North Caucasians and Ethnic Russians Agree on Region’s Bleak Prospects

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 14 Issue: 3

On January 23, the respected Russian non-governmental research organization the Levada Center held a press conference in Moscow on the socio-political situation in the North Caucasus. Its researchers found that contrary to expectations, poll respondents in the region were more concerned about unemployment and the widening gap between the rich and poor than about terrorism. Few respondents agreed with the description of the situation in their respective republics as “critical” or “explosive.” In terms of having a negative impact on stability in the region, terrorism was ranked on average only fifth, after concerns related to the economy and income distribution. The center’s report was based on a poll conducted on behalf of International Business & Technical Consultants Inc. (IBTSI) in five republics of the North Caucasus in the spring 2012. A total of 1,500 respondents were polled in Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Chechnya—300 people per republic (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/219264/).

The Levada Center is one of the most reputable polling organizations in Russia, so the results of their research are normally credible. However, even with all the expertise this organization has, the conditions for sociological research in the North Caucasus are far from normal because of the ongoing violence. It is difficult to assess how truthful the answers of respondents are in a region where people are persecuted—sometimes, ostensibly, for having dissenting opinions.

Oleg Orlov of the Memorial human rights group pointed out that he had a hard time believing the results of the poll in Chechnya, where most people are afraid to answer questions. The poll results provide circumstantial evidence that something is wrong with the conclusions of the authors. The findings suggest the people have deep concerns about the economy and a deep loyalty to the current authorities while, at the same time, a high level of disbelief that the authorities will improve the situation. These three outcomes fundamentally contradict each other, and of the three, the high degree of loyalty to the authorities professed by the respondents is probably the most suspect.

Respondents in Karachaevo-Cherkessia appeared to be the most critical of the socio-economic situation in their republic (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/219264/). While the situation in this republic may be deplorable, it is unlikely to be any worse than in the other four republics polled. So it is more likely that respondents in Karachaevo-Cherkessia are not more critical of their republic than respondents in other republics, but simply feel safer to express what they actually think about the situation. Of the five republics polled, Karachaevo-Cherkessia is the only one where government forces do not launch counterterrorism operations on a regular basis, thus the locals apparently are much less frightened to voice their opinion. The poll results illuminate once again that the situation in the North Caucasus can be equated to life under a dictatorship, in which citizens are scared to express their true opinions.

According to Alexander Levinson of the Levada Center, there are, broadly speaking, three main views of the North Caucasus among ethnic Russians. The first group views the North Caucasus as a colonial extension of Russia that Russia can treat as it pleases: “The [North] Caucasus is our land, we have the right to do anything we want there. If some [human] rights are broken there, it is justified because war is war.” The second view of the region among Russians is that it is a Russian territory that should be governed by Russian laws and where all the locals should be treated as equal Russian citizens. Finally, the third approach is a pseudo-Soviet one—that all people of the Russian Federation should live according to the communal life ideals of the Soviet period, within “one family of peoples” (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/219264/). Levinson did not mention that more and more Russians are against North Caucasians in any capacity and see them as foreign to the rest of Russia.

A November 2012 poll found that 65 percent of Russians supported the popular Russian nationalist slogan “Stop Feeding the Caucasus!” Only 23 percent of those polled did not support this slogan, while 66 percent saw the situation in the North Caucasus as “tense” and “critical or explosive”; whereas 69 percent said the situation in that part of the country will either stay the same or deteriorate. Forty-five percent of the respondents said they felt “irritation,” “enmity” or “fear” toward the newcomers from the “southern republics,” while 56 percent supported the slogan “Russia for Russians” (http://www.levada.ru/14-12-2012/rossiyane-o-mezhnatsionalnoi-napryazhennosti-natsionalisticheskikh-lozungakh-obstanovke-n). It is noteworthy that Russians ranked the North Caucasians, who are citizens of Russian Federation, as the most unwelcome people in Russia, ahead of the Chinese, who came in second, and citizens of the Central Asian countries, who came in third (http://finam.fm/archive-view/6703/). A September 2012 poll found that over 50 percent of Russians thought imposing order in the North Caucasus would require many years, while 13 percent believed that Moscow will not be able to establish full control over the region and “many republics of the North Caucasus will separate from Russia” (http://www.levada.ru/23-10-2012/obstanovka-na-severnom-kavkaze-napryazhennaya-60-rossiyan).

Essentially, ethnic Russians and North Caucasians agree in principle that the situation in the North Caucasus shows the features of a protracted conflict and economic stagnation that are not about to abate. At the same time, Russian pollsters themselves seem to be influenced by an imperial bias, since they ask Russians whether they regard the North Caucasus as part of the country while failing to poll the North Caucasians themselves on the same issue. Such failures on the part of the researchers contribute to a lack of reliable knowledge about the North Caucasus and prevent assessing the situation in the region in realistic terms.