On July 30, the primary news outlet of the Chechen militants, Kavkaz Center, citing its own sources, reported Moscow was preparing a drastic shift in its policies in the North Caucasus. According to the website, the main points of Moscow’s new plan for the North Caucasus includes the removal of Ramzan Kadyrov from power in Chechnya, sending him into a “dignified exile” to Moscow as a deputy Russian interior minister and the physical elimination of Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov, the “emir” of the Caucasus Emirate. In such an event these moves could result in reconciliation in Chechnya, given that Kadyrov’s successor, possibly Beslan Gantamirov, would have an explicit permission from Moscow to form “a government of national unity” in Chechnya that would bring the moderate members of the insurgency into the ruling bodies of the republic (www.kavkazcenter.com, July 30).
According to Kavkaz Center, the Kremlin is gravely concerned about the insurgency spreading across the North Caucasus and the danger it poses to Moscow’s control over the region in general and the successful holding of the Sochi Olympics in 2014 in particular. Reconciliation in Chechnya would supposedly allow Moscow to split the Caucasus Emirate, the existence of which Umarov proclaimed in October 2007. Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Aleksandr Khloponin, is putatively pressing ahead with “non-standard” solutions for the North Caucasus in order to quell the sway of the insurgency in the region.
While it is hard to discern currently how Moscow’s approach to the North Caucasus will change and whether the changes will be as radical as Kavkaz Center claims, there is certainly some supportive evidence testifying to the looming crisis of the current model of governance in the region.
Paradoxically, having fought two wars with Chechen separatists and winning the second one, Moscow now controls Chechnya least among the North Caucasian republics. Ramzan Kadyrov eliminates his political rivals in the streets of Moscow, makes Russian foreign policy statements and is even planning to open Chechnya’s representative offices abroad. Chechnya under formal Moscow’s control is currently in many ways much more Islamic than it was under the Ichkerian government of Aslan Maskhadov prior to the start of the second Russian-Chechen war in 1999. Most disturbingly for Moscow and Khloponin, the state of Kadyrov’s rule in Chechnya is such that it can hardly be reformed. The only way of going ahead with changes in Chechnya is removing Kadyrov from his position.
Kadyrov’s government and Chechens have been much on the Russian media’s radar screen recently as several clashes and crimes have caused a public outcry across the country. The latest incident was a clash between young Chechen holidaymakers and local residents in the Krasnodar region on July 25. Following the fistfight and departure of 400 Chechen tourists, Chechnya’s human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhazhiev stated that the incident should be given a political assessment by Moscow in order to avoid repercussions for the Sochi Olympics. According to the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website, over ten mass fistfights involving Chechens have taken place in various Russian regions this spring and summer (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 29).
Kadyrov has repeatedly boasted of bringing the insurgency in Chechnya to the brink of collapse, but the promised end to the insurgency has not arrived. In fact, elsewhere in the North Caucasus it has become much worse than it used to be. The rise of violence in Kabardino-Balkaria in the past several months culminated in the rebel seizure and destruction of the Baksan hydroelectric plant on July 21. The insurgent strike cast doubts not only on the government’s ability to ensure the safety of critical infrastructure, but also on the much-advertized large-scale investment plans for the North Caucasus.
Meanwhile, Doku Umarov made a surprising announcement on who would succeed him as Emir of the Caucasus Emirate in case he were killed or arrested. He named Emir Aslanbek (aka Aslanbek Vadalov), a well-known rebel in Chechnya who is head of militant forces in the east of the republic, as his successor (www.kavkazcenter.com, July 24). In April, some media sources alleged that Umarov was leaving Chechnya via Georgia to Turkey to undergo medical treatment, but Umarov refuted this claim (www.kavkasia.net, April 9). Umarov’s predecessor in the position of Chechen insurgent leader, Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, named Uamrov as his successor in June 2006, one year before he was killed by the Russian security services.
Doku Umarov reorganized what was originally a Chechen resistance to Russia’s invasion into a North Caucasus-wide movement. The Chechen secular nationalists criticized the creation of the Caucasus Emirate, claiming it undermined the Chechen quest for independence from Russia. As an umbrella organization, however, the Caucasus Emirate gave the impetus to the numerous and growing rebel groups across the North Caucasus that had already been in place by 2007.
Kadyrov’s replacement as president of Chechnya has almost certainly been on Moscow’s agenda for some time now, but Khloponin’s arrival in the North Caucasus made the need for it more relevant. Another challenge for Moscow is to exercise at least the same level of control over the North Caucasus with fewer resources available because of the bleak economic outlook for the country. The Sochi Olympics and growing Circassian political activism pose yet another problem.
Despite all this, it would still be very problematic for any Moscow leader to pursue a policy of compromise with the North Caucasian insurgency, as this would scrap the previous ten or more years of Russian policies in the region and be perceived by the general population and the army as capitulation. At the same time, such unusual and unexpected moves by Moscow as the creation of the North Caucasus Federal District and economist Aleksandr Khloponin’s appointment as Moscow’s envoy to the region suggest the Russian government may potentially adopt a more creative path to reach its goals in the North Caucasus.