Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 16

North Caucasian alliances still threaten Moscow’s control of the region

by David Nissman

In 1989, the Association of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus[AMPC] held its first meeting. It supported the furthering ofsocial and economic cooperation among the peoples of the NorthCaucasus, their attainment of full equality, and a regulatorymechanism for the peaceful reconciliation of conflicts. By thestandards of Moscow’s problems with the Baltic states, about todepart, and Azerbaijan, where the Soviet army had been in occupationsince the first month of the year, the AMPC was a relatively harmlessorganization. But it marked the beginning of an intense searchby the peoples of this region for a structure that would allowthem both stability and at the least greater autonomy from Moscow.

By October 1992, the AMPC had been replaced by a trio of organizations,the most important of which was the Confederation of the Peoplesof the Caucasus [CPC], whose first act was to issue a denunciationof the Federation Treaty, on which the legal foundations of theRussian Federation rest, and advocate a confederative union ofthe nations and peoples of the North Caucasus. The others includeda group called the House of Caucasian Cooperation, which accordingto Russian sources was under direct Chechen control; there wasalso the Caucasian-Black Sea Assembly of Turkic Peoples. The Houseof Caucasian Cooperation soon became absorbed by the CPC, andthe Assembly of Turkic Peoples became subject to a press blackoutand very little further information is available about its activities.

There were also sub-movements some of which have gained importance since that time. In 1992, for example, the Nalchik Conferenceof Adygey Peoples, consisting of the Abaza, the Abkhaz, the Cherkess,the Kabardin and others, discussed uniting the republics wherethe Adygeys lived, namely the republics of Kabardino-Balkariya,Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Adygeya and Abkhazia. Because Abkhaziais not even nominally in the Russian Federation (it is withinthe boundaries of the Republic of Georgia), one would think thatthis Adygey concept of ethnic unification would have attractedmore attention in Moscow, but it received only cursory notice,even though all the Adygeys were also active participants in theCPC. This all became geopolitically relevant in August 1992 whenAbkhazia and Kabardino-Balkariya followed up on their friendshipand cooperation treaty with an accord that gave Kabardino-Balkariyaaccess to the Black Sea ports of Sukhumi, Pitsunda and Ochamsira.

As Russian authorities have routinely pointed out, such treaty-makingby components of the Russian Federation and of the Georgian Republicis illegal. But as Monitor noted August 9, "the tendencyto enter into such agreements has become increasingly pronouncedon the part of some constituent members of the Russian Federationand contributes to Moscow’s concern over regional separatism."

Ethnic Hierarchies and Territorial Arbitrariness

The seeming ethnopolitical turmoil that prevails in the NorthCaucasus is one of the most visible aspects of the Soviet legacy.According to a Russian policy study issued in late 1992, Sovietpolicy was to consolidate the North Caucasus into "ethnosocialcommunities" with their own national infrastructures. Atthe same time, there was an ethnic hierarchy created in whicha people’s position depended on its rights and the degree of participationin the national-territorial structure in which it found itself.

Russian policymakers agree that the borders of existing autonomousnational-territorial structures are arbitrary and their multiethniccharacter artificial and that these features are a primary causeof conflict in the North Caucasus today. According to the 1989census, for instance, 11 percent of the Kumyks, 12 percent ofthe Chechens, 13 percent of the Dargins, and 20 percent of theAdygeys lived outside their ethnic territories. With the breakupof the USSR, some of these ethnic groups were split between twoor more different territories; and in the case of the Lezgiansand the Ossetians, they are divided between two foreign countries.If one abandons the Soviet/Russian attempt to be overprecise intheir ethnopolitical terminology, one would add the Adygey tothe list of those divided between two or more foreign countries–sincethe Abkhazians can legitimately be counted as Adygeys.

Ethnic Guilt

Following the breakup of the USSR, policymakers in Moscow setout to define the Russian Federation’s political goals in theNorth Caucasus. They issued a very dispassionate study which wasstill marred by Russia’s preconceptions about the mindset in theCaucasus: for example, they wrote: "The lack of democratictraditions is the distinguishing mark of all of post-Soviet society.In the North Caucasus, the clan system of the organization ofpower is preserved and justice often retreats before power. Internalconflicts are an expression of clan-mafia (and even national-mafia)groups for positions in the power structure and an appropriateshare in the redistribution of resources and wealth. Thus, interethnicconflicts in the republics outwardly conceal the struggles ofnational elites for power."

Even the most superficial reading of these words suggests a Russianpredisposition to believe that those indigenous to the North Caucasus,at least those who are members of a North Caucasian elite, aresomehow linked with mafia-type criminal syndicates. This is nota new concept in Russia; even when forces of the Russian Empirewere able to conquer the North Caucasus by the mid-19th century,the term ‘guilty population’ was used in order to justify limitingthe rights of the ‘mountaineers’ and granting more rights to thegrowing influx of Orthodox, mainly Slavic, peoples into the region.When ‘guilty populations’ were deported from the North Caucasusby Stalin in 1944, their return prompted a number of the ethnoterritorialconflicts we see in the region today: hence, the Ingush-Ossetianconflict over the Prigorodny Rayon.

This concept of ethnic guilt is very important to the formulationof Russia’s policy, especially with regard to the Chechens. Russiaconquered the Ingush lowlands in 1810, but met fierce resistancefrom the Chechens in the highlands. Repeated attempts by Russianforces to vanquish the Chechens were rebuffed in 1838, 1840-42,1843, 1844 and 1845. By 1859, however, Chechen forces under thecommand of the Imam Shamil were exhausted by the Russian onslaughtsand surrendered. By 1865, a new Chechen rebellion against Russiabroke out and this was also quelled with difficulty. The Chechenrevolts continued into the twentieth century. This

resistance to "voluntary annexation"–as it was termedduring the Soviet period–by Russia appear to be the sole groundsfor Chechen "guilt" and Chechen allies were paintedwith the same brush.

In any discussion of the ethnic confusion in the North Caucasus,the picture would not be complete without mentioning the EasternSlavic population of the region: in 1992, 74 percent of the populationof the North Caucasus was Slavic, and this number had been growingas immigrants poured into the region from other parts of the RussianFederation. The most important component consists of the Cossacks,some of whom had settled in the region prior to the Russian conquest.In Russian geopolitics, the North Caucasus consists of the republicsof Adygeya, Chechnya, Daghestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkariya,Karachayevo-Cherkassia, Northern Ossetia, Krasnodar and StavropolKrays and Rostov Oblast: hence, it occupies the entire territorybetween the Black and the Caspian Seas, and parts of it are extremelydesirable in terms of climate and land. Moreover, the region isnow the frontier between Russia and the world outside; to putit in other terms, the current boundaries of Russia are roughlythe same as they were in 1810, just before the beginning of the’great game’ between the Russian and the British Empires.

Another problem fundamental to the Russian Federation as a wholeis that no constitutional division of powers has existed betweenthe central, federal organs and local executive authorities. Theresult has been disagreement, inconsistency and lack of coordinationin the management of North Caucasian affairs. To fill this powervacuum, anti-Russian opposition forces began to create parallelpower structures in the region. This gave strength to the sovereignizationprocess taking place throughout the former Soviet Union, and oneof its fruits was the formation of various regional confederationsand alliances among the local populations.

The CPC is perceived in Russia not only as an effort to tearoff a large chunk of real estate from the Russian dominions, butalso as a Muslim bloc, a natural ally of Turkey, Iran and otherMuslim powers. Its success would also isolate Georgia and Armeniafrom Russia. The Chechens are at the forefront of these independencemovements, and Dzhokhar Dudayev’s secession made Chechnya a naturaltarget for Russian frustration. What is interesting is that whileRussia has vented its anger against Chechnya because of the latter’sexplicit claim of independence, other members of the CPC (Kabardino-Balkariyafor example) have proceeded to act as sovereign states and concludetreaties with foreign countries. That may be the ultimate lessonof regional efforts at self-determination and of Moscow’s effortsto contain them.

David Nissman is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University