On April 13 the Civic Chamber of Russia held preliminary hearings on its previous visits to Dagestan, Ingushetia, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and North Ossetia. Journalist Maxim Shevchenko, who is considered to be a Russian government loyalist, led the effort of the government-sponsored Civic Chamber to receive feedback from the North Caucasus and spread the vision Moscow has for the region. The project, which is called Peace to the Caucasus, is, according to some people Shevchenko quoted, “one of the last hopes of the [North] Caucasus for improvement of the situation [in the region].” The project started in October 2009 with a series of discussions and meetings in Dagestan; in the following months, visits were made to Ingushetia, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and North Ossetia (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 14).
The Civic Chamber of Russia was established in 2005 by the then President, Vladimir Putin, who appointed 42 of its members, who in their turn chose another 42 and both groups together further elected an additional 42 members to complete the formation of the 126 member chamber. Liberal observers noted at the creation of the chamber that it was an ill-conceived substitute for the democratically elected and functioning parliament with an unclear mandate. Indeed, after 2003 parliamentary elections in Putin’s Russia, the parliament as its speaker Boris Gryzlov famously noted became a place where “there is no space for discussions.”
“Peace to the Caucasus will contribute nothing, of course, in a practical sense, but it is good that such a project exists,” explained one of the chamber’s experts, Enver Kisriev, a sociologist from Dagestan. He added that the results of the discussion might be transmitted to the top leadership and then, if there is political will, results might follow. Kisriev said that law and order is needed in the North Caucasus, which would allow private initiatives of the local peoples to flourish. He warned that the Russian government had misperceptions about the region and had adopted a set of policies that made the situation worse.
Kisriev said that the Civic Chamber initiative “made a painful impression” because the it turned out to be not a civic organization that checks the government and generates proposals, but rather a filter for the people’s opinions, which are cleared, censored and eventually reach the authorities’ desks in a polished state. The chamber’s position excludes critiques of the government, which are banned in the North Caucasus anyway. Projects like Peace to the Caucasus serve as an additional barrier between the people and the government, which rids the authorities of tiresome problems, Kisriev concluded (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 14).
The Civic Chamber plans to visit Chechnya and Kabardino-Balkaria by the end of spring and then prepare a report with recommendations for the Russian government in Moscow. The chamber’s mission apparently substitutes not only the government authorities, first of all the legislative branch, but also the mass media. Under current conditions, in which elections are casually rigged with Moscow’s consent and encouragement and independent media is suppressed, it requires Moscow to send its envoys en masse to the North Caucasus to try to find out what the real situation is like in the region.
The same Maxim Shevchenko organized a conference in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria in November 2009. The experts who took part in the conference emphasized the lack of horizontal links between different regions of the North Caucasus and the rigidity of the administrative borders between them, which often resemble those between nation-states (www.gzt.ru, December 4, 2009).
Many of the participants complained that the Russian media habitually depicted the North Caucasus as a place inherently dangerous, unfriendly and alien. Perhaps to deal with this issue, the Russian president’s envoy in the region, Aleksandr Khloponin, came up with the idea of establishing a special federal TV channel that would cover the North Caucasus in a favorable light. Moscow may also have other considerations when Khloponin talks about the creation of such a TV channel. According to Khloponin, ideological penetration into the North Caucasus is already taking place. He cited, in particular, the First Caucasus TV channel, which broadcasts about the North Caucasus from Georgia and has run into problems with its French-transmitting satellite. “They outplay us, deceive us, impose false Islamic ideas on us that have nothing to do either with religion or with Islam,” Khloponin lamented (ITAR-TASS, April 17).
Georgian efforts to start broadcasting into the North Caucasus and allow North Caucasian activists, scientists and politicians to receive more publicity and support in Georgia seem to have moved Moscow also to turn to the softer ways of exercising its power. The talk about a TV channel and attempts to receive a genuine feedback from the people in the North Caucasus seem to be playing along those lines.
Meanwhile, the situation in the North Caucasus indicates few signs of improvement, as violence, abuse of power on the authorities’ side continue. On April 18, it became known, that seventeen people may have been unlawfully detained following a counter-terrorist operation in Kara-Tyube village in Dagestan that took place on April 15 (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 18).
As one of the former high-ranking Dagestani officials in Moscow, Ramazan Abdulatipov, stated: “Why isn’t the end of the Caucasian war [in the nineteenth century] celebrated in Russia? Because it is still going on.” According to Abdulatipov, people are killed in Dagestan and Ingushetia every day, something that should bring disgrace to both Russia and the Caucasians (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 5, 2009).