The collapse of Askar Akayev’s regime in Kyrgyzstan, so similar to the events in Georgia or Ajaria, has reinvigorated the debates simmering in Moscow since the Orange Revolution in Kyiv: Is a revolution, preferably of a “velvet” kind, possible in Russia? Opinions are heavily on the “No” side, since the few liberal hopefuls are convincingly destroyed by a cohort of skeptical “realists” and condemned as “internal enemies” by an even better equipped legion of mainstream commentators and pro-Kremlin political “technologists” (Polit.ru, March 28, 30; Gazeta.ru, March 30). Putin definitely does not seem invincible anymore, but the margin of safety built into his regime remains anybody’s guess.
A theme that comes up only occasionally in these debates is that a revolution of sorts has already begun; it is quite violent but so far limited in scope, spreading across the North Caucasus like wildfire (Ezhednedelny zhurnal, March 17). Chechnya is not the cause but rather a catalyst of this smoldering rebellion, which has engulfed completely Dagestan and Ingushetia, and partially Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, while North Ossetia is often under attack from various directions. Daily news about a bridge exploding in Dagestan or a shoot-out in Ingushetia have become so common that they capture little attention even when they make it into newspapers or TV reports (Lenta.ru, March 29; EDM, April 1).
Earlier this year, several clashes with militant groups surrounded in Makhachkala, Dagestan, and Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, did make headlines, primarily due to indiscriminate use of heavy arms, including tanks, in city quarters (vip.lenta.ru, January 15; Ezhenedelny zhurnal, January 17). Public responses to these “victories” were rather mixed, so the Federation Council in late March approved changes in the Law on Defense that remove any restrictions on the use of armed forces in counter-terrorist operations (Novaya gazeta, March 28). Those restrictions had not prevented Russian President Vladimir Putin from deploying army units, but the President insists on tough and forceful counter-measures, which have to be legitimized.
When Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev proudly reported about the successes in the North Caucasus, Putin reprimanded him for using confusing terms like “jamaat” and ordered him to call the terrorists by their real name (Lenta.ru, February 21). This desire to simplify the complex reality is very typical but “jamaat” in fact stands not for a terrorist cell but for a grassroots religious organization that performs many social functions. As Yulia Latynina, one of the sharpest observers of brewing Caucasian instabilities, argues, the growth of these organizations is a direct response to the state’s inability to carry out its basic responsibilities (Ekho Moskvy, March 26). This reduction of the state presence to just enforcement of its arbitrary will and deep erosion of its authority are the natural results of the progressive degradation of corrupt regimes in these republics, resembling quite closely Akayev’s “family business” in Kyrgyzstan.
Putin has no strategy for checking this trend and his only pro-active step was the appointment of Dmitry Kozak, one of the few capable managers in the administration, as the presidential envoy in the Southern District (Ekspert, October 20, 2004). For the last half year, Kozak has been rushing from one hot spot to another, seeking to keep the state structures functioning primarily by securing additional transfers from the federal budget. He managed to defuse several dramatically explosive situations, for instance when the angry crowd stormed the government building in Cherkessk, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, seeking to depose President Mustafa Batdyev (Kommersant, November 12, 2004; EDM, November 10, 2004). His every success, however, has only pushed the problem deeper into the political underground, thus denying the rather incoherent central efforts any chance for gaining public support. As the meager results of the recent massive search-and-destroy operation in Karachaevo-Cherkessia have indicated, local authorities now prefer to find a way of coexisting with the “jamaats” rather than confronting them (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 14).
Putin continues to deny this discomforting reality and finds no problem with weak and corrupt republican bosses, providing they remain loyal. Meeting with Chechen president Alu Alkhanov in late March, he approved very considerately the plans for holding parliamentary elections in October as if these plans had not originated in the Kremlin (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 31). Elections have recently proved to be risky business, but Putin is confident that glitches might happen only in chaotic neighborhoods like Abkhazia, but inside the country his electoral machine delivers without fail.
It is indeed very convenient to ignore the alarm signals that every rigged election weakens rather then strengthens the authority of the federal center and the republican presidents who are entirely dependent upon it. The lesson from Ingushetia, where Murat Zyazikov was practically installed by Moscow through a crudely manipulated election and now can neither stop the spread of rebel networks nor deal with public discontent, has obviously not registered (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 29). It is not just a chain of localized conflicts that Moscow is facing in the North Caucasus; it is a more disturbing process of disintegration of the structures of governance.
If there is a color to this rising revolution it is probably green, since the violent but incorruptible Islamic “jamaats” are clearly gaining in moral authority. It is not a slow spillover of violence but rather the sheer political resonance from this march that threatens to destroy Putin’s “vertical power structure.” As yet, the Kremlin has not heard the political warning.