Rising Russian Nationalist Sentiment Makes North Caucasus Secession More Likely

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 114

Vladimir Putin laying flowers at the grave of slain soccer fan Yegor Sviridov (Source: Rueters)

Anti-Chechen and anti-Caucasian hysteria in the Russian media is rapidly expanding. Russian authorities have always regulated this kind of campaigns behind the scenes, depending on Moscow’s objectives in the North Caucasus at a given moment. For example, the start of the second war in Chechnya arrived at the peak of anti-Chechen hysteria (https://vz.ru/opinions/2012/2/16/561955.html).  Other groups in the North Caucasus were usually not subjected to the same kind and scale of pressure from the authorities. So the image of the Chechen bandit was created in contrast to all other peoples in Russia. This sort of propaganda cliché about Chechens being universally engaged in banditry helped Russian authorities justify their heavy-handed policy in Chechnya. The voices of human rights activists and pro-democracy politicians faded away as the government launched an uncompromising war against the Chechens in 1999.

As time went by, other peoples of the North Caucasus also started to feel similar pressure from Russian authorities.’  Previously, the non-Chechen peoples of the North Caucasus had tended to attribute the Chechens’ problems in Moscow to their bellicose behavior. However, after experiencing the intricacies of official policy themselves, the non-Chechen North Caucasians realized that Chechens were not the cause of the problem, but rather that Muscovites and Russians in general did not perceive the North Caucasians as friendly and equal citizens of the country. Russian authorities started to squeeze the North Caucasians out of politics, which inevitably led to the rise of anti-Russian sentiment among North Caucasians across Russia and in Moscow, in particular. Rebel attacks and suicide bombers also added fuel to the fire of the Russian nationalists and gave rise to anti-Caucasian sentiment in the Russian society in general.

This policy ultimately resulted in the anti-Caucasian pogrom staged by nationalists in the heart of Moscow, literally just outside the Kremlin’s walls on December 11, 2010 (https://newsru.com/russia/14dec2010/newriots.html). The pogrom was a response to the death of a Russian soccer fan who provoked an ethnic Kabardin (aka Circassian), Aslan Cherkesov, into a fistfight. Cherkesov shot the fan, Yegor Sviridov, dead (www.1tvnet.ru/content/show/biografiya-aslana-cherkesova_04688.html). This incident was used as in classic pogroms. A group of several hundred fans of the Spartak soccer club beat up young Caucasian passersby at Manezhka Square. Meanwhile, the media blamed the “newcomer” Caucasians for the death of a “local peaceful Muscovite.” The media campaign went to great lengths to elevate the slain soccer fan to the ranks of a hero-martyr, while declaring all “blacks,” as the Caucasians are called by the Russians, to be bandits. The authorities certainly contributed to the campaign, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visiting the slain soccer fan’s grave (www.bbc.co.uk/russian/russia/2010/12/101221_putin_sviridov.shtml).

A short time later, in August 2011, the death of another Muscovite, Ivan Agafonov, at the hands of a Dagestani, Rasul Mirzaev, provoked another wave of mass protests by nationalists. With the tacit consent of the authorities, the nationalists demanded the expulsion of all Caucasians from Moscow and the “separation of the Caucasus” from Russia. The latter eventually became a popular slogan among the nationalists. At the same time, local authorities in the North Caucasus evidently tried to defend their fellow countrymen from the violent assault of Russian nationalists.’ For instance, the head of Dagestan, Magomedsalam Magomedov, stated he thought Rasul Mirzaev’s deed was worthy of imitation (https://kp.ru/online/news/1104474/).

Lately, it has again become a trend to criticize Chechens in the Russian media. For example, the actions of the group Nashi against Chechen officials in Moscow were certainly not accidental. First, on May 2, the wife of Tamerlan Mingaev a high-ranking Chechen official, created a scandal that was videotaped and posted on the Internet, where millions of users watched it. Ramzan Kadyrov subsequently fired Mingaev from all the positions he held. Then, on May 28, Chechnya’s representative to the president of Russia, Magomed-Emin Magomadov, was involved in another incident. In both cases, Russian activists presented the incidents as proof of Chechens’ disregard for Russians and Russian culture (www.topnews.ru/news_id_50489.html). Kadyrov quickly saw the pattern, and while he had dismissed the participant in the first scandal, he refused to act the same way in the second case as the deliberate nature of the policy against the Chechens and the North Caucasians as a whole became evident. Kadyrov, via his press service, accused the Moscow police of ethnic profiling after police cracked down on Chechens who were involved in a fight near the Evropeisky mall in the Russian capital on June 5 (www.grozny-inform.ru/main.mhtml?Part=8&PubID=34414). Fans of the soccer club Spartak were again implicated in the fight. In an effort to interrogate witnesses to the fight, Moscow police carried out a special operation targeting Chechens in the dorms of the Maimonid Academy in Moscow, beating up Chechen students in the process. Eventually, the authorities decided to dismiss all Chechen students from this institution early before the summer vacation, fearing further clashes between Russian nationalists and the Chechens (https://www.ridus.ru/news/36390/).

Moscow Chechens regard these conflicts as evidence of a cultural clash (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kt4T3TgHxlc&feature=share). They are convinced that the disputes are not about politics, but rather about a failure to understand the multicultural character of the Russian Federation. In fact, everything is much more serious. The nationalists’ actions caused the general Russian population to rethink their position on the country’s territorial integrity. Now, separating the North Caucasus from the country is no longer seen as a tragedy or as leading to the dissolution of the Russian Federation. People in Russia are now much more reconciled to the idea of cutting off part of Russia, something that was not the case in 1991 or at the beginning of the second war in Chechnya. At that time, the war in Chechnya was regarded as a war to protect Russia’s territorial integrity. Thus, for the past ten years, whether with the authorities’ consent or not, Russian citizens have become much more resigned to the idea of the North Caucasus seceding from Russia sometime in the near future.

So it is no longer the armed resistance in the North Caucasus that is working for the separation of the region from Russia: the Russian authorities’ actions and policies are essentially advancing the same cause. Indeed, Russian policies that tacitly support nationalists and encourage hostilities between ethnic Russians and ethnic North Caucasians point toward the eventual separation of the North Caucasus from the Russian Federation.