Putin Calls For Greater Government Control over Youth Education in the North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 12 Issue: 16

On August 3, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin held a government meeting in Kislovodsk on Moscow’s youth policy in the North Caucasus. While a large part of the statements made by Russia’s most powerful politician were apparently connected to the country’s upcoming presidential elections, Putin also offered a few glimpses into Moscow’s plan of action for the North Caucasus. “The condition when the young generation felt unwanted and did not see agreeable life prospects impacted the general situation in the [North Caucasian federal] district and became a breeding ground for extremism, crime, interethnic strife and terrorism,” he said. “We must cut the ground from under the feet of those who try to distract the youth of the North Caucasus from the goals of peaceful development, those who try to deprive the youth prospects and make them pawns in somebody’s game” (https://premier.gov.ru/events/news/16110/).

The irony of the situation, of course, is in the fact that radicalism in the North Caucasus has increased significantly since Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia in 1999. Militancy used to be confined to Chechnya’s boundaries, while now most of the republics in the region are plagued by regular clashes between the police and rebels, attacks on government forces and human rights violations. It sounded expressly Machiavellian when at the same meeting Putin lamented the rugged state of a Chechen rural school that he had previously observed in 2000. In 1999, Vladimir Putin led Moscow’s effort to reestablish control over Chechnya, virtually destroying all the cities of this small republic. At the August 3 government meeting, Putin euphemistically called one of the causes of the North Caucasian youth’s disenfranchisement the “social and political instability of the 1990s.”

As the 2012 Russian presidential elections approach, Prime Minister Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev are making increasingly more promises. Both men lately have paid special attention to young people. On August 1, Putin caused an international scandal at a meeting with state sponsored youth campers at Seliger in northern Russia, when, answering a question from a North Ossetian student, he hinted that Moscow might annex South Ossetia (www.rian.ru, August 1). Medvedev hastily dismissed this possibility in an interview on August 4 (www.rian.ru, August 4).

Many Russian analysts have pointed out that Moscow is losing the “ideological war” in the North Caucasus, implying that the state should counter the spread of radical Islam and separatist ideas with a certain kind of a state-building ideology. At the August 3 government meeting, Putin and the Russian minister for education, Andrei Fursenko, unveiled some ideas on how Moscow would proceed with its counter measures. According to Putin, North Caucasian youth should be brought up in a spirit of respect for the culture and traditions of their own people as well as all peoples that live in Russia. The state plans to introduce classes on religion and secular ethics in schools. In the realities of the North Caucasus, this might mean that the authorities will attempt to implant the “right” kind of Islam in schoolchildren at an early age or, where possible, to supplant Islam with secular ethics (https://premier.gov.ru/events/news/16110/).

Education Minister Fursenko boasted that the situation in schools in the North Caucasus was in some respects enviable, referring to the fact that there is not a shortage of schoolteachers there as there is in many other parts of Russia. The large supply of schoolteachers in the North Caucasus, however, likely has a much less impressive explanation — that is, the high unemployment rate in the region, which makes the meager teacher’s salary an attractive option for people. Part of Moscow’s plan to increase its impact on young people is to set up a federal university for the North Caucasus in the Russian-speaking Stavropol region, apparently in order to diminish the importance of the universities that each republic of the North Caucasus currently has (https://premier.gov.ru/events/news/16110/).

The idea of setting up a federal university and thereby centralizing governance over higher education in the North Caucasus coincides with a general drive to concentrate political power and resources in the hands of Moscow’s representative in the region. However, even though that envoy, Aleksandr Khloponin, has aspired to be in charge of dispersing all the funds Moscow sends to the North Caucasus, it does not appear that he has achieved much so far. Universities in the North Caucasian republics are apparently regarded by some in Moscow as institutions that produce local elites without Moscow being able to influence that process directly. However, having a republican state university is often seen as an entitlement in the North Caucasus, and their closure, or any other drastic reform, may meet with significant opposition. There is also a legitimate concern about the proliferation in the North Caucasus of many obscure higher education institutions that consistently fail to meet educational standards.

The head of North Ossetia, Taimuraz Mamsurov, was put in charge of a government working group to come up with a state policy toward youth in the North Caucasus. At the Russian government meeting on August 3, Mamsurov unveiled another aspect of state policy that focuses on creating a “united Russian identity” to make ethnic differences fade away (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 5). It appears that the Soviet policy of creating a “united Soviet people” and making ethnicities redundant appears to be getting a second life.

Moscow’s proclaimed youth policy in the North Caucasus can be summed up, in short, as increasing government control over young minds. Vladimir Putin quite rightly pointed out that active participation of young people in public life is one of the necessary conditions for their self-fulfillment (https://premier.gov.ru/events/news/16110/).  Unfortunately, the previous record of the Russian prime minister makes it hard to believe he is really in favor of uncensored youth activism. While government resources and policies are important factors in helping young people, the key to solving the North Caucasus riddle is permitting more political activism among young people and other social groups.