Success Eludes the Presidential Envoy to the North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 122

President Medvedev (L) and Russian Envoy to the North Caucasus Aleksandr Khloponin (R)

Six months after Aleksandr Khloponin was appointed as the Russian president’s envoy to the specially created North Caucasus Federal District, it can be safely concluded that he has not brought anything new or particularly important to Russia’s troubled region. An attempt to shift Russia’s policy priorities in the North Caucasus from using coercive methods to solving social problems (http://actualcomment.ru/man/384/) has not yielded any tangible results. He has virtually turned into a bureaucrat who has to ingratiate himself with local leaders in order to save his own reputation, which means first of all the Chechen and Dagestani leaders. Incidentally, whether or not his mission is considered successful or not depends entirely on the gains he would make in those two Russian republics. But his major “achievement” so far is that he has failed to become an independent politician with the upper hand over a whole set of local leaders in the region whose management is entrusted to him.

At the very beginning of his career as special representative, however, he was sufficiently tough to make some Chechen politicians uneasy enough to force them to lash out against him in the press for ignoring their idol, Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. At one point it seemed that everything would soon be brought to the surface and the Russian government might no longer be able to conceal the antagonisms between the president’s representative and the Chechen leader (www.kavkazcenter.com, March 26). This type of standoff would indeed have had consequences if Khloponin had felt strong support from the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, and if the latter’s position had been aggressive enough to not allow the criticism of his protégé. Apparently, the president’s strong support for Khloponin had been one of the conditions prior to his appointment to that position. Khloponin, a famous Russian businessman who was far removed from the affairs of the Caucasus all his life, was supposed to become the North Caucasus leaders’ arbitrator.

Now the question is what did Aleksandr Khloponin pin his hopes on when he agreed to take over a region embroiled in an armed struggle? First of all, presumably, this was an opportunity for him to become a politician of national stature. Serving as the governor of the Krasnoyarsk region, albeit a vast and strategically important place, he had remained a very “local” politician. Even owning business fortunes could not make a big difference. Compared to that, governing the North Caucasus would elevate him to the ranks of important national politicians, as had been a tradition in Russia since the time of General Aleksei Yermolov, when Russia conquered the Caucasus in the first half of the nineteenth century. Second, after a successful career in Siberia as a businessman and governor, Khloponin could make a comparison between the two very different parts of Russia and try to rectify the situation in the North Caucasus using his Siberian experience. And third, he might well be used as a counterbalance to the influence of Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. It was obvious that during his first two-three months in the North Caucasus, Khloponin’s policy was quite different from what had been there before him: economic priorities now prevailed over power politics.

Months of pushing forward business plans have brought about the realization that now almost no one considers this region as “harmless,” contrary to the claims by representatives of Russia’s federal government in tandem with local leaders (www.vesti.ru, June 18). Of course, there always have been and will be those who would like to gain big business profits and are not afraid of risks. But they are a minority and their activities could hardly be called foreign capital investments. This is exactly what Khloponin has encountered. He has to persuade every single businessman and then provide them with state assurances against their risks. Building ski resorts worth 450 billion Russian rubles ($14.5 billion) in the restive region means nothing less than playing with astronomical sums (www.rbc.ru, June 18). Besides, the existing resorts have been almost empty over the course of the Chechen wars, and Russian distrust of the North Caucasus region only increased year after year. Today, those resorts are for those who are into extreme sports, not ordinary vacationers.

The local leaders’ desire to communicate with Russia’s central authorities, bypassing Khloponin, has been another, no less significant problem for him. The local leaders who have now become tied to the North Caucasus Federal District risk losing their shaky influence over their bureaucratic apparatus. They need direct support from Moscow, otherwise the struggle at the local level would turn into permanent squabbles for positions and influence between them and the Russian president’s representative. Moscow, thus, remains as a type of talisman for the local leader that obviates the necessity for him to fight for his place.

As far as the armed resistance movement is concerned, Khloponin has no say in solving this problem directly, since there have been two types of authorities in the region –one representing business and the other representing the security forces, the siloviki. The rebels have only intensified their activities since Khloponin came to office some six months ago. They have even struck the city of Stavropol, where Khloponin’s headquarters are temporarily located. Even the capture of Emir Magas has had no effect on the rebels’ actions in Ingushetia. The North Caucasus militants strike every day, without exception, in one or another part of the region. In Dagestan and Ingushetia, rebel attacks take place on a daily basis and sometimes several times daily, while in Chechnya and Kabardino-Balkaria there are weekly reports of either the siloviki engaging in special operations against rebel groups or, conversely, rebels assaulting the siloviki. Khloponin’s recent statement that the security environment in the region has fundamentally improved (RIA Novosti, June 18) does not hold substance since Kabardino-Balkaria, for instance, was a relatively peaceful place before his appointment but has seen a multiple increase in rebel activity over the past few months. Thus, it is unclear what kind of breakthrough has been made.

Khloponin’s announcement on June 19 that a unified Caucasus District might be created (www.news.km.ru, June 18) illustrates the determination of the Russian government to not continue playing with fire and to incorporate Adygea (populated by Circassians and remaining until now outside the North Caucasus Federal District) within the same administrative district, thereby bringing together all of the other North Caucasus republics. This could also mean that Russia’s entire Black Sea shore might be united with the North Caucasus republics. If the above plan is realized, then this would mark the first decisive victory for Circassian organizations protesting against the separation of Adygea from other Circassian lands included in the North Caucasus District.

If Khloponin’s role does not see any major change, he will merely remain an administrator with no prospect of becoming a true Russian statesman; and, worse than that, he will risk squandering the credit he managed to secure for himself when he served as governor of Krasnoyarsk.