With Russia’s financial situation becoming more precarious, the country’s regions are likely to gain more power, according to the Russian economist Denis Sokolov. “If the year 2015 was the year of the zachistka (mop-up operation) against the regional elites, the year 2016 will become the year of political innovations for the North Caucasus,” Sokolov said (Rbc.ru, January 19).
Russian experts have long suspected the North Caucasian elites of disloyalty, with many saying that as long Moscow has the oil money and can afford to provide them with lavish subsidies then they will be happy to display loyalty, but when the Russian government runs out of money, the North Caucasus regional elites will likely revolt and seek secession. Now some Russian experts fear that the current economic downturn in the country may result in the rise of secessionist movements, especially, in the separatist-minded republics of the North Caucasus.
Experts and political figures regard the recent outburst of Chechnya’s governor, Ramzan Kadyrov, against the Russian opposition as an attempt to increase his political significance and independence. Although Kadyrov and his associates lashed out at the Russian opposition, which should supposedly make the Kremlin happy, Chechen authorities manifestly violated existing Russian laws. Even more telling is the fact that the Kremlin did not make an effort publicly to restrain him. Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalny accused Kadyrov of harboring plans for secession from Russia (Navalny.com, January 19). When Kadyrov rallied “one million supporters” in the republic of 1.3 million, Navalny filed an official complaint accusing the Chechen authorities of embezzlement, since government employees participated in the public protests during working hours at the request of the regional authorities (Navalny.com, January 22).
According to Denis Sokolov, however, Kadyrov’s statements are among the first “innovations” of the North Caucasian elites in response to the changing economic and political landscape in Russia. The expert writes that prior to 2014 Moscow always sided with the regional elites in their struggle against the opposition, but in 2014–2015, the Kremlin started to dismantle the regional strongmen, especially in the North Caucasus, where they were still in power. However, now that the Russian authorities have practically destroyed the regional political heavyweights, argues Sokolov, they will have to deal with the new rising social groups in the region. In Dagestan, for example, these groups include urban Muslims of the new generation who have recently moved from villages to the cities and constructed their identities and lives around Islam. In Sokolov’s words, the North Caucasus is facing its greatest political and economic turmoil since the end of the Soviet Union. The economy has already been badly hit. Approximately half of an average household income in Dagestan comes from government sources, according to the Russian economist. Economic sanctions against Turkey further undercut the local small businesses that had ties to that country. Sokolov predicts that the percentage of the shadow economy in the North Caucasus is likely to increase from the current estimated 50 percent to 80 percent in 2016 (Rbc.ru, January 19).
Even more importantly, the pressure of nascent Muslim institutions such as sharia courts will increase as the secular government institutions struggle. To illustrate his thesis, Sokolov writes that the local jamaat in the village of Tlokh in Dagestan’s Botlikh district repaired and relaunched a local medical facility. The local jamaat in the village of Tlondoda in Dagestan’s Tsumada district established a boarding school for 30 children. Pro-Russian and secularist individuals will be more likely to leave the North Caucasus for other Russian regions, further increasing the cultural and institutional gap between the region and the rest of the Russian Federation. The Russian security services will become directly involved in fighting large groups of Muslims in the region, instead of targeting relatively small, isolated groups, Sokolov writes. “This is a war for resources,” he points out. “Already now, some regional religious and ethnic groups are gearing up for the scenario ‘when the oil runs out’ [in Russia]” (Rbc.ru, January 19).
Indeed, the price of oil and the ruble exchange rate are popular topics of conversation in Russia and a source of concern among nearly all people in the country (Ekho Moskvy, January 23). It would be naive to think that regional political entrepreneurs are not aware of the fluctuations of the Russian currency and oil prices and do not make projections of what will happen next. Much will probably change in relations between the regional elites and Moscow after Putin’s departure from power at some point in the future. However, signs are emerging that changes are already taking place in the North Caucasus and they are set to accelerate regardless of the leadership changes in Russia. Chechnya’s Kadyrov has been one of the most vocal regional leaders in the North Caucasus and he is likely to be one of the first figures to signal Moscow’s weakening grip on the region.