Moscow Increases Its Focus on Solving the North Caucasus Riddle

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 217

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. (RIA Novosti)

On December 1, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appointed himself as the head of the Russian government’s commission for the socio-economic development of the North Caucasus. The existing head of the North Caucasus Federal District, Aleksandr Khloponin, became Putin’s deputy on the commission. “Close coordination of the federal and regional government authorities is needed to develop the [North Caucasus Federal] district,” Putin explained in setting up the new commission. According to the Russian prime minister, significant resources of the government and the investors will be allocated to the region over the next few years, making the creation of the commission especially relevant (, December 1).

By propping up Khloponin’s mission for the economic development of the North Caucasus with his authority, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s most influential politician, implied that Khloponin has largely failed to achieve significant accomplishments in the region. Khloponin’s appointment as head of the newly created North Caucasus Federal District in January 2010 was officially billed as an attempt to resolve the rising security issues in the region. Since his appointment, the economic situation in the North Caucasus has shown few signs of improvement, while the security situation has further deteriorated, with whole new territories, like Kabardino-Balkaria, joining the ranks of the other particularly volatile republics like Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia.

Khloponin’s own assessment of his activities in the North Caucasus sheds light on Moscow’s perception of the economic development of this region, which is apparently viewed as cover for gaining more control over the economic and social life of this non-Russian region with separatist tendencies. During the same December 1 Russian government meeting, Khloponin stated that he was gradually creating a set of federal institutions in the district that would largely replace local branches of the federal agencies in the North Caucasus republics. The head of the North Caucasus Federal District divided his task into several stages: 1. making the federal agencies closer to the local population in the North Caucasus, 2. ensuring a more effective use of the federal money Moscow disburses for the region, 3. improving coordination between the branches of the federal agencies (, December 1).  

The system of governance in the North Caucasus, as elsewhere in Russia, includes local republican governments and branches of federal agencies. The local governments by definition have greater autonomy from Moscow than the branches of the federal agencies, which are supposed to be mere transmitters of Moscow’s policies. However, in practice, the federal agencies’ branches are manned with local staff which, in the small North Caucasian societies, becomes tightly intertwined with the local governments and societies. In some cases, the local governments even successfully oppose Moscow’s decisions to make appointments in federal agencies.

Perhaps the most spectacular examples of Moscow’s inability to appoint its people have occurred in Dagestan. Military judge Vladimir Danilov, who had won the competition to become the chairman of Dagestan’s Supreme Court, unexpectedly resigned from the position and, on October 25, the Russian judicial commission announced another competition for this position. While the Dagestani government did not make any statements about this, an unnamed source in the republican government grumbled that “no one consulted the republican authorities.” Pressure allegedly brought about Danilov’s premature departure from the republic and, a local, Dagestani candidate now is expected to win the chairmanship of the republic’s Supreme Court (Kommersant, November 2).

Even though we do not have similar cases in Chechnya recently, it is plausible to suggest that hardly anyone could work successfully in the republic without the consent of its absolute ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov. Less conspicuous cases can be also traced in other republics of the North Caucasus. Once the republican authorities are so effective in insisting upon candidates for the federal branches’ heads, they are highly likely to be even more effective in influencing these agencies’ day-to-day activities at lower levels.

The establishment of a special Russian government commission for the socio-economic development of the North Caucasus chaired by Putin may also reflect internal rumblings in Moscow. Putin made his name and career on the second Russo-Chechen war in 1999. The situation in the North Caucasus, therefore, has perceived or actual intimate links to Putin’s political present and future. He might regard improving the situation in the region or fighting another war as a sure way of regaining some of his legitimacy as an all-Russian leader, which has lately been eroded and may be further challenged in the run up to the presidential elections in 2012.

By appointing Khloponin as his deputy on the North Caucasus commission, Putin also insulated him from President Dmitry Medvedev’s criticism after Medvedev twice expressed disappointment over Khloponin’s progress in the North Caucasus. So the move could be an indication that Putin is further solidifying his powerbase among the bureaucrats in order to thwart any attempts to question his leadership.

In the absence of any democratic participation and change, this governance system inevitably becomes very awkward and unmanageable, even from Moscow. As the latter has no intention of making the local governments answerable to the local population, it is trying to further centralize governance in the North Caucasus, essentially trying to make the local, republican governments redundant. Although this strategy may seem to be fully justified from Moscow’s standpoint, were it successfully implemented, the local North Caucasian population would in fact become even more estranged from the Russian government, because the representation of North Caucasians in governance would decline and locals would cease to have even a small stake in supporting it, something they currently have. There are also certain political risks for Putin if the situation in the North Caucasus remains volatile and, while not spinning into a full-scale war, results in terrorist attacks in Moscow. Still, given Putin’s grip on the Russian media, the risks for him appear to be negligible.