On March 24, Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Aleksandr Khloponin, presided over a meeting of the so-called North Caucasian Public Chamber in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia. The gathering’s stated purpose was to find ways to boost an “all-Russian identity,” something that North Caucasians presumably lack, and improve inter-ethnic relations in this ethnically diverse region. The leaders of Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia attended the event, along with representatives of civil organizations. Khloponin promised to dispatch the results of the discussion to the president of Russia “to give orders on the highest [governmental] level” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 24).
Khloponin unveiled his vision of what should be done in the region to calm down the situation. He cited “the institutions of people’s diplomacy,” religious leaders and the Cossacks as the means to stabilize the North Caucasus and called on the republics’ leaders to create “competitive economies” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 25). The Russian Empire traditionally used Cossacks to subdue the North Caucasian peoples. Modern Russian politicians continually lament the exodus of ethnic Russian population from the North Caucasus. So Khloponin’s remarks about the Cossacks may be understood as a plan to revive paramilitary Cossack groups in the North Caucasus to keep the local, predominantly non-Russian population in check. Under the current circumstances this idea is a non-starter, but it exposes the extreme shortsightedness in the Kremlin’s thinking about the region.
Moscow’s problems in the North Caucasus are not caused by insufficient control over religious authorities or, for that matter, “the institutions of people’s diplomacy,” as follows from Khloponin’s remarks. In fact, rather the opposite holds true: Moscow exercises such total control over these public institutions that they have become alienated from the people they are supposed to represent. In particular, the central government in Moscow, often represented by the security services, appears to be engaged in handpicking muftis for the North Caucasian republics and supplying them with funds in non-transparent schemes. Thus, while speaking at the first all-Russian Muslim gathering in Moscow on March 25, Russian presidential adviser Aleksei Grishin, who oversees cooperation with Islamic organizations, bluntly accused “certain muftis” of embezzling government funds and of being incapable of fighting extremism. Even though there are Russian Muslims who live outside of the North Caucasus, Grishin’s sharp statement was apparently aimed at the North Caucasian official Muslim leaders, since only this region of the Russian Federation is known for widespread discontent among Muslims (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 25). From the Russian presidential adviser’s disappointment with some official Muslim leaders, it looks like they failed to deliver on the promises they made in return for the money they received from the government. It is interesting that Grishin, who some sources say is a Russian security service official specializing in “the East,” implements cooperation the Muslim organizations through a special Fund for the Support of Islamic Culture, Science and Education. The fund’s webpage, which appears to be updated quite rarely, states that its funding comes from “non-budgetary sources” (www.islamfund.ru, accessed on March 27).
Traditional councils of elders in the North Caucasus, which the local authorities have used to suit their needs, have also become increasingly redundant precisely because they are seen as old men under government control. Besides, Khloponin’s attempts to revive an outdated institution like the elders’ councils totally contradict his own proposed agenda for modernizing the North Caucasus. Instead of undertaking genuine political reforms in the North Caucasus, Moscow still seems to be preoccupied with coming up with a magical way of sharing responsibility with the regional leaders without delegating any powers or autonomy to them.
Meanwhile, two high-profile Russian think-tanks close to the government in Moscow warned against over-centralization and the overt rigging of elections. The Institute of Contemporary Development, which is said to be under President Dmitry Medvedev’s patronage, advised the Russian president, among other measures, to restore elections for governors in the Russian regions (http://www.riocenter.ru/files/Finding_of_the_Future%20.Summary.pdf). Perhaps most surprisingly, the Center for Strategic Engineering, which is believed to provide expertise to the Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, came up with its own assessment of the situation in the Russian Federation calling for drastic democratic reforms to retain stability in the country. It warned that if the current negative trends continue in Russia, the country is destined to face a political crisis “in 10-15 months” that “will exceed in its intensity the crisis at the end of the 1990s [the economic slump] and will be closer to that of the end of the 1980s [the USSR’s demise]” (www.gazeta.ru, March 27).
Repercussions from the conflict in the North Caucasus continue to hit the headlines in Russia. On March 27, the security services in Moscow were put on high alert as they had reportedly received information that two young females, “well-prepared suicide bombers,” were heading to Moscow (http://lifenews.ru, March 27). That same day, an apartment block in Moscow was evacuated following a bomb threat (www.echo.msk.ru, March 27). North Caucasians in Moscow have experienced numerous assaults on the grounds of their ethnic origin, and security alerts like that are likely to trigger further rise of xenophobia in the Russian capital and, potentially, pressure on the government to do something decisive about it. As the parliamentary elections of December 2011 and presidential elections of March 2012 draw closer, the importance of the North Caucasus as an electoral trump card is increasing. The Russian government, however, has demonstrated little ingenuity in dealing with the conflict or the overall development of the region. A lack of political innovation and political will to reform the country’s institutions, coupled with mounting financial and political pressures across Russia is likely to produce an increased temptation on Moscow’s part to resort to crude force in the North Caucasus.