Year 2020 in Review: Pandemic Exacerbated Problems Across North Caucasus and Set Stage for More Conflict

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 2

(Source: OC Media)

As almost everywhere else, the coronavirus pandemic overshadowed and affected everything across the North Caucasus during the last year. Due to its direct impact on the population (see EDM, April 2, 2020), officials exploited the disease to tighten control and hide problems like abuse of power and torture even as they cut subsidies (see EDM, May 6, 2020; Kavkazsky Uzel, June 26, 2020). At the same time, ethnic and religious groups were forced to shift from face-to-face relations to the internet. Taken together, this modern plague set in motion forces, including protests and riots (see EDM, April 30, 2020), that make it likely there will be even more conflicts over the coming year in what has long been the most ethnically and religiously unstable region of the Russian Federation.

Indeed, Aslan Bakov, a prominent political analyst from Kabardino-Balkaria, argues that the coronavirus pandemic and the Russian government’s response have exacerbated all preexisting social and economic problems in the region and thereby created “ideal conditions for a social explosion.” This new conflagration, he suggests, will involve traditional social organizations like teips and Islamic groups challenging Moscow’s representatives in each of the republics. And amidst this turmoil, many of the regional republics will end up disputing their existing borders, even if they do not engage in the kind of violence witnessed earlier (Caucasus Times, May 26, 2020; see EDM, May 20, 2020). The latter is especially likely in 2021 because none of the North Caucasus republics met Moscow’s deadline for demarcating those borders. In part that failure was caused by the pandemic, which upended previous planning and shifted the bulk of authorities’ focus to itself. But the lack of progress also stemmed from the intractability of those border disputes, especially between Chechnya and Ingushetia, on the one hand, and their neighbors, Dagestan and North Ossetia, on the other (Kavkazsky Uzel, January 3, 2021).

According to Bakov, the coming flareup of social tensions is made all the more likely by the fact that Moscow cut back its subsidies to regional governments, leaving them less able to buy off the population. By the same token, that decrease in financial outlays will mean those North Caucasus republican authorities will be less willing to cooperate with an increasingly stingy center even though many of the senior officials are ethnic Russians or other outsiders—a pattern that incidentally also strengthened over the last year (Klub Regionov, November 27, 2020;, July 11, 2019; see EDM, November 16, 2020). In 2020, Moscow went so far as to declare Ingushetia bankrupt and introduced direct rule over that republic’s financial operations (Novaya Gazeta, November 6, 2020). This approach could well extend to other fiscally struggling regions in the coming months (, November 4, 2020).

The increasingly tense situation has prompted Moscow to expand its military and security presence in the North Caucasus lest some republic government prove incapable of responding to emerging threats from below and outside (Kavkazsky Uzel, April 6, 2020 and January 2, 2021; Ekho Moskvy, January 2, 2021). To be sure, some of this military expansion in the region, just like the introduction of more high-level officials who originate from the Russian security services, reflects not only problems in the North Caucasus itself but also Moscow’s fears that instability in the South Caucasus may spread northward (Kavkazsky Uzel, December 25, 2020;, April 13, 2018; Caucasus Times, December 1, 2020).

Despite all these moves, however, there is a growing divergence between what Moscow and its representatives are doing and what the population and its most active elements think, feel and act. Moscow dragged its heels in combatting the coronavirus, especially in the North Caucasus; as a result, the population there suffered more deaths per capita than in any other part of Russia, and the economy plummeted so far that unemployment in many places rose above 40 percent (, October 2, 2020). Experts say the population in the North Caucasus bears some of the blame because its low level of trust in anyone beyond immediate family members prevented local people from taking adequate steps to protect themselves against the coronavirus (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 10, 2020). Nevertheless, the nations of the region are angry, and their anger is increasingly being channeled in two new ways.

First, given their rising distrust in the authorities, many in the North Caucasus republics are turning not to officials but to traditional social organizations, like Islamic structures and clan organizations such as teips, to address their problems. These groups are increasingly taking up the roles once held by local governments or civil society non-governmental organizations (NGO), which the authorities have largely suppressed; and they are largely operating outside of the view of the authorities. That trend is certain to continue in 2021 (Kavkazsky Uzel, Ekho Moskvy, January 2, 2021). Moreover, in many republics, women have assumed a new and more influential role (, August 4, 2020). Among the things such groups are organizing for is to remove local monuments to tsarist conquerors and, particularly in the case of the Circassians, to register in the delayed census a common national identity (, July 29, 2020;, March 16, 2020; Kavkazsky Uzel, June 30, 2020). The census will likely have another impact as well: It will show the North Caucasians increasing their share in the overall Russian population—more slowly than in the past but larger nonetheless.

Second, angered by official actions (or inactions) and physically constrained by the pandemic, ever more of the nations of the region have turned to the internet, which has linked them up to émigré communities that are frequently more radical than they are. The powers that be, especially in Chechnya and Ingushetia, have responded by blocking some websites, but so far with little effect. The online communities that have emerged are sure to be stronger in 2021 than they were last year (, February 6, 2020). One measure of their radicalization is that the number of police killed by local people rose dramatically in several republics (, October 14, 2020).

Feeding into these broad tectonic shifts have been a series of official actions that have further exacerbated local anger. Among the most important have been the following:

– the use of the pandemic by the authorities to restrict public activities rather than protect health (Ekho Moskvy, Kavkazsky Uzel, December 19, 2020;, December 20, 2020);

– their abuse of the court system to go after dissidents (, December 18, 2020;, December 7, 2020;, March 26, 2020);

– Moscow’s plans to carve out new types of federal territories in the North Caucasus, further undermining the republics as autonomous entities (, December 26, 2020;, December 27, 2020);

– additional limitations on the ability of non-ethnic-Russians to obtain an education or news in their native languages (, May 1, 2017);

– plans by Moscow to dispense with republican constitutional courts, institutions highly valued by the republics (, November 30, 2020);

– the Kremlin’s decision to abolish the Ministry of the North Caucasus and its constant changes in key personnel, something that has created both uncertainty and opportunities for ignoring official directives (, January 23, 2020);

– President Vladimir Putin’s constitutional amendments that, among other things, declare only Russians to be the “state-forming nation” of the country (, March 16, 2020);

– Russian calls for amalgamating Adygea with predominantly ethnic-Russian Stavropol Krai (, accessed January 5, 2021); and

– Moscow’s decision to spark competition between Kalmykia and Dagestan by funding a new port in the former to the detriment of the port and economy in the latter (see EDM, March 3, 2020).

Any of these—not to mention the likelihood of some black swan events—are certain to trigger conflicts in the region in 2021, possibly creating new opportunities for at least some of its peoples but certainly posing new problems for the Putin regime.