’s support. The November civil strife in Karachay-Cherkessiya is another indictment of the policy of viceroyship. The present president of that republic, M. Batdyev, can hardly be called a popularly elected leader: he is the member of the party in power (Edinaya Rossiya), was elected by the party list and with the approval of the Kremlin, and, therefore, he is the Kremlin’s appointee. It appears that the Kremlin has decided that instead of authoritarian leaders who might turn out to be “inconvenient” later on, emphasis will be placed on appointing weak leaders whose obedience is assured. However, such leaders are not capable of guaranteeing political stability in the republics that they are in charge of – and the series of dramatic events in Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Dagestan and Karachay-Cherkessiya, which have followed one another with little interval over the past several months, prove this point. As result of the investigations of these events, some of the highest-ranking police officials and prosecutors in these republics were summarily dismissed. To be sure these bureaucrats, who were under federal subordination, could not have been called elected by the people. But what gives the authorities the right to assume that appointed officials will definitely improve the efficiency of governance?

There is also no evidence to the assertion that a period of stabilization in the sphere of ethno-political relations has arrived. What is considered stability in reality represents the transition from one form of instability to another. In the beginning of the 1990s, ethno-political activities were dominated by the ethnic minorities whose “parade of sovereignties” was led by the leaders of the national movements in Russia’s republics. Since the late 1990s, representatives of the Russian majority have become more active. The number of extremist organizations that support the idea of “Russia for Russians” has increased significantly in the past ten years to several thousand and at present, according to official data collected by law enforcement agencies, their membership has swelled to tens of thousands. What is even more worrying is that the aforementioned chauvinist motto is supported with varying degrees of intensity by more than half of the population of Russia. As a matter of fact, it is the shift in focus within Russian ethno-politics from ethnic minorities to the ethnic majority that largely determines the myth of the present stability. For it is true that Russia’s “home-grown” extremists have never been acknowledged as such. The authorities and the populace prefer not to notice them (“What kind of extremists are they?” “These are our boys, our defenders”). Today, there are an astounding number of publications arguing that the so-called “skinhead” phenomenon is simply a fictional notion created by human rights activists with Western guidance and financial support.

In the 1990s, national movements were more politically rather than ethnically oriented, as the leaders of the “parade of sovereignties” often voiced their objections to the central authorities and not to other peoples. Today it is the other peoples that are viewed as the “enemy,” and not the authorities. Studies show that more than 60 percent of respondents who are representatives of the ethnic majority agree with the assertion that “the other peoples who live on the territory of Russia” represent a threat to its national security. Ethnic polarization permeates social and political problems and this circumstance is actively exploited by the authorities, especially in certain regions and districts in the south of Russia where politicians adopt nationalist mottos from such odious organizations as the Russian National Unity. With the support of these organizations, they strive to cover up their mistakes and to shift public attention in the direction of “internal” (ethnic minorities) and “external” (international terrorism and the West) enemies.

At the same time, ethnic polarization significantly lowers the threshold between dissent and action. Dozens of incidents in different regions of Russia in the past couple of months clearly demonstrate that the potential for local ethnic conflict has suddenly surged. Any common disagreement between representatives of different ethnic groups, whether in a school cafeteria or student dorm or at the market, can quickly escalate into the mobilization of large numbers of people who would close their ranks under the motto of “defending our brothers.”

Thus far, such tensions take place on a local and inter-group level, and in rare instances the dissent is aimed at the local authorities. However the transformation of common conflicts into political ones is simply a matter of time. For the seizure of the government building in Cherkessk and the on-going blockade of government buildings in Kiev, even if we consider the vastly different nature of those conflicts, in practice are caused by the very same factor: popular frustration with the arbitrary rule of authorities that consider the masses only as their object of manipulation.

In addition, increased centralization of power can stimulate the transformation of local conflicts into nationwide tensions. The very action of appointing regional heads will strengthen the trend towards shifting popular disaffection with authorities from a regional level to the central level. The logic will be such that if the president appoints a governor, then the president should be responsible for governor’s actions as well. In such a context the president can even be held responsible if there are electricity outages in a given village. In republics with distinct titular ethnic minorities this can lead to a growth in anti-Russian sentiment, especially given the fact that everywhere in Russia where these titular ethnic minorities exist, federal power is perceived precisely as being ethnically Russian.

Today a new revival of national elites is noticeable, which is sustained by the wave of dissent caused by the Kremlin’s authoritarian policies. Intellectuals are not satisfied with the laws, which are issued by Moscow and which limit the interests of national culture (such as the ban on the use in national languages of any alphabet other than the Cyrillic). The business elites are also complaining about the growing pressure of corruption (before the officials demanded bribes, but today they try to take over the businesses themselves). And even though the majority of business elites did support the new initiatives of the president, they still hold a grudge against the authorities. In regards to the informal elites, under the present conditions they actually thrive. It is very difficult to compel the representatives of the informal elite to comply with new laws, but it is very easy to unite them and to push them towards a new round of resistance in the face of a common enemy.

A historically comparable situation usually took place during the period of the breakup of empires, when the growing centralization of states caused the accumulation of grievances in the national peripheries. Alienated from power, national elites are capable of using such trends and, by cloaking them in an ethno-religious garb, can guarantee such level of popular opposition to the authorities that it would render any use of armed force ineffective. Furthermore, the Russian army elicits fear only when it sits in the barracks – in the past decade of war it has largely lost the ability to frighten anyone.

The Chechen war and the current reform of the regional administration represent manifestations of one and the same policy of imposing on regions state doctrine “unleashed from above.” Such a policy, aimed at suppressing any form of opposition from regional and national elites, is very characteristic of the imperial period in Russia’s history. Even today, such policy can be carried out for a relatively long period of time. However, under the present conditions this policy will invariably demonstrate with every passing year, and on an ever-increasing scale, that it simply cannot be sustained in the long run.

Emil Pain is Director of the Center of Ethnopolitical Studies in Moscow.