In an interview with the newspaper Kommersant published on January 11, the deputy prosecutor general of Russia, Ivan Sydoruk, admitted that despite some successes in countering rebel activities in the North Caucasus, the government still faced serious challenges in the region. Sydoruk blamed the continuing instability in the North Caucasus on the poor economic situation, as the official number of unemployed in the region exceeds 270,000 people and the real figure may be significantly higher. Sydoruk also stated that Islam’s predominance in the region made it inherently easier for the insurgents to recruit followers among the local population. Over 40 rebels surrendered to the commissions for adaptation of former militants in the North Caucasian republics, according to Sydoruk. However, he conceded that “most of them were not actual militants, but militant accomplices.” Sydoruk did not recognize that law enforcement agents had been involved in kidnappings in the region, an accusation that has been voiced by human rights organizations on numerous occasions (https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2102663?isSearch=True). Last February, even the head of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, stated that some kidnappings in his republic had been carried out by the law enforcement agents (https://www.gazeta.ru/news/lenta/2012/02/19/n_2210309.shtml).
Blaming the insurgency in the North Caucasus on economic circumstances has become commonplace in the Russian media and among Russian officials. However, when comparing the material wellbeing of the North Caucasian population to the population in the South Caucasus, it becomes evident that people in the South Caucasus often are less affluent than people in the North Caucasus, yet one does not observe much insurgent activity south of the Russian border. This simple comparison indicates that the nature of the conflict in the North Caucasus is not only about economic wellbeing, although that may also play a role, but about broader political issues, such as the exclusion of the population from political life and stripping it of its rights. Sydoruk admitted, however, that the government was losing the “propaganda war” to the insurgents, but held other government agencies responsible for that.
In 2012, Moscow appears to have continued its strategy of consolidating control over the North Caucasus by building up its military and police forces in the region. According to rough estimates by analysts at the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, in the past three to four years nearly one quarter of the Russian military budget was spent on the militarization of the North Caucasus and the adjacent areas. In 2012, ahead of all of Russia’s other military districts, the Southern Military District upgraded its equipment. According to the government’s military spending plans, nearly $30 billion will be disbursed for military and security improvements in the Southern Military District, which is more than ten times greater than the government funds allotted for the economic development of the North Caucasus (https://www.ng.ru/regions/2012-12-29/5_utopiya.html). The importance that the Russian military places on the North Caucasus region was emphasized in an interview given by the commander of Russia’s airborne forces, Vladimir Shamanov, who called the Kavkaz-2012 military exercises that took place in the North Caucasus in September 2012 “the primary event of the year” (https://nvo.ng.ru/realty/2012-12-28/1_vdv.html).
While much attention has been devoted to the armed North Caucasian resistance, relatively little has been written about other response strategies on the part of the North Caucasians. One of the widespread responses was simply leaving the region and the country. Belarusian border guards reported an increase in natives of the Caucasus who try to cross into Poland via Belarus illegally. According to the Belarusian authorities, over 20,000 North Caucasians crossed from Belarus into Poland in 2012, half of whom were turned back by the Polish authorities. Belarusian officials said that North Caucasians predominately traveled to Poland to seek asylum there (https://www.ng.ru/cis/2013-01-17/6_belorussia.html). Belarus is only one ground transportation hub for the North Caucasians: there is also Ukraine, which borders several EU countries. Air transportation provides yet another option for emigration. So the total number of North Caucasians trying to leave Russia may be fairly high relative to the region’s population.
In addition, North Caucasians also move to other parts of Russia. Like many other Russians, North Caucasians often choose to move to Moscow and other big Russian cities, where the majority of job opportunities are located. Roman Silantyev, a tireless critic of the spread of Islam in the Russian Federation, points to what he calls the “Wahhabization” of the Asian part of Russia and Russia’s north, where the country extracts the bulk of its oil and gas. According to Silantyev, migrants from Dagestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya, as well as Uzbeks, Tajiks, and now also Ukrainian and Russian Muslims, settle in areas where primary commodities are extracted. Russian analysts appear to be anxious about the possibility of Muslim groups attacking strategically important parts of the infrastructure in these areas, although they have provided little evidence to justify those concerns. Still, in response to these worries, Yamalo-Nentsk Autonomous Oblast in the north of the country reportedly started to “shut off the key cities with special entrance rules,” a practice that Silantyev hopes will spread to other areas (https://religion.ng.ru/problems/2012-12-19/4_ekstremisty.html). The paradox of shielding certain areas of Russia from other citizens of the country does not seem to be a problem for Roman Silantyev.
The Russian authorities’ heavy reliance on the military and police in the North Caucasus and on creating a hostile regime for North Caucasians outside of their home region demonstrates the weakness of the Russian state, not its strength. It appears that Russia lacks either the will or the capacity to integrate one of its regions into the country. Military force is a poor substitute for civic courage and political reforms, which appear to be in short supply in contemporary Russia.