Russia Fears Possible Tectonic Shifts in the North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 73

Russian troops in Dagestan. (Source: BBC)

Russian experts have written a series of articles on the future of the North Caucasus in a new age of uncertainty in the Russian Federation. They have attempted to determine under what conditions the current political regime in the region could spiral into chaos. Expectations of significant shifts in the country are growing, and experts increasingly believe that the war in Ukraine means there will be no business as usual between Russia and the West. One possible result of the animosity between Russia and the West, they predict, is the rise of instability, especially in the North Caucasus, with its separatist tendencies and related violence.

The well-known Russian journalist and Caucasus expert Ivan Sukhov wrote that a “perfect storm” is quite possible in the North Caucasus and called on the expert community to analyze such a prospect in order to avoid it or minimize its consequences. According to Sukhov, the primary factors making such a “perfect storm” conceivable are Russia’s dwindling financial resources and the highly personalistic regimes both in Russia as a whole and the North Caucasian republics individually. As the analyst notes, if the central government melts down, the existing political regime has no mechanisms to fall back on to keep the situation under control. The quality of governance in the North Caucasus is constantly declining, Sukhov writes, and Moscow is increasingly relying on government instruments unsuited to the task of governance. “Semi-controlled security services are still the primary agent of the metropolis in the North Caucasus,” he argues (Kavkazskaya Politika, April 16).

Sukhov alleges that people in the North Caucasus have almost no interest in the problems the rest of Russia is concerned about, such as the war in Ukraine. Instead, North Caucasians want to hear about events in the Middle East and in the Islamic world, he says. As a solution to the precarious situation in the North Caucasus, Sukhov recommends renegotiating the social contract, this time with those people in the region who are truly interested in the development and stability of their regions. The current regional elites only want to prolong the current corrupt system of governance because it benefits them (Kavkazskaya Politika, April 16).

The expert does not mention, however, that it was Moscow’s conscious choice to exchange rule of law and rule by the people for corrupt and manageable elites in the North Caucasus. Moscow has had a vested interest in retaining the current system of governance in the region, and its interest is not limited to corruption. Corruption happens spontaneously as a result of trying to keep a multinational empire together using whatever instruments the central government has at its disposal. Even though Sukhov argues that the corrupt and unconstructive elites of the North Caucasus should be replaced, it is unclear how the new elites should be selected if not through a participatory political mechanism. Yet a democratic process is absent not only in the North Caucasus, but throughout the country, most principally in Moscow itself, and is nowhere in sight.

Russian economist and North Caucasus expert Denis Sokolov asserts that the decay of state institutions has already caused the government to retreat from certain areas of public life in the North Caucasus. Village communities in Dagestan, for example, rely on sets of informal rules and regulations that effectively have the sway in their societies. Such rules, however, can hardly translate to higher level institutions, according to Sokolov, so they will eventually be swept away either by market forces or the state bureaucracy (Kavkazskaya Politika, April 8).

Both Sukhov aned Sokolov focus on the attributes of the North Caucasus, but largely avoid mentioning Russia’s policies in the region that shaped how it evolved in the last several decades. The reason for such reticence is quite simple: both experts have certain constraints on what they can say openly and what they cannot.

More interesting are the two Russian experts’ apocalyptic predictions for the North Caucasus. Although both say it is not certain that a government meltdown will happen in the North Caucasus, given that the political regime in Russia has displayed a remarkable ability to survive and recreate itself, they regard this as a real possibility. The primary condition for such a breakdown of the system that Vladimir Putin has carefully crafted in the region over the past 15 years would be Putin’s own departure. Russian experts assume that Moscow is the sole possible guarantor of the relative stability in the North Caucasus. However, a broader picture of the entire Caucasus region and retrospective analysis do not confirm such views. A comparison of the North Caucasus and the South Caucasus reveals that countries and territories of the region that are not under direct Russian control are far more stable politically than the territories in the North Caucasus. So Russian rule in the North Caucasus may itself be a destabilizing factor. Furthermore, when the central government in Moscow experienced breakdowns in 1917 and in 1991, no widespread violence in the North Caucasus ensued. Practically all of the violence in the region at the time of transition after 1917 was the result of intrigues by the Bolsheviks and their rivals, who were largely exogenous to the region. Many indicators also suggest that the conflicts that took place in the region after 1991 involved Moscow and were inspired by the center’s desire to keep as many territories as possible under its control.