Earlier this month the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Russia visited the North Caucasus, a region in southern Russia. U.S. Ambassador William Burns was in the North Caucasus from December 4-5, visiting Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, as well as Vladikavkaz and Beslan in North Ossetia. On December 7 Iran’s Ambassador Gholam-Reza Ansari visited Dagestan.
The simultaneous appearance of the Iranian and U.S. diplomats in the North Caucasus was hardly a coincidence; the program and purposes of both visits looked almost identical. Burns and Ansari both discussed economic issues with local leaders. “The North Caucasus itself very much needs economic support. That is why the United States last year provided $11 million for the development of businesses here, job creation, and for strengthening the public health system,” Burns said while meeting with Arsen Kanokov, president of Kabardino-Balkaria. Burns also discussed opportunities for U.S. investment in the region with North Ossetian leader Taimuraz Mamsurov (see Chechnya Weekly, December 7).
In Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, the Iranian ambassador met with republican president Mukhu Aliev and with Prime Minister Shamil Zeinalov. Dagestan’s ministers of health and industry also attended the meeting, as did several managers of government organizations. During the talks Ansari declared Iran’s readiness to cooperate with Dagestan and pointed out the need for joint investment that would benefit both sides (IRNA, December 8).
The meetings reflected the particular interests Washington and Tehran have in the region. In Vladikavkaz, Burns met with the heads of various United Nations organizations and non-governmental organizations, including the UN High Commission on Refugees, the UN Development Program, the World Food Program, and others. The U.S. ambassador noted that international and non-governmental organizations that promote civil society and stability are essential to the development of the North Caucasus (see Chechnya Weekly, December 7).
Ansari visited Makhachkala’s Caspian Sea port, calling upon his listeners to work with Russia to protect the Caspian ecological system, and he expressed Tehran’s interest in increasing commodity circulation between Makhachkala and Iranian ports (Rossiiskaya gazeta, December 11).
Both ambassadors paid special attention to local universities and other venues for spreading the cultural and political influence of their countries in the North Caucasus. Burns met with students, faculty, and alumni of the U.S.-sponsored exchange programs at Kabardino-Balkaria State University, while Ansari visited the Iranian Studies Center at Dagestan State University as well as Shiite mosques in Makhachkala and Derbent.
There is no doubt that the Russian authorities coordinated these two visits. The North Caucasus remains the Kremlin’s most painful issue, and foreign diplomats in Russia are usually very cautious when dealing with this topic. The Russian side likely initiated these visits, but analysts are divided on why. Although there have not been any major rebel raids in the Caucasus in 2006, the Kremlin continues to face severe economic and security problems in its effort to control the region.
Despite great efforts by Russian security officials and Russian government attempts to stimulate the local economy, the Caucasian insurgency continues to cause the Russian security and military apparatus severe difficulties. The guerilla war continues in Chechnya, while acts of violence are becoming more frequent in Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, North Ossetia, and Dagestan.
The Russian authorities apparently hope to change their fortune with help from the international community, especially the United States and Iran. Moreover, the Kremlin not only needs economic and humanitarian assistance, it also needs a new set of belief. The Russian authorities want to confront the North Caucasus rebels on the ideological front by seeking to Westernize Caucasian societies. However, the Kremlin understands that the Westernization tactics will only work in the regions that do not have deep roots in Islam, such as Kabardino-Balkaria or North Ossetia. The Russian authorities need U.S. assistance in the North Caucasus, where the Kremlin believes further Islamization of the local population should be stopped, particularly in the western portion of the region.
In the eastern portion of the North Caucasus, where republics like Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan have very strong Islamic traditions, it is unlikely that the United States could help Russia enact ideological changes. Rather, the Russian government would like to promote branches of Islam that are regarded as less dangerous, such as Sufi Islam and Shiism. Shiism has some followers in the south of Dagestan, mostly in Derbent city, but the Kremlin hopes to spread its influence among the Caucasian Muslims with the help of Iran, which is the world center of Shiism.
On paper, a troika consisting of Russia, the United States, and Iran could function in the North Caucasus. At the moment all sides seem keen to cooperate in the region. “I am convinced that we have much to gain by working together,” Burns told residents of Kabardino-Balkaria. At the same time Ansari told the Dagestani president, “If in comparison with other parts of Russia, Dagestan and Iran are united not only by the common borders, but also by a common culture, this creates a good basis for good-neighborly cooperation (RIA-Dagestan, December 7).
The number of English-language schools in Kabardino-Balkaria and Shiite madrassas in Dagestan may very well soon increase as the Kremlin uses Iran as its proxy to lessen the appeal of Sunni Islam in the North Caucasus.