US Expert Community’s Cooperation With Russians Seen As Vital For Moscow’s Success In the North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 154

Igor Yurgens, director of the Institute of Contemporary Development (Source: Koerber-Stiftung)

On August 8, the well-known Russian pundits Igor Yurgens and Sergei Kulik published their assessment of the situation in the North Caucasus and the impact of external actors in the region. Yurgens and Kulik occupy top positions in the Institute of Contemporary Development, which is considered to be Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s think-tank (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 8). Although the precise amount of influence of Medvedev’s think-tank is hard to measure, the institute has unveiled several widely publicized reports about the current state and future of Russia. In the latest of them, published on July 27, Medvedev’s advisors warned about dire consequences Russia would face, if Medvedev “refused to take on the second presidential term” and therefore the current prime minister Vladimir Putin or one of his associates became the country’s president in 2012 (http://www.insor-russia.ru/ru/news/analytics/9405).
 
In contrast to the usual Russian suspicion toward foreign organizations and experts, Yurgens and Kulik in their article on the North Caucasus called on Russia’s expert community to establish links with the foreign expert communities, including non-profits. Russian experts especially stressed the need to engage the US community of North Caucasus experts. “Bearing in mind the US’s important role in the Caucasus, such an interaction appears to be important and essential,” the pundits wrote (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 8).
 
The Institute of Contemporary Development is considered to represent the liberal wing of top-tier Russian politics, like President Medvedev himself. Medvedev’s advisors try to avoid the routine explanation that hostile foreign influence is the cause of all of Russia’s problems in the North Caucasus. However, they also reiterate some of the anxieties Moscow has had about adversary foreign actors. Yurgens and Kulikov point out three main points that US and Western experts and policymakers in general make when assessing the North Caucasus. First, the Russian experts concede that human rights issues in the North Caucasus are not a hollow thing for US experts and politicians. Second, American experts are concerned about weakening Russian control over the volatile North Caucasus, according to Yurgens and Kulik. Third, Americans regard contemporary Russian policies in the North Caucasus through the prism of the Cold War, equating the Chechens’ struggle with the efforts of the Baltic States to secede from the USSR (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 8).
 
If Moscow wants to modernize the country, it needs to pay increasingly more attention to human rights in Russia. In fact, the Russian government has repeatedly stated its commitment to protect human rights. It is hard to understand why observance of human rights becomes problematic for the Russian government and a large part of the expert community when it comes to the North Caucasus. It must be said that not only American experts, but also many Russian experts discern a combination of Soviet and imperial Russian policies in Moscow’s approach toward the region.
 
President Medvedev’s advisors acknowledge the importance of the coalition forces preventing the spread of radical Islamism from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the North Caucasus. They point to a little known radical organization, Jamaat Bulgar, a mainly Russian Tatar militant group that reportedly operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. The Russian experts fear that after coalition forces leave Afghanistan, this organization, along with others, might target Russia, especially since they say so in their program (http://www.globalterroralert.com/images/documents/pdf/0410/flashpoint_jamaatbulgaraboutus.pdf). Jamaat Bulgar is interesting because of its inconsistencies. It has stated that its main aim is to fight Russia, but they somehow decided to fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They used to have a website in the Russian Internet space, even though it was quite obvious that Russian security services quickly put an end to any separatist or Islamist Internet resources that use Russian web hosting.
 
Experts from the pro-Medvedev think-tank have warned about a new kind of threat that has recently appeared on the horizon – namely, that the recent revolutions in the Middle East might contribute to destabilizing the North Caucasus, with more Muslim radicals arriving in the region. At the same time, the report concedes that regional players like Iran and Turkey are not likely to pursue an active role the North Caucasus (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 8).
 
What are perhaps Yurgens’ and Kulik’s greatest phobias were unveiled in their relatively lengthy assessment of Georgia’s new proactive approach to the North Caucasus. “Figuratively speaking, official Tbilisi is the stage on which various activities concerning the North Caucasus problems are rehearsed and performed,” they wrote (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 8). Medvedev’s experts clearly point to the conferences organized by The Jamestown Foundation in Tbilisi in 2010, in cooperation with Ilia State University, on the grievances of the Circassians and other North Caucasian peoples. Medvedev’s experts emphasized the importance of the Circassian diaspora and the issue of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014, which has galvanized the Circassians worldwide. The Russian experts, however, failed to acknowledge any legitimacy behind Circassians’ claims about mistreatment by the Russian state and compensation entitlement.
 
According to Yurgens and Kulik, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are “especially sensitive to the signals from America.” So the US decision to place the Caucasus Emirate on the list of terrorist organizations and then announcing a reward for information leading to the capture of its leader, Doku Umarov, is a warning to Europeans against supporting the insurgents in the North Caucasus. Also, according to Medvedev’s advisors, Washington is not “enthusiastic” about supporting North Caucasus nationalists (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, August 8).
 
The message of the pro-Medvedev advisors appears to be fairly straightforward and not entirely new. They assume that all important foreign actors pay special attention to the official US position and therefore they suggest co-opting the US expert community in order to neutralize any significant foreign criticism of Moscow’s actions in the North Caucasus.