Ethnic Russians continue to leave the North Caucasus—albeit at a slower rate than in the 1990s—but it is an indication of just how far things have gone there. “About a third of the ethnic Russian population still [in the North Caucasus] would like to leave, while only 10 percent” of the non-Russians, whose migration to Moscow and other cities has so troubled many Slavic Russians, say they want to leave their homelands (www.km.ru/v-rossii/2012/10/22/vnutrennyaya-politika-v-rossii/695497-russkikh-pytayutsya-vnov-zamanit-na-kavkaz).
This continuing exodus, in and of itself, highlights three important realities. First and foremost, it recapitulates what happened at the end of Soviet times when many ethnic Russians left the non-Russian union republics, contributing to the ethnic homogenization of the latter as well as making nationalism a more viable political strategy and political independence more likely.
Second, because Russians like many other peoples are impressed by numbers, these figures not only point out the lie of President Vladimir Putin’s claim that the situation in the North Caucasus under his watch has stabilized, but suggest that the trend is actually heading in just the opposite direction whatever positive upticks that the Kremlin may point to. Rather, the departure of the Russians, a negative development from Moscow’s point of view, has exactly the opposite impact on the indigenous populations of the North Caucasus.
And third, the continuing Russian withdrawal and the instability it will inevitably entail are certain to force the international community to revisit the issue of whether the 2014 Winter Olympic Games should be held in Sochi. Putin has made that celebration a centerpiece of his presidency, and many governments are reluctant to challenge him on this. But the Russian figures mean that Moscow is going to find it far harder to guarantee security for the Games and that there is going to be ever more pressure on the International Olympic Committee to shift the competition out of Sochi if not out of the Russian Federation as a whole.
Between the 2002 and 2010 Russian censuses, all the non-Russian republics with the exception of Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria showed significant growth despite outmigration, but the ethnic Russian populations in the regions of the North Caucasus Federal District fell by 1.1 to 2.5 percent, a figure that understates the actual decline for three reasons. First, these are official figures and thus have been manipulated by elites both in the region and in Moscow. Second, the ethnic Russian numbers include members of the Russian armed forces serving there as well as their families. And third, the declines over the last decade are remarkable because they come on the heels of an almost total “exodus” of ethnic Russians from many places in the North Caucasus.
For example, more than 300,000 non-Chechens left Chechnya before 2000, but still many of those remaining left after that time. Indeed, already in 2002, ethnic Russians formed no more than four percent of the population in Chechnya. Elsewhere, the ethnic Russian presence ranged from under five percent in Dagestan to 23 to 33 percent in Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia and Karachaevo-Cherkessia.
According to new surveys, 31 percent of ethnic Russian residents in Kabardino-Balkaria’s capital of Nalchik would like to move to another region in Russia; among the Kabardinians and Balkars, only nine percent do. In the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz, the analogous figures are 17 percent and nine percent, respectively; in the Adygeyan capital of Maykop, 28 percent and one percent. Many more Russians consider ethnic relations to be poor, with half of the Russians but only nine percent of the Ingush complaining of inter-ethnic tensions in Ingushetia as a whole. And many more Russians say they experience discrimination across the region (www.km.ru/v-rossii/2012/10/22/vnutrennyaya-politika-v-rossii/695497-russkikh-pytayutsya-vnov-zamanit-na-kavkaz).
Ivan Gladilin of KM.ru says that all this makes clear that “the Russian exodus from the North Caucasus has not been stopped,” despite the halting efforts of republic leaders who recognize the departure of Russians as a threat to themselves. Now Moscow, at the behest of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is getting involved. But plans, outlined by North Caucasus Presidential Plenipotentiary Aleksandr Khloponin, to use the Russian government’s control of various economic sectors as “one of the important levers for attracting a Russian-speaking population” to the region are likely to backfire (www.km.ru/v-rossii/2012/10/22/vnutrennyaya-politika-v-rossii/695497-russkikh-pytayutsya-vnov-zamanit-na-kavkaz).
Few Russians are likely to take up any offer given the experiences of those who have already left or want to do so, Gladilin continues, unless two things happen. First, “it is necessary to create conditions for their [ethnic Russians’] full equality with the titular nation” and second “in practice to ensure the enforcement of the laws of the Russian Federation in the Caucasus.” But then he asks rhetorically, “who of the local nations would voluntarily agree to give up its privileged position?” Consequently, the outflow of ethnic Russians and the resulting homogenization of non-Russian areas will continue, further undermining Moscow’s position there as well as the chance that any ethnic Russians will remain in the future.