Moscow’s Approach to the North Caucasus Looks Increasingly Deluded

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 11 Issue: 10

Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev had to admit recently that 454 terrorist acts and 510 offenses of extremist nature were committed in Russia in the first nine months of 2010. It would have been odd if the minister had blamed the Russian authorities for the rapidly deteriorating situation; instead, he said “international terrorist networks” were implicated in all the problems. It has become the favored practice of nearly all Russian officials and political personalities to see a foreign hand in the failures and wrongs of today’s Russia. Nurgaliev’s evaluation of the situation in the North Caucasus was interesting as well. “We are witnessing very serious and very dangerous trends taking place across the North Caucasus,” he asserted (www.rosbalt.ru/2010/11/06/787239.html).

It took years before they realized in Moscow that the region had not been pacified and, even worse, that there could not be any pacification at all, due to the multiple processes occurring there. Along the same lines, some analysts in the West who previously had zealously denied the obvious, namely the existence of an armed resistance movement capable of changing the overall situation, started to modify their attitudes toward what was happening in the Russian Federation (www.chernovik.net/news/414/Others_SMI/2010/11/07/11218).

The situation looks so unpredictable to the Kremlin that today a significant portion of analysts in the state apparatus, including the law enforcement agencies (collectively called the siloviki in Russian) and officialdom, dedicate their time, energy and resources to working on the North Caucasus. It means that the Russian government is giving unparalleled attention to the region. Moscow is ready to invest astronomical sums, even to the detriment of all other Russian territories, in order to turn the situation around by improving the quality of life of the local population.

But the paradox lies in the fact that despite having the highest unemployment rate in Russia, the quality of life of an ordinary inhabitant of the North Caucasus is much better than in other parts of the country, which frequently causes anti-Caucasus sentiments in Russian society. Unlike the people in the rest of Russia, the North Caucasus locals do not expect anything from the Russian authorities and instead try to make a living on their own. People from this part of Russia are in a permanent state migration all over the country, and the North Caucasians’ migratory lifestyle is coupled with job seeking, in order to feed their large families and closest relatives. This is not the pattern of other people across Russia’s vast domains, some of whom live in deplorable conditions but still wait patiently for the authorities to solve their problems. For the residents of the North Caucasus, the state is not a reliable partner. They prefer to act by circumventing the government and its established mechanisms. This kind of rejection of the authorities creates a broad base of support for those who have chosen to pick up arms to fight against the government. Having virtually no understanding of the real situation on the ground, Moscow tries to solve the problem by building additional ski resorts in hope that this would miraculously deny the insurgents the support of the population.

The local authorities in the region, who are completely dependent on Moscow, act as if they are outsiders, and this reinforces the population’s impulse to reject them (http://ingushetiyaru.org/news/21744.html). The local authorities even seem to realize this phenomenon, but avoid offending those in Moscow who make recommendations to them on how to act on the ground. Incidentally, it is difficult to find even one solid and reputable analyst or specialist on North Caucasus issues in the Kremlin’s analytical circles. Almost all of the experts currently focusing on the North Caucasus left the region in the 1990s because they were unable to influence the situation then. Yet now they are now issuing instructions from the Kremlin on how to change nearly the same situation in the region they had originally fled. The absolute majority of experts outside the Kremlin comprise those seeking to obtain grants abroad and then quickly leave the country that they were supposed to defend against those handing out the grants. Not surprisingly, there clearly is a lack of serious analysts on Russia in the United States and elsewhere in the West today, since even the most prestigious academic institutions and strategic research centers are filled with that category of “experts” from Russia. Meanwhile, there certainly exists a homegrown cohort of analysts in the West, many of whom view Russia either through the prism of the Russian classic of the late 19th – early 20th century or in the context of Cold War politics.

Against the background of the completely contradictory analytical accounts that appear in the media week after week, an ordinary reader experiences difficulty understanding what is going on in Russia in general and in the North Caucasus in particular. When an expert emphasizes just one issue out of a host of problems the region is facing today, the idea pops up that it is a random phenomenon rather than a logical consequence of long-standing and large-scale antagonisms. The reader can hardly grasp that the situation unfolding in the North Caucasus right now is pretty much the result of the Caucasus War of the 19th century that was waged by Tsarist Russia to colonize the region. During that war and in its aftermath, Russia artificially altered the demographic picture by forcing local indigenous populations to flee their historical habitat and move to the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East. Since the Soviet period, interethnic conflicts have been largely due to the arbitrary changes made by the Russians to the centuries-old ethnic borderlines. Some thirty conflicts remain unsolved to this day. Tainted schemes in the redistribution of economic assets, such as local ports, railroad stations and large enterprises, further aggravate the already existing ethnic animosities. Inter-religious conflict is another dimension of the problem and religious antagonisms between Muslims and Christians, on the one hand, and Salafi and Sufi Muslims, on the other, will probably intensify as well. All of this against the backdrop of the highest level of an unemployment in Russia, inasmuch as during the Soviet era, the industrial infrastructure was mainly connected to oil and tourism.  

In conclusion, all of this coupled with the hundreds of terrorist acts admitted by the Russian Interior Minister, which killed representatives of the siloviki but also civilians, certainly undercuts the validity of Moscow’s claim that there are stable conditions for organizing the Winter Olympics in 2014 in Circassian cemeteries in Sochi.