Political Reforms Still Possible in the North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 21

On October 24, the Memorial human rights center published a report on the situation in the North Caucasus during this past summer. The report documents the latest trends in the region that are often overlooked in the daily news. For example, Memorial determined that the losses among government forces in Dagestan in August were the highest one month total in the entire history of monitoring the republic—31 servicemen killed. Overall, the insurgents in Dagestan killed 50 servicemen and wounded 46 this past summer, while 81 servicemen were killed and 102 injured in the clashes in four republics of the North Caucasus—Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 24).

Dagestan has clearly become the most violent republic in the North Caucasus. This is partly because Dagestan is the largest republic in the region, with a population of about 3 million. Thus, if we were to measure the government forces’ losses on a per capita basis, Ingushetia, with a population barely above 400,000 but where 13 servicemen were killed this summer, would probably rank as the deadliest (Russian State Statistical Service, www.gks.ru). However, Dagestan is also the most multiethnic of the North Caucasian republics and, arguably, has the longest-running Islamic tradition.

Memorial’s report points to an important possible cause of the increase of violence in Dagestan and elsewhere in the North Caucasus. “It is likely that the rebel upsurge was provoked by the increase in and harshness of the law enforcement agencies’ investigative and combat activities, especially in Dagestan.” The report cites the Russian government’s periodic reinforcement of the military and police forces in Dagestan (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 24). During a government meeting on October 16, President Vladimir Putin called on the government agencies to intensify further their fight against insurgents in the North Caucasus (for details, see EDM, October 22).

Most of the time, the Russian government’s crackdown on the insurgency in the North Caucasus is seen by observers as reactive in nature. However, a close examination of the spikes in violence in the region suggests that the relationship is sometimes the reverse: namely, that the number of insurgent attacks increases after the government sends in reinforcements or otherwise intensifies operations.

There may be a number of reasons behind this relationship. First, as government forces ramp up their operations against the rebels, they also tend to commit more errors and to abuse civilians which, in turn, creates a backlash from wider circles of the population after a time lag. Second, the increased number of servicemen in the streets gives the insurgents more potential targets. Third, the government forces may deliberately be trying to provoke a backlash and kill off insurgent groups that otherwise would have remained dormant and invisible. This latter notion was particularly evident in the uprising in Kabardino-Balkaria in October 2005. A few analysts suggested that the then republican police chief, Khachim Shogenov, promulgated the view that fully legal Muslim communities in the republic should have been provoked to rise up in order to provide a pretext to outlaw them and allow the police to kill them off. This was seen as a long-term solution to the rise of unofficial Islam in the republic.

The surge in the presence of Russian troops and security services in the North Caucasus is likely to be part of the “preventative approach” the Russian leadership has chosen. The reason Moscow wants to pursue the tactics of “provoke and kill” is fairly obvious: the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which is Putin’s personal project and thus cannot be allowed to be marred even by the remote threat of an attack. These “preventative calculations,” however, may backfire. As the government forces revert to harsher tactics, the resentment among the local population in the North Caucasus may grow over the next year just in time to ruin or significantly impact the Olympics.

Meanwhile, a secular reformist trend in North Caucasian society appears to be coming to the forefront. On October 26, an extraordinary convention of peoples of Dagestan occurred in Moscow. The participants called on the authorities to dissolve Dagestan’s parliament and hold direct elections for the republican president. Speakers expressed alarm over the situation in the republic, which shows signs of sliding into a full-fledged civil war (kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 27). In the parliamentary elections that were held in North Ossetia on October 14, the ruling United Russia party nearly lost to an obscure party, Patrioty Rossii (Patriots of Russia). Even enormous levels of vote-rigging failed to help United Russia: their opponents held sway among the republic’s disillusioned population. As a result, United Russia won less than 50 percent of the vote in North Ossetia (46.2 percent), which is unprecedented for a North Caucasian republic where elections are rigged particularly blatantly (http://ironpost.ru, October 25).

Modest signs of a revival of political life in the North Caucasus show that all is not yet lost to the practitioners of violence in the region. If Moscow were to allow the republics to have a healthy political life, the violent trends might subside over time. Unfortunately, there is little hope that this will happen any time soon. President Putin’ recent comments and the crackdown on the Russian opposition in Moscow indicate that Russia’s government is likely to stick to the old, harsh tactics in the North Caucasus, which could backfire during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.