In the Shadow of Sochi: The North Caucasus in 2013

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 2

(Source: RIA Novosti)

Russian officials have repeatedly complained over the last 12 months that analysts in both Russia and the West will link, appropriately or not, everything that takes place in Russia before February 2014 with the Sochi Olympiad. There may be some justification for such complaints regarding events far from the site of the Games. But, as has become increasingly obvious, everything Moscow has done in Sochi itself or across the North Caucasus and adjoining regions was with an eye to its impact on the upcoming Winter Olympics. And indeed, the outcome depends, to an important extent, on the pacification of that region or at least the prevention of a major terrorist attack.

But Moscow has failed to achieve its goals either by force or by corruption, evident from the continuing violence in the region, the double explosions in Volgograd, and the obvious shortcomings in security arrangements at Sochi—as underscored during Russia’s November 2013 counter-terrorism exercise ( Moreover—and this may prove to be the more important development—ethnic and religious mobilization and violence have intensified in many parts of the region. This has led some in the Russian community in Stavropol and other regions adjoining the North Caucasus to conclude that they need to take matters into their own hands (see EDM, November 11, December 11, 2013). Such an outcome will only make the situation worse, but it is another challenge the Russian authorities have not yet figured out how to respond to.

Indeed, at the start of 2014, fears are widespread that there will be more terrorist incidents in the coming weeks and that Russian President Vladimir Putin will launch a sweeping crackdown across the North Caucasus after the Sochi Games, once the attention of the international community has turned away (see EDM, January 6). Such an action is likely to trigger an explosive cycle of violence and even another post-Soviet war in the region. But Putin may face serious problems among Russians if he tries: nearly three out of every four ethnic Russians, according to Levada polls, is fed up with Moscow’s spending in the North Caucasus (see EDM, December 11, 2013).

Five major developments in the North Caucasus from the past year are likely to have a serious impact on the way in which these larger trends play out in 2014.

First of all, even before the first competitors take their mark, Sochi has been a disaster for Putin and Moscow in three ways. It has attracted international attention to the corruption and malfeasance that mark the Russian president’s rule and to the instability and fragility of Russian rule in the Caucasus. It has allowed the Circassians to attract international attention to their cause by pointing out to the world that the games are scheduled to take place on the site where Russian forces conducted a “genocide” against their nation 150 years ago. And it has led to a discussion of a variety of other issues where the government of the Russian Federation is out of step with Europe and much of the international community, including LGBT. What was supposed to boost Russia and Putin is thus having exactly the opposite effect (see EDM, September 5, November 6, 13, 26, 2013).

Second, Moscow’s efforts to control the situation by eliminating elections and replacing the leaders of some of the republics of the North Caucasus have backfired. Many analysts predicted in 2012 and even earlier that Moscow would avoid changing leaders in the North Caucasus before Sochi lest it lead to more instability. But the situation has deteriorated to the point in some parts of the region that the Russian authorities felt they had no choice but to replace the leaders of Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria and to eliminate direct elections of republic heads almost everywhere. Neither change has promoted stability; indeed, the earlier predictions of disaster seem to be playing out (see EDM, September 12, December 9, 2013).

Third, Moscow’s incautious handling of the drafting of North Caucasians not only has highlighted the extent to which Russians no longer view that region as part of their country but also has intensified the feelings of the residents of the North Caucasus that they are separate and should be independent. In recent years and in response to the concerns of Russian commanders that Caucasian draftees were nothing but problems, Moscow virtually eliminated the draft in that region. But regional leaders, concerned about massive unemployment among young men and the likelihood that they would join the militants if they were not drafted, forced Moscow to reconsider and draft some, although far fewer than their numbers justified. As a result, the Russian government faces the worst of all worlds: angry North Caucasians and angry Russians who resent that they are paying a tax the North Caucasians are largely exempt from (see EDM, October 4, 2013).

Fourth, the events of this year have discredited efforts by some in Moscow and in the North Caucasus to use “soft” approaches to re-integrate the opponents of the regime and thrown Russia back to near total reliance on force. Dagestan, for example, introduced and then dropped programs to re-integrate militants as well as to promote dialogue among representatives of the various trends of Islam (see EDM, November 22, 2013). Meanwhile, others in the Russian political firmament appear convinced that only force will work, even though it has not so far. Rather, Russia’s preoccupation with using force is further alienating North Caucasians and making it even less likely that they will make peace on Russian terms.

And fifth, violence has grown and militant groups have downsized from large units to smaller cells (see EDM, November 8, 2013). Consequently, Russia has found itself without the forces or at least force structures needed to combat the kinds of attacks—again on the rise in the region—that Moscow will invariably describe as terrorist and Islamist, even when they are in some cases neither.

The year 2013 was thus another step down in the decay of Russian power in the North Caucasus; 2014 appears set to become an even larger one.