On March 13, Alexei Navalny, arguably the most popular Russian opposition figure, weighed in on the crisis surrounding the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Pointing to the fact that the Russian government does not allow the Russian people to hold referendums inside the country, Navalny asked readers of his blog to vote on the desirability of holding referendums on the status of Chechnya and of the North Caucasus. Warning against Moscow’s combative foreign policy direction, Navalny declared that if Russia proceeded with the referendum in Crimea, economic sanctions would cripple the country’s economy and expose it to similar referendums being held inside Russia itself. In an attempt to gauge his audience’s preferences, Navalny ran a poll on his blog. However, since asking Russian citizens about the secession of any of the country’s regions is now a criminal offense, he instead asked his audience if they would like to have a plebiscite on certain territories of interest. In response, 74 percent of his readers supported holding a referendum on whether Chechnya should be independent, while 67 supported holding a referendum on whether the entire North Caucasus should be independent (https://navalny.livejournal.com/914090.html).
In June 2013, when it was still legal to conduct polls on secession, the independent Levada Center found that only 10 percent of Russians supported the idea that Chechnya should be stopped from seceding from Russia by any available means, including military. The remaining respondents said they were either prepared to tolerate Chechnya’s secession (13 percent), would be unimpressed with its secession (27 percent), would be happy to see such a development (24 percent), or thought Chechnya had already de-facto seceded from Russia (12 percent). The rest were undecided (14 percent) (https://www.levada.ru/01-07-2013/otdelenie-chechni-i-severnyi-kavkaz).
The few Russian voices in opposition to Putin’s gamble in Crimea point out that Russia is itself highly vulnerable to referendums in some of its territories. These include not only the North Caucasus, which is considered the most secessionist-minded region by default, but also such ethnic-Russian-populated areas as the Kaliningrad enclave, the Far East region, Siberia, Tatarstan and other non-Russian regions along the Volga River. Moreover, the instability is now likely to spread across all the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), according to another Russian opposition leader, Vladimir Ryzhkov. In Ukraine, Russia showed that no one can rely on its agreements with other countries, and nearly all the CIS countries have some ethnic Russian population that might suddenly be in need of “protection” by Moscow. The first candidates after Ukraine for such protection are Belarus and Kazakhstan, according to Ryzhkov (https://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/putins-crimean-trap/496043.html).
Navalny, who is especially well-known for his anti-corruption crusade, also questioned the material benefits Moscow has promised to Crimea, noting ironically that every country of the world would agree to join Russian on these conditions. If Russia does not have enough money to send to Chechnya, Navalny warned, Kadyrov may also roll out his plan for a referendum on secession from Russia (https://navalny.livejournal.com/914090.html).
Earlier, Navalny organized the “Stop Feeding the Caucasus” campaign, which aimed to raise public awareness of the Russian government’s lavish spending on the North Caucasus. With Crimea onboard and international economic sanctions looming, Moscow will have substantially fewer resources to send to the North Caucasus in return for the local elites’ loyalty. In 2013, Moscow’s subsidies to the region—not including pensions, special developmental programs and other lines of support—equaled about $6 billion (https://im.kommersant.ru/ISSUES.PHOTO/DAILY/2014/040/_2014d040-04-01.jpg).
Reflecting the wartime hysteria in Russia, the authorities quickly moved to clamp down on freedom of information in the country, including the Internet. On March 13, the government banned Navalny’s account on the Live Journal platform (https://navalny.livejournal.com) and cracked down on several other Internet resources that had harshly criticized Moscow for its policies in Ukraine—the Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru and Ej.ru websites. The government ban said that “these websites contain calls for unlawful actions and participation in mass events that are held against the existing order” (https://rkn.gov.ru/news/rsoc/news24447.htm).
The North Caucasian leaders continue to support the Kremlin’s actions in Crimea, and have been collecting humanitarian aid for the Crimeans as if they are victims of war (https://ingushetia.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/239086/). They also organized public demonstrations under the mutually exclusive slogans of helping “the brotherly people of Ukraine” and “supporting Crimea’s right for self-determination” (https://www.riadagestan.ru/news/society/miting_v_podderzhku_zhiteley_kryma_proshel_v_makhachkale/, https://itar-tass.com/obschestvo/1045467).
In the long run, however, the situation is certain to change. Moscow’s promotion of territorial changes renders the existing borders in the post-Soviet space, including Russia’s own borders, increasingly fluid, as something that can be changed relatively easily. This is likely to make especially plausible the hopes of North Caucasians separatists to secede from Russia, particularly given the widespread condemnation of Moscow’s actions in Crimea by the West. Domestically, Moscow’s inability to provide the levels of financial support that local elites in the North Caucasus are used to will lower the costs of potential secession by the local elites. In order to mitigate this effect, Moscow will have to revert to ever greater use of crude force in the region.