On December 15, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin held his now traditional annual phone-in press conference. During the phone-in, Putin mentioned the North Caucasus 21 times. It appeared that the Prime Minister still credits himself for bringing Chechnya back under Moscow’s control, as he mentioned the “war with terrorists” in the North Caucasus several times. Asked why he wanted to run for the Russian presidency again, the Prime Minister replied that he could not agree that the problem of strengthening the state has been fully resolved. “Yes, the most necessary things have been achieved – separatism and terrorism were suppressed,” he said. “But look at what is still going on in the [North] Caucasus, how people there are still suffering from all these occurrences” (https://premier.gov.ru/events/news/17409/, December 15).
Putin’s popularity soared after he launched and led the second war against Chechnya in 1999, which allowed him to easily win the presidential elections in 2000. The second war in Chechnya seems still to be an important point of reference for Vladimir Putin, although many Russians now appear to be more interested in cutting the North Caucasus off Russia’s budget than controlling the region.
One of the callers asked the Prime Minister a question that has been popular in the streets of Russian cities in recent months: “Perhaps it is time to stop feeding the Caucasus?” Putin attributed these Russian nationalist slogans to the fact that increasingly more North Caucasians migrate to ethnic Russian cities and do not fit well into their new environment, evoking paroxysms of xenophobia among ethnic Russians. The Prime Minister stated that to avoid this cultural clash, Moscow needed to invest more in the North Caucasus to keep the locals inside the region and mitigate the insurgency problem. He portrayed Ramzan Kadyrov’s effort to reconstruct Chechnya as an exemplary experience that could be used elsewhere in the North Caucasus (https://premier.gov.ru/events/news/17409/, December 15).
Incidentally, on December 15, the government deported 400 Turkish construction workers from Chechnya. The official reason given was that the Turkish citizens’ visas had irregularities. However, local sources reported that the foreign construction workers had not received wages for several months and were practically held captive in Chechnya. This is the second scandal involving Turkish construction firms with wage payment arrears in recent months. In November, another Turkish construction firm ran into trouble with the Kadyrov government. The workers eventually managed to notify the Turkish government of their situation and the Chechen government ended up releasing them (https://chechnya.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/197753/, December 16).
During the phone-in program, Putin admitted that he personally crafted the awkward procedure of appointing Russian regional leaders, which replaced the direct elections of governors in 2004. He defended this move by raising the fear of separatists coming to power in the ethnically non-Russian regions in the country, primarily in the North Caucasus (https://premier.gov.ru/events/news/17409/, December 15). Once again, this is a striking example of how the colonialist nature of the relationship between Moscow and the North Caucasus places obstacles in the way of the democratic evolution of not only the North Caucasus, but in Russia proper.
One caller during the phone-in to Putin appeared to symbolize this when, describing himself as a Russian scholar from the city of Pyatigorsk in Stavropol region, complained to Putin about “provocative behavior” of the visitors “from nearby republics.” In response, Putin partially recognized this as an issue and promised to strengthen government control over population movements (https://premier.gov.ru/events/news/17409/, December 15). It is important to note that Stavropol is the only region of the North Caucasus Federal District that has a predominantly Russian-speaking population. Pyatigorsk is the seat of Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Aleksandr Khloponin. Moscow’s desire to hold on to the North Caucasus at any cost contrasts with the desire of Stavropol’s ethnic Russian population to keep the North Caucasians away from their region. While the Russian government would like to disperse North Caucasians across Russia and thereby resolve the separatism issue once and for all, ethnic Russians themselves do not seem ready for any additional influx of North Caucasians into their regions.
Meanwhile, on December 15, Khloponin met with Cossack organizations from Maisky and Prokhladnensky districts in the northeast of Kabardino-Balkaria. While Russian authorities usually portray the high fertility rates among North Caucasians as a negative factor leading to overpopulation of the region, at the meeting with the Cossacks Khloponin urged them to have “at least five children” per family. The Cossacks leaders reported that 3,000 Cossacks were ready to take up government service in the police and ministry for extreme situations. The Kabardino-Balkarian authorities vowed to provide more arable land for Cossack communities (https://kabardino-balkaria.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/197742/, December 16). The Cossacks were one of the primary tools of the Russian empire for keeping the native population of the North Caucasus under control after the Russian conquest of the region in the 19th century. More than 100 years later, Moscow appears to be preparing to revert to the tactics of its imperial past. However, in the modern age, Moscow’s support for the Cossacks at the expense of other segments of the population will result in growth of nationalism in the North Caucasus and in outright breaches of human rights.
While Putin’s phone-in press conference indicated his ambiguous approach to North Caucasus issues, perhaps the most striking feature of the Russian leader’s answers was that his approach to the region has not changed significantly over the past 12 years. It is still about fighting separatism, restricting political freedoms and the central state’s watchful patronage. This approach, however, while solving the problem of Chechnya in a way, created a new problem of much greater scale in the rest of the North Caucasus, or at least in Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria, where political violence rapidly expanded in the past several years. Using the same remedies that Putin used in previous years is likely to exacerbate the situation in the North Caucasus, and Russia’s prime minister seems unwilling to devise an alternate remedy for the spiraling violence.