At the end of December and following Vladimir Putin’s premature declaration of victory in Syria (see EDM, December 14, 2017), Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) announced that the militant underground in the North Caucasus had been liquidated—a claim even less justified than the president’s pronouncement about Syria (Vz.ru, December 19, 2017). Over the following weeks, the conflict in the North Caucasus has continued. But although it is certainly true that the fight between the government and the anti-Moscow underground Islamist movement did not end, it is also the case that, during 2017, it was overshadowed by a variety of other developments in the region.
Official assertions that the conflict was over were contradicted not only by experts but by the actions of both the militants and the Russian forces. Indeed, the former have been attacking in places where they had not been active before, such as Stavropol and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, as well as in Dagestan, where the militancy has continued throughout the year. Meanwhile the latter imposed “counter-terrorism regimes” in more places in 2017 than they had earlier, albeit in many cases for shorter periods of time. Nonetheless, there is no reason to think that the militants have been defeated or that peace has come to the region (Kavkazsky Uzel, accessed January 9, 2018).
In fact, the authorities—both local and from Moscow—appear fearful that there will be an upsurge in violence now that several hundred North Caucasians who had gone to Iraq and Syria to fight have returned to their homelands. The authorities have arrested a large fraction of these people and set up special filtration programs for the others to try to prevent such an outcome. And in Dagestan, they have appointed military personnel to administrative positions normally occupied by civilians, an indication of particular concern (see EDM, October 13, 2017). Given that many of those who went to the Middle East to fight for Syria did so circuitously and without the knowledge of the authorities, it is likely that the ranks of the militants swelled at the end of 2017 and that these groups will make themselves known with acts of violence in the year to come.
Underlying these fears is recognition that the Putin government has failed to improve the economy in the region. Poverty has dramatically increased, and the government has failed to build needed infrastructure. Despite Moscow’s promises, many schools in Dagestan and across the region, for example, are still forced to operate two or even three shifts a day. Moreover, in many places, anger about social problems is being invested with ethnic meaning into a highly combustible mix.
For the North Caucasus as a whole, the most important event of the year was the replacement of Dagestan’s governor, Ramazan Abdulatipov, with Vladimir Vasiliyev, an outsider who pledged but has not yet acted on his promise to ignore ethnicity in making career appointments. Abdulatipov was forced to resign for a number of reasons: he had signally failed to suppress the militants, rein in corruption, or end the conflicts over land that increasingly spring up as the republic’s numerous ethnic groups change in relative size and therefore make demands for territorial adjustments in their regions (see EDM, November 14, 21, 2017).
Moscow clearly decided that only an outsider like Vasiliyev, who is of mixed Russian and Kazakh nationality and who has made his career primarily at the center, could bring about positive change. But there are two reasons why that strategy may not be working. On the one hand, the ethnic clans who have long run things in Dagestan are deeply entrenched, and any serious attack on them would plunge the republic into chaos, possibly blocking the key land route between Russia and Azerbaijan. (Long lines at border crossings between the two may in fact be the work of the ethnic clans.) And on the other, Vasiliyev’s appointment has spread fears in other republics across the region that they are going to have outsiders imposed on them, fears that are powering demands in several places for the restoration of the direct election of governors rather than their appointment by Moscow.
Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov remained outside of Moscow’s full control during 2017. Over the past year, he oppressed his subjects even more than Russians are elsewhere, dispatched his agents to attack those he does not like far beyond the borders of his republic, and staked out policy positions often at odds with and to the detriment of Moscow. He attracted most attention in 2017 for his attacks on members of the LGBT community there. On the one hand, he denied this group even existed in Chechnya; but on the other hand, his government created special re-education camps and looked the other way at murderous attacks on gay Chechen men. Moreover, Kadyrov demanded and extracted apologies both from those under his control and the Moscow media for attacks on Chechens he considered unacceptable—an Orwellian approach within the republic and one that has led other non-Russians there, including most recently the Kalmyks, to demand the same from the central media. That in turn has generated a Russian backlash, with nationalists demanding that the media not apologize for jokes about ethnic groups.
But despite these moves and other independent and hyperbolic statements, Kadyrov remains Putin’s man in the Caucasus, either because the Kremlin leader is happy to have him test the waters for even more repressive actions elsewhere or because Putin fears that ousting Kadyrov could restart a new and even broader Chechen war. Clearly, the North Caucasus is still a major threat to Russia more generally. Ever more Russians say that what has happened since Putin came to power has not been the restoration of Russian control over Chechnya but rather “the Chechenization of Russia.” These critics point to the enormous subsidies Moscow sends Grozny and other North Caucasus capitals in the hopes of buying their loyalty or at least their acquiescence to Russia’s continuing military operations there.
However, perhaps the most important development to come out of the North Caucasus this past year had little or nothing to do with the militants or with these local regimes. It came in the form of the strike by long-haul truckers against the Platon pay system. Drivers from Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia played a central role in this strike both in the spring and summer and again in December (see Commentaries, December 14, 2017). All this is a reminder that the North Caucasus is not just about Islamism and nationalism but also about poverty and the quest for justice—difficult issues that guarantee the year ahead is likely to be hotter and more uncomfortable for Moscow than the one just past.