2010 turned out to be more difficult for Russia than the previous year in terms of its problems in the North Caucasus. Nearly all top Russian officials, including Russia’s president, the head of the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Interior Minister, among others, have had to acknowledge the worsening situation in the region. Even according to official data, the total number of militant actions against Russian authorities in 2010 increased by one-and-a-half to four times compared to 2009 (www.trud.ru/article/28-09-2010/251087_5_initsiativ_medvedeva_ostavshixsja_na_bumage.html). According to independent sources basing their data on open news reports, the losses among the civilian population, including those killed by the Russian security forces (aka siloviki), totaled 117 people in 2010 (www.kasparov.ru/material.php?id=4D1B301B9BD2D).
The past year was a year of failure for the federal government’s project of seeking to invest money in the region in exchange for stability. Aleksandr Khloponin, the former governor of the Krasnoyarsk region, was designated by the Kremlin as the experienced manager for the project. A famous economist and successful businessman (thanks to his personal relations with Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin), it was hoped that Khloponin would succeed in turning the situation around in the North Caucasus by additional infusions of money from the central government into the bottomless budgets of local ethnic republics (www.rosbalt.ru/2010/12/28/805300.html).
Under the new scheme, it was also decided to split the Southern Federal District into two administrative units, one of which, called the North Caucasus Federal District, would include most of the region’s national republics – namely, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia – but would also incorporate the Stavropol territory for the apparent purpose of diluting the newly formed district’s non-Russian ethnic majority with Cossacks and Russians living in Stavropol. Meanwhile, Adygea, an integral part of the North Caucasus region, was excluded and remained within the former Southern Federal District. As conceived by the Kremlin, it was incumbent on Khloponin to force the local leaders to downgrade their vector of power from Moscow to Pyatigorsk, the “capital” of the newly formed North Caucasus Federal District.
It was also anticipated that a river of investments would flow to the North Caucasus, the success of which would be guaranteed by the very same Khloponin. However, there were very few, to say the least, willing to invest in a region where there is a permanent war, and even then those brave souls were from among the well-connected individuals who had received assurances from the Kremlin for all the risks associated with the instability in the region. Moreover, Khloponin failed to persuade local leaders to resolve their issues through him, rather than by circumventing him, as Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s Kremlin-appointed leader, did and continues to do. Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, in the end had to admit that the Khloponin project did not meet his expectations (www.rosbalt.ru/2010/11/08/787770.html ).
Although the deterioration of the situation in the North Caucasus had multifaceted manifestations – in the sense that there were various factors, including social, political, economic and religious – the dominant and defining factor overshadowing all of them was the ongoing armed resistance movement. It was exactly the intensified insurgency that compelled the Russian authorities to confess that the situation in the region in 2010 indeed significantly worsened compared to 2009. While in 2009, the violence and unrest was concentrated mainly in Ingushetia, in 2010 the much larger Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria came to the forefront, which could not but also have an impact on Russia’s Black Sea area, where it hopes to host the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
Against the background of the Circassian public outcry over the Russian decision to hold these games in their historical habitat news reports that are so ominously familiar to the rest of the North Caucasus region. The bombing of a train near Sochi on November 21, 2010 (www.interfax.ru/politics/news.asp?id=165863) and the fact that caches of weapons and ammunitions have repeatedly been found in the Sochi area (https://southdistrict.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/179035/) appear to indicate the emergence of an indigenous group of local nationalists that could establish close contact with the armed underground of the North Caucasus at the initial stage, while not even being their ideological supporters. The assassinations of leaders of Circassian nationalistic organizations (several well-known leaders were killed in 2010) might be indicative of a policy aimed at stoking interethnic and inter-ideological tensions.
Trying to remain in power, the leaders of the North Caucasus republics have been adopting the tactic first used by Ramzan Kadyrov, in which priority is given to the local police (or rather individual structures of it) directly subordinated to local authorities. However, a strategy to counter the militants by using paramilitary structures composed of representatives of the indigenous population of a republic would hardly lead to the result that has been purportedly achieved in Chechnya, since it ignores the many differences between the organization of Chechen society and that of the other polities in the region.
In the past year the North Caucasus armed resistance movement suffered several major losses among its leaders. The siloviki liquidated in special operations such prominent figures as Said Buryatsky (aka Alexsandr Tikhomirov, killed on March 4, 2010); the chief ideologue of the military resistance to Russia, Emir Seifullah (aka Anzor Astemirov, killed on March 24, 2010), the leader of the Kabardino-Balkaria Jamaat who was one of the major ideologues of the radical wing of the militants; and Magomedali Vagabov (aka Emir Seifullah of Gubden, killed on August 21, 2010), the leader of the Dagestani Jamaat. For the first time in many years of resistance in the North Caucasus, a prominent rebel leader was captured alive in a special operation – Akhmed Yevloev-Taziev (aka Emir Magas, detained on June 9, 2010), the chief of the Ingush Jamaat. According to the siloviki, more than 300 militants were killed in the North Caucasus in 2010, a majority of whom were liquidated in Dagestan during the last four months of the year (www.rian.ru/defense_safety/20101227/314088692.html). These data include a certain percentage of those whose participation in the ranks of the armed resistance movement has not been proved; hence, they should be classified as civilians.
But the schism within the rebel movement was by and large the most surprising news. A group of the most famous and capable of Chechen commanders – Emir Aslanbek (Vadalov), Emir Hussein (Gakaev), Emir Tarkhan (Gaziev) and Emir Mukhannad announced the voluntary resignation of the leader of North Caucasus militants and founder of the Caucasus Emirate, Doku Umarov, and the election of Emir Aslanbek Vadalov as their new leader. But at the request of the radical wing of militants (especially of those who live far away from Chechnya and the North Caucasus), Doku Umarov soon changed his mind about resigning, thus triggering a serious crisis in the ranks of the armed resistance. As a result, today virtually all of the Chechen commanders (nearly 90 percent of rebels who continue to fight) remain outside of the control of Umarov, subordinating themselves instead to Emir Hussein (Gakaev). Umarov, on the other hand, enjoys the support of non-Chechen jamaats, such as those in Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria, who refused to recognize Emir Hussein as their legitimate leader. Doka Umarov demoted and put under the Sharia court all of those who disobeyed him, but the harsh measures have had little impact on the schism (see for example: Factional Divisions within the Chechen Separatist Movement, The Jamestown Foundation, Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 190, October 21, 2010).
It should be noted that siloviki losses are comparable to those inflicted on the rebel fighters. According to the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, there were 529 armed attacks on law enforcement and military personnel in 2010. In the course of their actions, militants killed 218 and wounded 536 people (www.interfax-russia.ru/South/main.asp?id=196058). Interestingly, the figures given by Russian law enforcement agencies are little trusted by Dmitry Medvedev himself, who has literally said that all these figures for the North Caucasus are nothing but “nonsense” (RIA Novosti news agency, November 19, 2010). Thus, even the head of the Russian state has to admit what has been obvious for so many analysts working on Russia and specifically on the North Caucasus: that the figures published by Russian officialdom should be treated with great suspicion.
The array of developments – such as high unemployment in the region, a high level of crime, 70 percent to 90 percent of the local budgets subsidized by Russia’s central government, a high level of migration of the Russian population from the North Caucasus republics, the deepening Islamization of the region, growing anti-Caucasus sentiments in Russian society and rising nationalist feelings in the North Caucasus – gives no reason to assume that the situation in the North Caucasus is changing to Moscow’s advantage. Besides, further in the south, Georgia is emerging as a competitor and an alternative to Russian power, capable of influencing the situation in the region. In 2010, Tbilisi dramatically shifted its policy toward the North Caucasus and now seems to be poised to play a more dynamic role in this part of the region. Russia will have to either reckon with the changing circumstances or embark on a more aggressive policy toward Georgia, which looks unlikely against the background of its own problems.
In conclusion, we should be ready for a worsening of the situation across almost the entire North Caucasus and probably even for a widening of the frontiers of the conflict, which might involve new ethnic groups, not only in the region but in adjacent areas as well.