Moscow’s Behavior in the North Caucasus Increasingly Reminiscent of its Imperial Past

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 11 Issue: 9

On October 26, the Russian president’s envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District, Aleksandr Khloponin, held his first live TV press conference. Khloponin expressly blamed instability in the region on the security services of Western countries, stating that the situation in the North Caucasus was aggravated “artificially.” According to Khloponin, Western security services and various “provocateurs” are inflaming interethnic tensions in the region in the run up to the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi on the Black Sea coast. In particular, Khloponin pointed to the Circassian question and the Ossetian-Ingush conflict –which, he said, are drawing the attention of the Russian government’s “opponents” abroad (, October 27).

Khloponin’s accusations are especially ironic given that only in May he came up with the plan to develop tourism in the North Caucasus and is expecting assistance from a number of Western banks –Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan, City Bank and Allianz (Kommersant-Daily, May 17). It is peculiar how Moscow reconciles its suspicions of the West’s meddling in the North Caucasus (never even attempting to prove it) with seeking support from Western financial institutions for its high-flying plans in the region. Besides being a propaganda move by Khloponin, this notable statement may be an indication of his wish to detach himself once again from the security situation in the republics of the North Caucasus.

Khloponin’s ambitious $15 billion project to build up to five large ski resorts in Adygea, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia and Dagestan has been criticized for being unrealistic. He planned to recoup the investment after 10 years and estimated the number of tourists who would be drawn to the resorts at 5 million per year, comparable to the Alpine resorts of Austria. However, Khloponin made some corrections to his initial bold plans and he suggested at his October 26 press conference that pursuing all five skiing resort projects at the same time was unlikely and the two most probable projects were in the Karachaevo-Cherkessian and North Ossetian mountains (, October 27). These two sites must have been chosen because Karachaevo-Cherkessia is a relatively quiet republic with a developed ski tourism sector and thus requires a smaller investment, and predominantly Christian North Ossetia is little affected by the regional insurgency.

Earlier this year, on September 6, the Russian government announced its strategy for the development of the North Caucasus until 2025. The strategy evidently postponed the most expensive projects and focused instead on projects of marginal economic importance. The strategy attracted both the Russian and North Caucasian public’s attention mainly because it envisaged the massive resettlement of unemployed people from the North Caucasus to the inner Russian regions, as well as government support for ethnic Russian settlers to populate the North Caucasus (, September 6).

Khloponin periodically reiterates his support for the ethnic Russian population of the North Caucasus, including the Cossacks, who were the backbone of the Russian empire’s dominance of this conquered region. On October 30, Khloponin officially became a member of the so-called Terek Cossack army (, October 30). The Terek Cossacks celebrated the 20th anniversary of their post-Soviet rebirth with a monument to the nineteenth century Russian general, Yermolov, in Pyatigorsk (, October 31). Yermolov was known for his unchecked cruelty to the North Caucasians during the initial stages of the Russian conquest of the North Caucasus and is still denounced by many North Caucasians. Khloponin’s willingness to rely on Cossack paramilitary forces is a reminder of Russia’s imperial past in the North Caucasus. Moscow has tried to use the Cossacks as a stabilizing force in the North Caucasus, but this idea was implemented with a degree of success only in ethnic Russian regions like Stavropol Krai, which is also part of the North Caucasus Federal District.

Meanwhile, a threat to the North Caucasus Federal District emerged from within as Russian activists have started to collect signatures in favor of Stavropol Krai’s secession from the North Caucasus Federal District and its merger with the neighboring Southern Federal District. The activists cited the increase in crime that occurred after Stavropol Krai was incorporated into the North Caucasus Federal District (, October 13). Stavropol Krai is the only territory in the district that has a predominantly ethnic Russian population and may have been seen as a means of ensuring a strong ethnic Russian presence in the North Caucasus.

Several terrorist attacks have taken place in the Stavropol region in the past several months, but it is unknown whether inclusion of this territory in the North Caucasus Federal District actually facilitated its destabilization. On October 29, Federal Security Service (FSB) Director, Aleksandr Bortnikov, reported to President Dmitry Medvedev about the elimination of a terrorist ring in Stavropol Krai. The group had allegedly carried attacks in the cities of Stavropol and Pyatigorsk and was prevented from staging another assault. However, Kommersant reported on October 30 that the arrested group members were not even accused of terrorism, suggesting that the FSB was trying to claim success without grounds to do so.

Pervasive and growing instability has plagued the North Caucasus in 2010 even more than in previous years due to mounting casualties among the security services. For example, recently the head of the Russian Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin, admitted in an interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station that the law-enforcement agencies are suffering five to six casualties on a daily basis in four republics of the North Caucasus –Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria (Ekho Moskvy, October 9). Not surprisingly, Khloponin faces a major uphill battle to revamp the region’s economy and provide better economic prospects for its population. Some analysts based in the North Caucasus, however, suspect that Moscow’s interest in developing the region is superficial. Khloponin’s most recent estimate of funding for the modernization of the North Caucasus up to 2025 is $20 billion, only $3 billion of which would come directly from the state budget (RIA Novosti, October 29). These numbers indicate that Khloponin himself probably does not view rebuilding the North Caucasus as a realistic or desirable task. The construction of ski resorts in the North Caucasus alone would cost $15 billion, so it is highly unlikely the remaining $5 billion over the next 15 years would be enough to achieve significant results in the region.