Putin Increases His Attention to the Northwest Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 18

On September 5, President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow with a delegation from Karachaevo-Cherkessia, headed by the republican governor, Rashid Temrezov. Besides the top republican official, a teacher, a farmer, a businessman and a scholar took part in the meeting. This type of meeting with the president is a relatively new development in Russia. The trivial dialogue between Putin and his visitors about milk yields per cow and such left little doubt that these meetings are designed as Public Relations (PR) exercises targeting the Russian audience in general and the North Caucasian population in particular (https://news.kremlin.ru/news/16383#sel=55:1,55:17). It is noteworthy that Putin met with a similar delegation from North Ossetia, which included the head of the republic and seemingly random individuals, on July 26 (https://news.kremlin.ru/news/16059). Broadly speaking, these events appear to be part of the Russian government’s attempt to counter waning support for Vladimir Putin.
The frequency of these apparent PR moves involving North Caucasians is meant to show Moscow’s continuing intense attention to the region. In addition, Putin may feel more comfortable meeting people from regions that invariably supply high approval ratings for his presidency. At the same time, the Russian leader apparently needed “success stories” rather than “failures,” so he met with delegations from the two relatively quiet republics of the North Caucasus—Karachaevo-Cherkessia and North Ossetia. Apart from the benefits to Putin’s public image, the Russian government probably hopes to justify government investments in the North Caucasus to the country’s majority Russian population, which has become increasingly hostile to federal funding of the region. Putin’s meetings are also more likely to have had a positive impact on the locals in these relatively quiet republics, since they are less alienated from Russia compared to more volatile republics of the North Caucasus.
Surprisingly, the topic of building ski resorts in the North Caucasus did not receive proper attention during either the meeting with the Karachaevo-Cherkessian delegation or the North Ossetian delegation. Moscow touted both republics, especially the Arkhyz region of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, as primary candidates for government investment.
On September 6, the chairman of the board of directors of the state-owned North Caucasus Resorts company, Akhmed Bilalov, visited Karachaevo-Cherkessia (https://www.kchr.info/news/7164-rashid-temrezov-i-akhmed-bilalov-posetili.html). Contrary to previous Russian statements, Bilalov said that the locals should become the primary investors in the North Caucasus ski resorts. According to the official, in 2013 locals will be able to secure credit from banks without collateral under Russian government guarantees. The government plan envisages building four tourist towns in Arkhyz that will accommodate 24,000 people and 54 ski lifts. Expectations are that the Arkhyz tourist area will receive over 500,000 visitors—roughly equal to the republic’s population—every year (https://www.ncrc.ru/r/news/index.php?id_4=697).
The original plan for the construction of world-class ski resorts across the North Caucasus dates back to 2010, when it was unveiled by Moscow’s newly appointed envoy to the North Caucasus, Alexander Khloponin. The idea was that large Russian and foreign private investors would build tourist infrastructure with Russian government assistance. The North Caucasian locals were assigned a role of secondary importance as the workforce at the resorts. There were even vaguely pronounced threats that if the North Caucasians did not make up a disciplined workforce, the companies and the government would bring in ethnic Russians to fill these positions. Numerous declarations of intent regarding foreign investment into the North Caucasus have been announced, but to date there have been few signs of actual foreign investment in the region. In addition, the Russian government’s coffers are projected to experience shortfalls in the near future. So Moscow either decided to switch gears and instead of large-scale plans pursue smaller projects, or it recognized there was a need for a change in rhetoric and for assigning to the local North Caucasians a more “dignified” role than merely that of a hired workforce destined to work at Russian and foreign-owned enterprises.
The upcoming Winter Olympic Games in the area of the city of Sochi, scheduled for 2014, also make it more urgent than ever for the Russian government to appease and “clean out” unwanted elements among the elites of the North Caucasian republics, especially in the western part of the region. Although Turkic-speaking Karachays comprise a plurality in Karachaevo-Cherkessia—41 percent of the republican population, according to the 2010 census—there is also a vibrant Circassian community there that is partly opposed to the Sochi Olympics. Companies with connections to one of the best-known Circassian magnates in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Vyacheslav Derev, who is also member of the Russian Federation Council, came under intense pressure as the Russian tax authorities discovered instances of tax evasion in the companies. The companies’ offices were searched in February 2012, and by the end of August 2012, several people had been detained on related charges. Derev openly stated that the attack was politically motivated, but his maneuvers behind the scenes apparently did not help resolve the issue (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/212196/). 
Despite being among the less unstable republics of the North Caucasus, Karachaevo-Cherkessia has a formidable recent history of political violence that includes political killings. Even President Putin recognized that the republic was not an “easy” region, but rather a “complicated” one, during his introductory speech to the delegation from Karachaevo-Cherkessia (https://news.kremlin.ru/news/16383#sel=55:1,55:17). Seven people were killed in insurgency-related violence in the republic in 2012. Most recently, a 26-year-old police officer from the department for fighting extremism was gunned down in the village of Uchkeken in the republic’s remote Malokarachaevsky district on July 27 (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/210340/).
In the run up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Karachaevo-Cherkessia is becoming one of the key regions of the North Caucasus thanks to its geographic proximity to the Olympic sites and the political violence the republic has experienced in the recent past. While the situation in Karachaevo-Cherkessia is still relatively stable, violence in the republic flares up periodically and there is certainly the potential that the conflict could expand and pose a threat to the Sochi games.