Virtually all the political talk in Moscow since the beginning of last week and, probably, for weeks to come, has been about the new appointments in the government and the presidential administration. It is indeed exciting to speculate about the declining influence of the siloviki led by Igor Sechin, now one of seven deputy prime ministers, and Nikolai Patrushev, appointed to the long-vacant post of Security Council Secretary; but the information about the mechanics of governance is still very scarce (Vedomosti, www.gazeta.ru, May 13; Novaya gazeta, May 15). The new nomenklatura has few doubts that nothing in the world is more important than their game of political musical chairs. There is, however, a region where overlapping crises threaten to get out of hand, and it is the same region that has generated a long sequence of the deadliest security challenges since the launch of the new Russian state project: the North Caucasus.
The current situation in this extremely diverse “zone of instability” is certainly very different from what it was eight years ago, when the Second Chechen war was in full swing, or four years ago, when Chechen president Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated in Grozny. The threat of Islamic fundamentalism has been successfully suppressed, and the risk of a raid by a group of terrorists targeting a hospital or a school is now extremely low. There is, nevertheless, a new quality to the regional instability driven by no less than four different but mutually reinforcing developments.
The first one is the escalating civil war in Ingushetia, a tiny republic neighboring Chechnya. The weekly news about assassinations and armed clashes there rarely make it to the pages and airwaves of the Moscow media (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 15). The thoroughly corrupt clique of President Murat Zyazikov, installed by the Kremlin in May 2002, has antagonized the majority of the population and proclaims every opponent as “terrorist” (www.newsru.com, May 1; Vremya novostei, February 11). The second development is the fading control over Chechnya or, more precisely, over its overlord Ramzan Kadyrov, who used the interregnum in Moscow to expel his last remaining antagonist Sulim Yamadaev and disband his Vostok battalion, which formally answered to the Defense Ministry (Novaya gazeta, April 21). Kadyrov Jr. was very useful to Moscow for enforcing a modicum of brutal order in Chechnya, but now he is much more of a liability, and a hugely expensive one, considering his treatment of the reconstruction funds as his ransom fee. The third avenue of instability goes toward Georgia but has many side roads inside Russia, so President Mikhail Saakashvili has good reasons to argue that any attempt to annex Abkhazia or South Ossetia “would inevitably have repercussions in the North Caucasus” (RIA-Novosti, May 8). The fourth development is of an entirely different character and involves large-scale preparations for hosting the 2014 Winter Olympic games in Sochi. This high-profile “national project” involves so much dirty fighting for unaccountable funds that Semyon Vainshtok, former head of Transneft, had to resign from the Oilmpstroi company leaving the colossal construction projects in the hands of local mafia (Ezhednevny zhurnal, April 24).
There is some awareness in the Kremlin of the new risks of crisis transformation in the North Caucasus, and the new two-headed court has started with the easiest task: replacing the ineffectual Stavropol Krai governor Aleksandr Chernogorov with Valery Gaevsky, who worked as a deputy to Minister for Regional Development Dmitri Kozak (Kommersant, May 17). Another appointment appears potentially more problematic: Vladimir Ustinov, former Justice Minister, became the presidential envoy in the Southern federal district, replacing Grigory Rapota, who was moved to the Volga district. For three years since autumn 2004, it was Dmitri Kozak who firmly and attentively managed every conflict in the Southern district, removing most corrupt leaders from Dagestan to Adygeya. His departure to Moscow in September 2007 noticeably weakened federal control. Kozak did not receive any promotion in the new government, as had been widely expected, but now Ustinov brings a very different management style to the North Caucasus. Some commentators expect that his prime interest will be in the multibillion ruble Olympic project, since he had started his career in Sochi (www.gazeta.ru, May 16). There is, however, another twist to this tale. During his term as Prosecutor General, Ustinov orchestrated the destruction of the Yukos oil company and the imprisonment of its owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, while developing close ties with Sechin and other siloviki who were behind this prosecution (The Sunday Times, May 18). Now Ustinov might build local alliances with the FSB and the military, which are hugely irritated by Kadyrov Jr. and seek to cut him down to size.
The peculiar feature of the local balance of political forces is that the military muscle in the North Caucasus has been seriously strengthened, and the deployment of the two mountain brigades in Dagestan and Karachaevo-Cherkessia adds more punch. At the same time, however, the military leadership in Moscow now includes a Commander-in-Chief who has no experience whatsoever, a Defense Minister who is dealing exclusively with the money flow, a Chief of the General Staff who has never commanded a regiment and is consumed by bureaucratic infighting, and a Secretary of the Security Council, who is the former head of the FSB. Nobody in this group has any idea about fighting local wars, and Medvedev’s first presidential visit to a missile division (where he did not cut a very convincing figure) only confirmed this deficiency (Kommersant, May 16).
Perhaps the last thing Medvedev wants to see in his first 100 days is a Caucasian war reverberating from Abkhazia to Dagestan. Power-holders in this region, however, know first hand that war is a continuation of politics and are very sensitive to the weakness of the experimental division of power in Moscow. Just because the Kremlin does not know how to control its own military does not mean that those local power holders would remain idle, since it does not make much sense for them to sit back and wait until the Medvedev-Putin tandem is ready. Medvedev may fancy himself to be Putin’s peer in bureaucratic intrigue but there is more to leadership than cadre reshuffling.