The following political landscape piece is a part of Eurasia Daily Monitor’s special quarterly series of strategic assessments of developments across Eurasia. These pieces examine recent important developments and trends in the region, particularly since this past summer, and anticipate where those trend lines may lead over the coming months.
Recent trends in the North Caucasus indicate that low-level insurgency-related violence is likely to continue to plague the region despite regular triumphant statements of Russian officials. Within only one week, from October 3 to October 9, eighteen people were killed and four received injuries in insurgency-related violence in the four most violent republics of the North Caucasus—Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria (Yugsn.ru, October 10). Multiple other violent incidents happened across the region both before and after this deadly week.
Violence has spiraled even in the republics that had been relatively quiet in previous months, such as Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia. Two police officers were killed in Kabardino-Balkaria, and six suspected rebels were killed in Ingushetia. Some analysts have posited that the newly established Russian National Guard’s structures in the region may be looking for ways to boost their credentials by launching an aggressive counter-insurgency campaign in the North Caucasus (Onkavkaz.com, October 12). Others see the regional spike in violence being driven by the rising influence of the Islamic State (IS). A substantial number of North Caucasus militants have been exposed to the ideology and combat experience of the IS, and some of them have managed to return to the North Caucasus from the Middle East (Kavkazsky Uzel, October 26). At the same time, it is much harder now for North Caucasians to travel to Syria or Iraq, due to increased vigilance of government authorities. Moreover, the embattled Islamic State’s future in the Middle East is unclear. Hence, radicals are more and more staying home instead of traveling abroad, which presumably jeopardizes the general security situation in the North Caucasus.
The declining economy has been another important factor affecting the situation on the ground. North Caucasus republics receive over half of their budgetary funding from Moscow. Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan are especially dependent on the central government’s handouts. As Moscow’s coffers dry up, the government is limiting its spending even on politically sensitive areas, such as the North Caucasus. In one of the latest such moves, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated that Moscow’s program for the development of the North Caucasus in 2017 would be slashed by more than half from the initially planned $500 million to $200 million. Even this reduced program, however, may not be fulfilled, because of the government’s reliance on investments from the private sector (Kavkazsky Uzel, October 22). Russian businesses are in dire straits themselves and are unlikely to invest in infrastructural projects in the North Caucasus at this time. They were quite reluctant to do so even when the Russian economy was doing much better than now.
The worsening economy might have a dual, mutually reinforcing effect on rising tensions in the North Caucasus. On the one hand, higher poverty is likely to push some people toward greater radicalism. On the other hand, the elites will also have fewer incentives to invest their efforts into maintaining social order, especially as Moscow does not seem to be in a position to devolve power to the lower levels of government. Ramping up the Russian National Guard and continuing attacks on Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov indicate that powerful forces in Moscow want to crack down on the republics of the North Caucasus instead of giving them more economic and political autonomy.
Kadyrov has remained prominent in the Russian news, which is hardly incidental in Russia, where the government has almost unrestricted control over the media. After a martial arts contest in Grozny, in which Kadyrov’s underage sons participated in—and predictably won—the president of the Russian Federation of Martial Arts, Fyodor Yemelyanenko, spoke out against such competitions being held for children. Kadyrov’s associates lashed out at Yemelyanenko. Later, unknown individuals attacked and beat up Yemelyanenko’s daughter in Moscow (Lenta.ru, October 14). Yemelyanenko is also one of President Vladimir Putin’s protégés, along with Kadyrov. Hence, the outcome of the conflict between Chechnya’s governor and the head of the Russian martial arts’ association was unclear. The theme of Kadyrov versus Yemelyanenko dominated the Russian media for some time. The campaign had strong anti-Kadyrov overtones, which indicated that influential forces in Moscow are clearly acting against Chechnya’s governor. Earlier, in August, Kadyrov took part in a highly unusual emergency nighttime meeting with President Putin. Reportedly, Kadyrov was trying to negotiate the release of some high-profile Chechen racketeers, who had been intercepted in Moscow (Rusmonitor.com, August 27). Chechen racketeers with ties to the Chechen government habitually participated in various incidents with a great deal of impunity. However, the Russian security services have become increasingly irritated with their activities outside of Chechnya. The media campaign and occasional arrests of high-profile Chechens who are part of Ramzan Kadyrov’s inner circle indicate that the struggle between the camp of the Russian nationalist hawks in Moscow and the Chechen governor grinds on.
Kadyrov’s triumphant elections as the governor of Chechnya (he purportedly received 98 percent of the vote) did not deter the Russian security services from staging more attacks against him. In fact, the elections may have further angered them after Kadyrov appeared at his inaugural ceremony flanked by Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Khloponin and Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasian Federal District, Oleg Belaventsev (YouTube, October 6). Kadyrov became the only elected governor of a republic in the North Caucasus. All other republics “decided” to have their governors appointed by Moscow after strong pressure from the Kremlin. This gives Kadyrov greater apparent legitimacy than other governors. Moreover, an elected position may be perceived as a status booster in the informal hierarchy of the Russian bureaucracy.
September elections to the Russian State Duma proceeded without surprises in the North Caucasus. The elections were manifestly rigged, as usual, which is easy to see by looking at the turnout. Dagestani authorities claimed that 86 percent of voters turned out to cast their ballots. Chechen authorities claimed 95 percent voter turnout, and Karachaevo-Cherkessian authorities reported that 93 percent came out to vote. Other republics of the region also reported record-breaking rates of voter turnout and voting in favor of the ruling majority United Russia party (Eadaily.com, September 19). A relatively new development was the growing concern among Russian liberals that the Kremlin is using the North Caucasus republics to provide a comfortable majority for itself in the Russian parliament. Some analysts suggested that the North Caucasus now has the “casting vote” that allows the Kremlin to override the votes of the majority of the Russian regions, which on average report more truthful results, such as significantly lower turnout and fewer votes for the ruling United Russia party.
Russian attitudes toward the North Caucasus are in constant flux. Ramzan Kadyrov and his degree of autonomy from the Kremlin and Russian laws irritates many Russians. The irritation is carefully channeled by the Russian media and is likely being fueled by the Russian security services to keep the Chechen governor at bay for now—and eventually to perhaps oust him. More generally, the central government’s ability to finance the North Caucasus appear to be further declining, and Moscow is preparing procedures and structures such as the National Guard for keeping the region under its control when the money runs out. Without further subsidies, military force will remain the Russian government’s only remaining argument in favor of holding the region and the rest of the country together.