On March 1, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made an unannounced brisk visit to the North Caucasus. In the North Ossetian town of Beslan, Putin met the head of North Ossetia, Taimuraz Mamsurov, and in the capital of Ingushetia, Magas, he held a longer meeting with Ingushetia’s President Yunus-bek Yevkurov and other local officials (RIA Novosti, www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 1).
The proximity in time between Putin’s visit to North Ossetia and Ingushetia and Medvedev’s visit to Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia on February 27 is striking. Putin, while he was president of Russia and even before that, was not known for a willingness to visit the region during its multiple periods of crisis, like the Beslan school hostage crisis in 2004, political assassinations or massive bomb explosions. The Russian government’s current focus on the North Caucasus might be explained by an increased awareness of the problems that Moscow faces in this region, including political instability, the growth of separatism and the rise of militant Islam. President Medvedev, in particular, stated on February 27 that the entire Russian government had to be involved in resolving the problems of the North Caucasus, not just the presidential envoy to the region, Aleksandr Khloponin.
It is more likely, however, that these series of high-profile visits to the North Caucasus might indicate growing competition between the teams of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin over influence on Russian policies in the region. Despite its small footprint in the economic life of the Russian Federation, the North Caucasus remains a very important region in political terms, because of the terrorist threat and propensity for separatism. If Medvedev were to challenge the authority of Putin, Russia’s strongman, he would likely choose the North Caucasus for political maneuvers –first of all, because Putin’s political career is intimately linked to the North Caucasus, as he made his name during the second Chechen war; secondly, because Moscow’s brutal policies of suppression, frequently criticized by rights activists, failed to bring about stability in the region, but rather antagonized larger layers of the local societies. The struggle over the North Caucasus may be part of a wider phenomenon of the growing disillusionment of the country’s elites with Putin’s leadership and an attempt to find an alternative, as Anders Aslund described in an op-ed piece published in the Washington Post on February 26.
Medvedev and Putin delivered slightly different messages during their recent visits. While Medvedev emphasized the need to advance the economic development of the North Caucasus and reforms in order to successfully fight extremism, Putin talked about fighting corruption and allotting funds to help solve the problems of the region. In addition to Aleksandr Khloponin, who is simultaneously the president’s envoy in the North Caucasus and a deputy prime minister, Putin was accompanied by Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Aleksandr Bortnikov and Regional Development Minister Viktor Basargin on his trip to Ingushetia.
The stealthy character of the top officials’ visits to the North Caucasus is a sign of the security risks in the region. The night before Putin’s visit, two attacks involving grenade launchers were reported in Ingushetia, and on the evening of his visit, a policeman was injured when his car was targeted with an explosive device (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 1).
Putin promised the government would allot $1.4 billion additionally for Ingushetia’s development from 2010 to 2016. However, only $70 million of the sum is destined to make it to Ingushetia this year and more is promised in the future (ITAR-TASS, March 1). This probably indicates that rather than being a sure decision, the promised $1.4 billion for Ingushetia is contingent on favorable conditions in the Russian economy. Putin touched a sensitive political nerve in Ingushetia when he was quoted as saying that Ingush refugees from the Prigorodny district of neighboring North Ossetia remaining since the 1992 conflict over the disputed territory should return home.
Meanwhile, the head of the newly-created North Caucasus Federal District, Aleksandr Khloponin, provided sketches of the plans for the transformation of the region. During his visit to North Ossetia on February 23-25, Khloponin outlined four prospective sectors in the North Caucasus that Moscow is likely to fund –energy generation projects, tourism-related projects, agriculture and education/innovation. According to Khloponin, in order to boost the economic development of the region, large investment projects are needed. Oleg Deripaska, one of the most well-known Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin, promised to build a network of modern airports in the North Caucasus to facilitate the development of tourism. To attract investors, Khloponin offered to introduce a special taxation regime in the North Caucasus. But experts expressed skepticism over the “too traditional approach” of the presidential envoy, pointing out at the need to decrease the unemployment rate first of all (Kommersant, February 24-25).
Because of the traditionally high birth rates in the North Caucasus, many Russian observers consider it impossible to provide enough employment opportunities for the region without relocating some of its population to other regions of Russia. However, any mass relocation project would be met with strong opposition. After one such project to resettle unemployed Ingush families in the Siberian regions was offered in Ingushetia in the fall of 2009, the local opposition and civil sector fiercely criticized the government.
Khloponin promised to come up with a comprehensive strategy for North Caucasus development by June 2010. The plan should include detailed projects and programs for the modernization of the region. Khloponin also tried to sound upbeat about the deteriorating situation in the North Caucasus. When a North Ossetian official complained about the economic crisis, Khloponin responded: “What crisis? Only federal subsidies decreased for you. Forget about crisis, there is no crisis in the republics” (Kommersant, February 25). Yet he had to admit that the economic downturn had put a strain on the accessibility of investment funds (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 25).