21.11.2005
North Caucasian Map of Threats
№4 2005 October/December

 

Recently
there has been an increase in reports that a threat has
materialized within
Russia’s current borders,
that is, a threat inferring the possibility of territorial losses.
High-ranking officials are using this thesis as an argument for
convincing the so-called ‘healthy forces of society’ to cooperate
with the powers that be. This catchy and intimidating metaphor –
devised by individuals who must care for the country’s national
security and integrity by virtue of their occupational duty – can
actually become a reality, as happened fourteen years ago during
the disintegration of the
Soviet Union.

 

The
North Caucasus is often cited as the most problematic region, a
statement that includes the possibility of territorial losses.
However, although the localization of the threat is quite precise,
attempts to comprehensively analyze the situation on the southern
flank of European Russia are rather inadequate. In the meantime, it
is clear that the sweeping economic depression in the Caucasian
territories (all survive by subsidies of the federal government,
have skyrocketing unemployment, a crisis-stricken industrial sector
and earnings that fall behind the rest of Russia by dozens of
percent) has caused a rapid process of latent separation: the
population is developing a steady estrangement from the state and
the country while simulating superficial loyalty to it.

 

Thus, the
social and political fabric of Russian statehood is degrading while
a kind of parallel social, political and legal structure is taking
shape. This structure exists within Russia formally but it is de
facto independent from the country’s political and social
institutions. The governmental system in the Caucasus is
inefficient and falls short of current challenges. The regional
power elites are going through a crisis of legitimacy, which
isolates them from the masses of the population that holds them in
total disrepute. The situation rules out efficacious government and
frustrates the political, economic and legislative relations
between those territories and the federal center.

 

The
informational isolation of the regions from the center – which
resulted through no small contribution by the local elites – puts
the federal and regional authorities worlds apart in terms of
thinking and action. The center and its “field command,” in the
form of the Office of President Putin’s Plenipotentiary
Representative in the Southern Federal District, based in
Rostov-on-Don, do not have full information on the ongoing
developments. Quite often their decisions lag many steps behind the
dynamically changing situation. On the face of it, pure
procrastination aggravates the risks from week to
week.

 

The
regional authorities are corrupt, shackled by clan interests and
often simply incompetent. As a consequence, Russia is compelled to
defend its interests in the Caucasus, while resorting to
unacceptable methods and instruments. This situation has led to the
rapid emergence of a ‘gray zone’ along Russia’s southern borders
where its control is rather nominal. What is happening there is not
just a threat to Russia’s sovereignty – it signifies a deep crisis
of sovereignty. The inability of the state to ensure the supremacy
and efficiency of its laws in that area embodies the loss of
control over the Caucasian territory, even though no one (or almost
no one) speaks out loud about its secession from Russia. The ‘gray
zone’ is very special in that it is a nestling place of powerful
groupings interested in aggravating uncertainties. A list of such
groupings in the North Caucasus may include: local authorities and
groups close to them who retain levers of influence on the
situation and access to resources; local alternative leaders who
shape up these parallel social and political structures (like the
so-called ‘Islamic jamaats’); federal power agencies that try to
manipulate the situation in the Caucasus according to departmental
interests. They do this by creating ‘controllable conflicts’ in
several zones at a time, but they do not have enough potential to
control them strategically.

 

THE
WESTERN CAUCASUS

 

Regions of
the Western Caucasus, i.e. Russia’s constituent territories located
to the west of North Ossetia (Kabardino-Balkaria,
Karachai-Cherkessia and the Adygei Republic) and the unrecognized
Republic of Abkhazia make up a special segment of the Caucasian
area. Their main feature is the presence of a strong Abkhazian-Adyg
element: Kabardinians, Cherkessians, Adygs, Abkhazians and less
populous ethnic groups like Abazinians and Shapsugs belong to the
same Abkhazian-Adyg language and ethnic group. This is not just a
linguistic and cultural relic, but also a plausible factor
influencing the current political development of the entire region.
These are links in a single chain, as the above-mentioned
territories are all connected with Georgia’s secessionist region of
Abkhazia.

 

As is well
known, Georgia passed through a pivotal change of elites more than
a year ago, and the new government in Tbilisi began the restoration
of the country’s territorial integrity as a major priority. It
declares that it will solve the ethnic and territorial conflicts in
Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another breakaway region, within the
next few years. There are grounds to believe that the presidential
election in Abkhazia in the fall of 2004 and during the winter of
2004-2005, and the victory of political moderate Sergei Bagapsh
have set the scene for a smooth rapprochement between Georgian and
Abkhazian leaders. Meanwhile, the Georgian-Abkhazian situation
exerts a powerful impact on the general social and political
climate on the northern side of the Caucasian Mountains. Some
observers argue that by incorporating Abkhazia, Tbilisi seeks to
weaken the Russian positions in the Caucasus. Yet the obvious fact
is that the attitude of the Abkhazian-Adyg population toward Russia
is changing as long as Moscow continues to lose influence in
Abkhazia. 

Another
considerable threat to stability in the Western Caucasus comes from
the Islamic factor, even though the degree of religious devotion
has traditionally been less strong among the Moslem population
there than in the Eastern Caucasus (Ingushetia, Chechnya,
Dagestan). Naturally, the Islamic factor is the least significant
in Abkhazia where Moslems are few and the people mostly follow
indigenous creeds. There are some indications, however, that cells
of Islamic fundamentalists have appeared on Abkhazian soil, too.
Against this background, Islam is visibly turning into a social and
political factor to be reckoned with in Kabardino-Balkaria and
Karachai-Cherkessia, which are immediate neighbors with the
smoldering Chechen conflict. Proceeding hand-in-glove with the idea
of so-called ‘pure Islam’ (the followers of which are typically –
and not quite correctly – called Wahhabis) is the Pan-Turkic
movement, supported by Turkic nationalists throughout the world
and, more specifically, by a range of political and public
organizations in Turkey proper. Pan-Turkic moods are spread widely
enough among the communities of the Turkic peoples – the
Kabardinians, Karachai and Nogai Tatars, all scattered across the
region.

 

It would
be unreasonable to play down the fundamentalist threat in
Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachai-Cherkessia, for here exists a
powerful destabilization factor accelerating the loss of Russian
influence in the region. Radical religious groups in both
territories maintain regular contacts with twin groups in Chechnya
and establish their own contacts across Russia’s borders, including
in the Middle East. The radical Islam they espouse does not
differentiate between ethnic groups and does not recognize adat –
the traditional local law. It replaced quite aggressive ethnic
movements that had been shaking the region before the end of the
1990s. Their influence dropped by the end of the last decade as a
stable system of control over resources had formed in each region.
But resources thinned quickly while corruption, poverty,
unemployment and consequent social protests continued to grow. At
the same time, the people increasingly chose religious extremism as
a form of protest – or rather, as a form of escape from traditional
Islam. Religious radicals have an expansive network in the Western
Caucasus. One can say definitively that their cells exist even in
the regional authorities.

 

Add to the
above the serious reactivation of ethnic conflicts of the early
1990s, sparked by the adoption of Federal Law 131-FZ on General
Principles of Local Self-Government, which demands that regional
legislatures fix the administrative borders of municipal entities
at the earliest possible date. In Karachai-Cherkessia, litigation
was quick to arise from calls to create a specifically Abazinian
municipal area around the town of Kubina, as well as Nogai Tatar
municipalities in Adyge-Khabl. In Kabardino-Balkaria, the
Balkarians are protesting vehemently against a regional law on
municipal borders. The Shapsugs living along the Black Sea coast in
the Krasnodar Territory are also making demands for an ethnic
district of their own. Finally, as the project of a merger of
nesting-doll-type areas goes ahead in Adygei, interethnic tensions
are rising there, too.

 

On the
other hand, it is exactly in the Western Caucasus that the largest
communities of Russians have remained to this day. Their strength
varies from 30 percent of the population in Karachai-Cherkessia to
70 percent in Adygei. Despite the continuous decrease of their
share in the ethnic makeup, the Russians remain a factor of social
and political stability, even though they live in a de facto
isolation from the indigenes like in Karachai-Cherkessia or in
Abkhazia. By and large, they are the most educated and qualified
part of the locals; and they tend to conserve their Russian
identity, legal awareness and loyalty to social and political
institutions of the Russian Federation.

 

THE
EASTERN CAUCASUS

 

Territories of the Eastern Caucasus – Ingushetia, Chechnya,
and Dagestan – also make up a subregion with persisting
“specificities.” While the Abkhazian-Adyg ethnic groups constitute
the axis along which political life revolves in the Western
Caucasus, the Nakh-Dagestani group of peoples does not. It is
clear, however, that the numerically larger Chechens have a strong
influence on all the three republics, and the common linguistic and
cultural roots fasten together the two Vainakh republics of
Chechnya and Ingushetia, a part of Dagestan (Novolakskoye and
Khasavyurt districts where the Akkin Chechens live) and the Akhmeti
district of Georgia, which is home to the Kistin
Chechens.

 

An
important factor in the political and cultural spheres in the
Eastern Caucasus is the wide spread of Sufi interpretations of
Sunni Islam. The local population has a much greater religious
devotion as opposed to regions to the west of Ossetia. Furthermore,
religious leaders of the Sufi enjoy great public influence,
although they have recently ceded some positions to the adepts of
so-called ‘pure Islam’ (incidentally, the total number of jamaats
in Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia currently exceeds
500).

 

A second
crucial factor in the Eastern Caucasus is the virtual absence of an
ethnic Russian population, which played a stabilizing role and a
“shock-absorbing” factor there until the early 1990s. “Relic”
communities of Russians have remained in Dagestan, but their
numbers fell by one half during the 1990s. At the start of the last
decade, Russians were the fifth largest ethnic community in
Dagestan; today, they still retain seats in the republic’s State
Council, which includes representatives of the 14 largest ethnic
groups. The leadership in all three republics has declared the
return of qualified Russian specialists a priority, essential for
the post-crisis (or post-war in Chechnya’s case) rehabilitation of
the economy and for ensuring social and political
“shock-absorption.” As one sign of this new mindset, there are
plans to install a monument to a Russian teacher in the Dagestani
capital of Makhachkala, but practical achievements in this sphere
remain rather modest. The scarcity of jobs, combined with the
hostility of the local population, makes many Russians consider
resettling elsewhere. The low efficiency of the law-enforcement
system in those territories leaves little hope for the ethnic
Russians that they will be ensured adequate protection of their
life and rights.

 

The third
factor is Russia’s non-interference in the political life of those
three restive regions, together with its merely symbolic presence
of troops there. The local regimes tend to create heavy information
filters that prevent the bulk of information on regional
developments from reaching the federal center, while the officials
ensuring Russia’s political presence there do not hold their
offices long enough or are eventually absorbed into the corrupt
system.

Paradoxically, despite the emergence of several theaters of
military operations in the Eastern Caucasus in the 1990s and the
early 2000s, the federal government’s military presence there has
been insignificant. Suffice it to recall that the Defense Ministry
placed the first regiment in Ingushetia (in the town of Troitskaya)
in 2002. That army unit, however, lacked the courage to resist
those militants who intruded into Ingushetian territory on the
night of June 21 to June 22, 2004. As for Chechnya, the seemingly
unprecedented concentration of Russian forces there (up to 80,000
men and officers) is symbolic as well: given 30,000 armed and
conditionally loyal locals among them, the force cannot aspire to
full control over the situation.

 

The
picture is rather sad, as the Eastern Caucasus has de facto fallen
out of Russia’s sovereignty, unlike the regions of the Western
Caucasus where the ‘gray zone’ is still in the initial phase of
formation. That impression is getting stronger in view of the fact
that the administrative border separating the Stavropol Territory
and North Ossetia from the three East-Caucasian territories is
guarded as a state border. Incidentally, the local people call any
trip northwards as a “trip to Russia,” that is, a trip to a
neighboring territory of some kind.

 

To sum up,
the following are the problems that we face in the territories of
the North Caucasus:

 

1. All of
these regions without exception are experiencing a deep economic
depression, with unemployment soaring above Russia’s average rates.
The Gross Regional Product is extremely low or decreasing, vital
manufacturing facilities are stricken by crisis or simply ruined,
while the ruling interests have privatized the surviving functional
remainders of the infrastructure. Federal subsidies, praised as
reliable conveyor belts between the center and the regions, are so
insignificant that any serious discussion of their effects on the
economy is out of place. The ruling circles absorb the subsidies
like sponges, and the funds never reach the rank-and-file who
survive mostly thanks to a system of financing by their kinsmen
diasporas in Russia who disburse cash from their wallets; this
money exceeds official investment many times over. The irony is
that the corrupt local officials impose arbitrary taxes on those
alternative quasi-investments.

 

2. The
regional – as well as federal – authorities are witnessing an
unparalleled credibility crisis and are practically void of
legitimacy in the eyes of the local population. In some cases, this
is due to the obtruding of a definite candidate in the elections,
but always because of disgust with a corrupt system of government
that hinges on clans and crime. Practically all the regions can
expect to face a challenging change of power involving the carving
up of the spheres of influence and control over resources.

 

3. Against
this background, a parallel social and political structure of
Islamic jamaats is rapidly taking shape. They are not necessarily
bent on terrorist methods or radical fundamentalism, but they set
up a system where Russian social and legislative norms have no
effect and, as a result, Russian sovereignty
dissipates.

 

4. A link
between the federal center and the regions – something referred to
as the “power vertical” – relies on just two elements in practical
terms. First is the Rostov-based Office of the Plenipotentiary
Representative in the Southern Federal District and the
representative, Dmitry Kozak. Second involves the sacks of cash
that the regional rulers prefer taking to the Kremlin
personally.

 

5. The
instruments that the government typically resorts to in emergencies
are inefficacious, as the local police are perceived in each region
as just another mob, albeit dressed in uniforms and having
specially colored vehicles. The courts are corrupt and subjected to
clan influences. The federal agencies of power are mostly focused
on operations of the Unified Operative Staff of the Antiterrorist
Operation in the North Caucasus and may score successes at times,
but the aftereffects of their activity only drive the crisis
deeper. It is tempting to guess that military clashes occur
sporadically in Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria as a
consequence of big-game hunting operations launched by the secret
services, or we may heed the thesis that the developments in the
Caucasus are part of a controllable mega-project of the FSB and
Russian military intelligence GRU. Yet these audacious theories
must not dispel the truth that any such conflict may eventually get
out of control.

 

6. The
idea of appointing regional governors upon consent from local
legislatures may be reasonable in the Caucasus where elections held
in the 1990s or early 2000s seemed to be based on some blockbuster
flick or police movie. However, this idea will deliver the goods
only if the appointees are able to break up the clan-ridden and
corrupt regimes and make the government popular among the locals
once again. Only very independent-minded people are fit for the
task, while experience proves that Moscow tends to dislike them. In
the meantime, controllable appointees who are unfit for governing
can only aggravate the crisis; the “gray” dusk presently covering
the Caucasus will quickly descend into pitch-black night under such
circumstances.