The year 2020 was marked by a range of both long-continuing and entirely novel trends in the Northeast Caucasus. Insurgency violence simmered in the region albeit at a lower scale than in previous years. But at the same time, both international and domestic Russian scandals had surprising reverberations in this isolated corner of the Russian Federation. The novelties included the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, revelations about the government-sponsored poisoning program targeting dissidents, and Turkey’s growing position in the South Caucasus after the Azerbaijani-Armenian war over Karabakh.
As the year drew to a close, a small group of militants staged another attack in Chechnya. According to authorities, two brothers originating from Ingushetia stabbed to death one police officer and heavily wounded another in downtown Grozny on December 28. The suspects were quickly killed by government forces (Interfax, December 28, 2020). Public trust of Chechen officials is low, so in Ingushetia, relatives of the killed suspects demanded proof from the authorities that the deceased individuals were, indeed, involved in the attack. The families of the alleged militants and the killed police officer exchanged vows to take revenge on each other (Kavkazsky Uzel, January 1, 2021). Later, the Ingush side expressed its willingness to find a peaceful settlement with the Chechens (Kavkazsky Uzel, January 2, 2021). The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack but provided no actual evidence for its involvement (Kavkazsky Uzel, January 1, 2021). This marked the third such incident in Chechnya in a month: government forces previously killed three suspected militants in two separate incidents over the course of December 2020. In October, the police in the republic killed six suspects, also suffering the loss of three police officers’ lives (Kavkazsky Uzel, December 16, 2020).
Violence involving Chechens was not restricted to the territory of Chechnya or, indeed, to the territory of the Russian Federation. At least two critics of Chechen Governor Ramzan Kadyrov were killed in Europe in 2020, one in Austria and the other in France (see EDM, July 8, 2020). Still, Kadyrov lectured the French government on how it should handle its Muslim compatriots. Chechnya’s ruler even clashed with the Russian president’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, over the issue of French policies toward Muslims. The public exchange took place after an 18-year-old Moscow-born Chechen man beheaded a French history teacher in a town near Paris, in October 2020. The attack was retribution for the teacher showing the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to schoolchildren as part of the classroom curriculum. Kadyrov admonished French authorities for mistreating Muslims, while Peskov insisted that only the Russian president was allowed to make foreign policy statements (see EDM, November 4, 2020). The tensions highlighted the rift between Moscow and Grozny that is usually masked under the guise of the Chechen governor’s public fealty toward Vladimir Putin.
More points of contention might lie ahead for Moscow in the North Caucasus region. In particular, the scandal involving the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny by the security services might have unexpected consequences for the Kremlin in the country’s southwestern tip. A team of investigators from Bellingcat recently published the data on the travel of Federal Security Service (FSB) operatives and affiliated chemists who reportedly were involved in administering the Novichok nerve agent against Navalny (Twitter.com/christogrozev, Docs.google.com, December 31, 2020). The compiled information, which in some cases spans over a decade, suggests that certain members of the FSB’s poison squad had regularly traveled from Moscow to the North Caucasus—in particular, to Grozny, Makhachkala, Mineralnye Vody and Vladikavkaz. Some experts have already pointed out that the travel dates of two people on the list roughly coincide with the sudden death of popular journalist Timur Kuashev, 26, in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, in 2014. Authorities then said that they found a trace of injection on Kuashev’s body but could not identify the cause of death (Kavkazsky Uzel, August 15, 2014). Connections of the FSB’s poison squad to other mysterious deaths and illnesses among notable figures in the North Caucasus might be revealed later. Such revelations about the FSB’s poisoning program are likely to alert elites across the North Caucasus and result in a crisis of trust between Moscow and the local republics.
Pandemic-related public protests briefly propelled North Ossetia into the national news headlines in Russia. On April 20, 2020, residents of Vladikavkaz gathered at a public rally in Liberty Square, protesting against the “self-isolation regime.” The local police refused to disperse the crowds, and the authorities deployed forces from outside the republic. Dozens of protesters were detained (Mediazona, May 14, 2020). Meanwhile, Dagestan was so badly hit by COVID-19 that the regional authorities publicly asked Moscow for help (RBK, May 28, 2020). Perhaps, partly due to the poor handling of the health crisis, the governor of the republic, Vladimir Vasiliev, stepped down in October 2020 and was replaced by Colonel General Sergei Melikov. Vasiliev became the fourth governor of Dagestan in a row who did not serve out his full five-year gubernatorial term. This fact hardly signifies success in Moscow’s policy toward the region.
When Azerbaijan fought to regain control over Karabakh, Chechen Healthcare Minister Elkhan Suleymanov unexpectedly expressed his public support for Baku (see EDM, October 5, 2020). This came as a surprise since Chechen officials (other than Kadyrov) usually avoid making statements that might irritate the Kremlin. Russia posed as an ally to Armenia, although with some reservations during the autumn clashes. Turkey supported Azerbaijan in the dispute. Independent Russian commentators now say that Ankara vastly increased its influence in the South Caucasus and especially in Azerbaijan. This might have consequences for the Northeast Caucasus, too, as some commentators note. Chechens, including Ramzan Kadyrov, have a favorable view of both Azerbaijan and Turkey.
The economic crisis and pandemic are likely to hit the North Caucasus particularly hard due to its dependence on the strained Russian budget. And muted uncertainty about the future of Vladimir Putin’s presidency is bound to aggravate existing cleavages in Russia as well as set the stage for changes in peripheral regions (see EDM, December 2, 2020). The economic crisis, revelations surrounding a shadowy state-led poisoning program targeting dissidents, the appearance of a strong external challenger in the South Caucasus, the ambitious and mercurial strongman in Grozny, as well as instability in the Kremlin together make for a volatile combination that can be expected to drive further turmoil in the Northeast Caucasus in 2021.