In December 2014, Russian legislators quietly passed new legislation that allows Moscow to remove part of the region from under the control of that region’s government in order “to speed up socio-economic development” in the North Caucasus republics. As a Dagestani analyst Rasul Kadiev points out, the legislation allows the republics of the North Caucasus to be broken out de facto even though they will continue to exist on paper for some time. The legislation appears to be aimed at boosting the development of the Russian Far East, but in reality, Kadiev writes, it could be applied to any territory of the Russian Federation. Since Moscow has repeatedly stressed that the North Caucasus needs “development” on terms set by the Kremlin, this legislation is likely to have implications for the North Caucasus along with other territories of the country (Kavpolit.com, January 11).
The Russian government has long complained about the dependence of the North Caucasus’ on financial handouts from Moscow. Local clans, corruption and violence are often blamed for the region’s stunted development. Yet, instead of opening the region to international investors, and allowing the locals to choose their own government and strengthening the rule of law, Moscow has consistently stalled the North Caucasus’ development by abolishing the direct elections of regional governors, propping up corrupt officials, restricting the travel of foreigners in the region, and applying pressure on local businesses. Moscow appears to favor a model of development for the North Caucasus that would further increase its control over the regional politics and economy. This objective, however, comes into conflict with the actual needs of economic development, which relies on small- and medium-size businesses, innovation and freedom of movement.
Moscow’s use of public shocks to advance its long-term interests is not a new political tool. After the Beslan terrorist attack in 2004, Russian society was grappling with the consequences of that shock and President Vladimir Putin used that tragedy to abolish the direct election of governors. The current economic turmoil in Russia may also prompt its politicians to try to diminish further or eliminate altogether the autonomous national republics in the North Caucasus and elsewhere in the Russian Federation.
Yevgeny Primakov, the former Russian prime minister who remains an influential public figure, recently stated that “territorial” ministries should be set up to develop the Far East, Eastern Siberia, Crimea and the North Caucasus. Primakov conceded that the “absence of federalism in the system of governance of a multinational state is a sign of a lack of democracy.” On the one hand, the ex-official said that those national republics that have a small percentage of titular people should be absorbed into “territorial units.” On the other hand, Primakov spoke strongly against plans to eliminate the national republics, saying that such a move would threaten the stability of the country (Wtcmoscow.ru, January 13).
Primakov’s diatribe against abolishing national republics in the Russian Federation indicates that this line of thinking is popular inside the Russian government. It is hard to tell at this point whether the supporters of a unitary Russia or supporters of a federal Russia will win, but the experience of the past 15 years shows that Moscow has consistently curbed regional autonomy and is quite unlikely to back down from suppressing the national republics. The so-called power vertical created and cherished by the Kremlin claimed much of the political and administrative power of regional governments. Given the current economic recession in Russia, Moscow’s ability to finance the regions, including the North Caucasus, is significantly strained. Giving more power to the regions would prompt greater economic development, but also potentially offer the regions a greater propensity to seek separation from the Russian Federation. The countervailing argument is that during a recession, not only do the central government’s funds decrease, but also the regional economies experience a downturn. The regions that depend on Moscow most are hit especially hard. Therefore, Moscow may still be incentivized to carve out even more power for itself.
However, the situation in the North Caucasus does not favor experiments. Perhaps the primary obstacle Moscow faces in the region is its most ardent ally—Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov. As a popular blogger in Ingushetia, “Tamerson,” pointed out, Kadyrov ignores all meetings of the governors in the North Caucasus Federal District. “Today, Chechnya is rather a satellite ally of Russia and bringing this territory to the same level as the other regions of the North Caucasus Federal District is, of course, inappropriate,” he wrote. The Chechens, he added, are “the Praetorian Guard—the personal guard of the Emperor,” who are prepared to carry out the orders of the “Emperor” anywhere inside the Russian Federation or abroad in the countries where Chechens currently reside (Tamerson.livejournal.com, January 15).
With the Russian economy facing hard times, the discussion between supporters of further centralization and decentralization begins. While the government appears to be poised to further undermine regional autonomy, the new economic and political realities appear to be starting to have an impact and voices against centralization are being heard. The question of whether decentralization or centralization will win hinges on the issue of leadership succession in Russia. Decentralization is highly unlikely under Vladimir Putin’s presidency and is likely imminent after his departure. Putin’s continuation in office will almost inevitably lead to further centralization of power, including attempts to abolish the republics.