At a recent conference in Pyatigorsk, experts on the North Caucasus extensively compared and contrasted Moscow’s policies in this volatile Russian region and its involvement in Ukrainian affairs. Chechen expert Musa Basnukaev stated that many people in Chechnya ask the question why Russia went to the level of organizing and supporting the referendum for self-determination in Crimea, but denied the same right of self-determination to Chechens, which resulted in two wars. Basnukaev further questioned the Russian propaganda machine’s use of language. Why do the Russian media call those who oppose the official authorities in Kyiv “militia men” (opolchentsy) and the government forces fighting for the unity of the country “reprisal forces” (karateli), the Chechen expert asked. Basnukaev said that the contradiction between the position of the federal authorities and the opinion of citizens may destabilize the society. “It would be desirable if the statements made at the federal level about the Ukrainian side, about rights and all that, were also fully abided by on Russian territory,” Basnukaev said (kavpolit.com, October 29).
Basnukaev is an academician at Chechen State University in Grozny. Despite Ramzan Kadyrov’s pressure on free speech in Chechnya, the Chechen intellectual still raised highly controversial points regarding relations between Chechnya and Moscow. This suggests that Russia’s contrasting approach to Crimea and Ukraine, on the one hand, and Chechnya, on the other, has produced intensive discussion and distaste for Russian double standards in Chechnya. Chechen society’s reaction is apparently so strong that even fear of reprisals by Kadyrov’s government cannot hold Chechens back from speaking out like this.
Governments across the world have applied double standards in various situations throughout history. When a country treats two similar foreign policy issues differently it has less of an impact on the domestic audience, since citizens generally care about domestic issues far more than about foreign policy issues. However, when a country overtly treats foreign citizens better than its own and extends rights to foreign territories that it denies to its own regions, the contrast becomes especially difficult to hide or justify.
President Vladimir Putin has officially confirmed that Russian armed forces were deployed to Crimea earlier this year to ensure that the peninsula’s referendum was held in “a safe environment,” and he quickly recognized the results of that vote. At the same time, Moscow has never recognized the right of Chechens to hold a referendum on whether or not to secede from Russia. The treatment of Chechen civilians during the Russian-Chechen wars was far beyond what the Ukrainian government did in eastern Ukraine, yet Moscow practically failed to prosecute its war criminals while loudly criticizing the Ukrainian government’s actions in eastern Ukraine.
President Putin proclaimed the concept of a “Russian World” (“Russkiy Mir”) that has to be defended and expanded (kremlin.ru, March 18). He used the adjective “Russkiy,” which has a clearly ethnic meaning and thus leaves the Russian Federation’s non-ethnic Russian citizens out of the great country he is trying to build.
At the Pyatigorsk conference, Sergei Kipiashvili of Dagestani State University said that many people in Dagestan are convinced the war in Ukraine upended Moscow’s plans to launch a “small victorious war” in Dagestan, since Russian military resources were diverted to Ukraine. “People in Dagestan are wary of all this ‘Rashism’ [Russian+ism], all this jingoism, ‘Russians, go forward’ and so on,” the Dagestani academic said. He said Dagestanis have noticed that despite the fact that Caucasians are fighting in the war in eastern Ukraine, there is no information about any of them being captured: “Ukrainian and [ethnic] Russian [prisoners of war] are exchanged, but where are the captured Chechens? Or Georgians who are fighting on the Ukrainian side? Does it mean they are killed immediately? Dagestanis ask each other these questions. Increasingly often one can hear that this is not our war. We should not go there” (kavpolit.com, October 29).
The Russian-Ukrainian conflict has led North Caucasians to compare the two countries. Muslims see substantial differences that cast Russia in a negative light. Dagestani businessman and activist Abakar Abakarov noted that, unlike Russia, Ukraine does not ban Muslim organizations like Hizb ut-Tahrir or the Muslim Brotherhood, or Islamic literature. Ukraine does not prohibit the building of mosques, while the Russian authorities have demolished mosques in Kaliningrad, Yekaterinburg, Urengoi and other cities, according to Abakarov. Ukraine did not mistreat its Muslims and did not experience any terrorist attacks, the Dagestani activist said, but as soon as Crimea was annexed by Russia, the peninsula’s Russian-installed government started targeting Muslims there, which led to kidnappings, arrests and killings (kavpolit.com, October 29).
These North Caucasian experts are surprisingly critical of the Russian government’s discriminatory policies toward the North Caucasus. It appears that the territorial advances of Putin’s Russia in Ukraine appear to have further alienated North Caucasians from the ethnic-Russian majority and the government. North Caucasians ask: if Moscow is so intent on recognizing the “right” of ethnic Russians abroad to join Russia and wants to gather them in one state, then why does it not recognize the right for non-Russians who actually want to leave the Russian Federation to do so?