The Belavezha Accords Legacy
No. 4 2012 October/December
Sergey M. Markedonov

PhD in History
MGIMO University, Moscow, Russia
Institute for International Studies
Leading Research Fellow;
Journal of International Analytics


ORCID ID: 0000-0003-2298-9684

Post-Soviet Russia: Torn Between Nationalism and Separatism

The USSR ceased to exist in December 1991, but the dramatic events of the two subsequent decades have shown that it is premature to view its collapse as a closed chapter of history. The termination of the Soviet Union’s existence as a legal fact and the historical process of its disintegration are different things. The country that accounted for one-sixth of the planet’s land is gone from the world map, but the disintegration of Soviet statehood persists. Like the breakup of the Western Roman Empire does not boil down to the abdication of Romulus Augustus, or the French Revolution to the storming of the Bastille, or Russia’s 1917 October Revolution to the October 25 (in the Julian calendar) coup, the breakup of the USSR is not confined to the December 1991 Belovezha declaration by heads of states of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus on its dissolution. That the process still continues is evidenced by eight armed conflicts, the de-facto emergence of new states (two of which have won international, albeit limited, recognition), unending border disputes, ethnic and religious clashes, and regional conflicts. In 2008 a precedent was created when the borders of former Soviet republics were redrawn. Given unsettled ethno-political conflicts, it is hard to predict when and how these borders will be recognized, and where the self-determination process, launched by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika policy, will stop.

These pressing problems are especially vital to Russia as the legal successor of the Soviet Union. The largest of the Soviet republics boasting a stockpile of nuclear weapons and a seat on the UN Security Council, Russia claims geopolitical dominance in Eurasia and opposes the idea of a unipolar world and U.S. global hegemony. At the same time, it has many vulnerable points, namely, politically unstable territories (the North Caucasus), sparsely populated periphery (the Russian Far East and Siberia) and a specific case of apartheid, when certain regions are treated as foreign land. Sociological polls show that Russia’s current territorial and ethno-political configuration does not suit many of its citizens. This is manifest in their discontent with the presence of certain North Caucasian republics in its structure and dissatisfaction with the status of the ethnic Russian majority. Many view the present-day federative structure of the country (especially its lopsidedness) as temporary and not suiting the pressing public and state objectives. The “breakup” discourse still prevails in Russian politics. Practically all the key issues, be they national security, ethnic relations, foreign policy, economic reforms or local and regional governance, inevitably involve discussions about the costs of the country’s possible disintegration and loss of its sovereignty and statehood. The “Belavezha trauma” has not been completely healed yet, and the country’s state officials and intellectuals alike have fears – obvious or latent – of a recurrence of this scenario.

For Russia, the urgency of the separatist challenge is determined by several factors nowadays. First, to quote Professor Stephen Kotkin of Princeton University, Russia “inherited everything that had caused the Soviet collapse, as well as the collapse itself.” Indeed, experts and politicians, in comments on the disintegration of the USSR, emphasize the centrifugal trends in the periphery regions of the once unified state. But it was not so much non-Russian former Soviet republics that made the decisive “contribution” to this process as the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). The latter no longer wanted to carry the Soviet burden (the reasons behind it are a separate theme) and de-facto led the struggle against the Union authorities, especially during and after the adoption of the Declaration of State Sovereignty of June 12, 1990. Therefore, post-Soviet Russia largely emerged as a separatist project, although it had not used this kind of rhetoric for its legitimization. Separatism was, in fact, embedded in the foundation of the post-Soviet Russian statehood.

Second, the separatist trend has strengthened considerably across the world in the past two decades, not only in conflict areas of former European colonies, but also in Europe itself. As Bulgarian expert Ivan Krastev rightly noted, “Europe likes to think of itself as a stable continent, but in fact more states have been created and destroyed there in the two decades since 1989 than in any region at any time – other than in Africa during the decolonization era of the 1960s. A total of fifteen new states emerged from the Soviet Union, seven from Yugoslavia and two from Czechoslovakia. In addition, there are four ‘unrecognized states,’ and still others that would like to join them.” In 2008, several former autonomies received international recognition. The United States and its allies initiated the legalization of the statehood of Serbia’s former autonomous province of Kosovo, while Russia pioneered the recognition of two former autonomies of the former Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (Abkhazia and South Ossetia).

Third, Russia itself set a precedent of redrawing borders between former Soviet republics. This is not to say that problem territories within Russia may soon follow Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s example. However, by unilaterally recognizing the disputed territories, that is, bypassing the format of negotiations and international institutions, Moscow took a certain political risk, whatever the reasons it was guided by. In a hypothetical crisis, interested players might use the Abkhazian-South Ossetian pattern as a precedent.

Fourth, centrifugal trends amidst the global financial crisis can provoke problems with supplies of resources. Since the present-day relative stability of Russia largely hinges on the same foundation as the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, a fall in oil prices will make it short of funds. What risks is it fraught with? For subsidized republics of the North Caucasus it would mean reduced funding, while in case of well-off Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, the government may attempt to “appropriate” and re-distribute their funds for the sake of “common interests,” as well as limit their prerogatives.

Fifth, leaving aside conspiracy theories, one should nevertheless take into account the external factor. If relations with some country (or center of power) develop according to an adverse scenario, Russia’s “vulnerable spots” can be exploited to weaken its positions, if not secure its breakup.

Therefore, while acknowledging the urgency of the separatist challenge, it is necessary to answer several crucial questions. To what extent is present-day Russia vulnerable to separatist threats? What form do they take? How do they differ from the centrifugal trends that led to the Soviet Union’s collapse and subsequent acute ethnopolitical conflicts?



In the early 2000s, strengthening the country’s unity and overcoming the “Belavezha syndrome” was one of the leading themes in Russian political discourse. Putin’s stability was regularly contrasted with the “troublesome 1990s.” It is largely the North Caucasus theme and calls to put an end to terrorism and separatism that helped Vladimir Putin make his triumphal ascent to the political Olympus. Before militants led by Shamil Basayev and Khattab invaded Dagestan, the then prime-minister had had a low popularity rating and a reputation of a Yeltsin family protégé. An insurgency by Islamic fundamentalists in Dagestan’s Botlikhsky and Tsumadinsky districts, supported by Chechen field commanders in August 1999, caused panic in Moscow, along with dire predictions that the Caspian republic may soon join de-facto independent Chechnya. The new prime minister’s readiness to resist this scenario in a tough way sent his popularity ratings soaring. His tough stance legalized his inheriting political power. The legitimacy of Putin’s first term in office was mostly secured by his political line on the North Caucasus and his readiness to temper the appetites of “regional barons” (his first decree in the capacity of president dated May 13, 2000, created a system of federal districts).

Although the Caucasus was not the only factor that provided for the legitimacy of Putin’s second term and made possible his handing over the helm to Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 and his comeback as the head of state in 2012, the exclusion of the Chechen separatist project from the national agenda did help bolster his authority. Other factors included amendments to the legislations of Russian regions (in particular Tatarstan’s and Bashkortostan’s) to harmonize them with federal legislation, and the cancellation of direct gubernatorial elections under the pretext of combating local group interests and extremism. There are no powerful political movements in Russia at present that would insist on the secession of this or that region. In the 2000s, the influence of the All-Tatar Public Center, an active promoter of Tatarstan’s independence, decreased noticeably. The defenders of the “Ichkeria project” now either live in emigration, like Akhmed Zakayev, or, like Magomed Khambiyev, have entered the service of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. The Chechen president positions himself not just as a leader loyal to the Kremlin but as “Putin’s infantryman.” For its part, the Kremlin regards Kadyrov as a symbolic figure in overcoming disintegration and an example to be followed by other regional leaders. This explains why the Kremlin turns a blind eye to many offbeat and extravagant initiatives by the Chechen president that go contrary to the Russian legislation.

But the significance of the anti-separatist struggle for the Russian president was not reduced to domestic policy alone. In 2001, the inclusion of Chechnya in the context of the war on international terrorism caused the United States and some EU countries to change their views of the Russian operation in Chechnya and the situation in the North Caucasus in general. In acknowledgement of Russia’s anti-terrorist efforts, the U.S Department of State blacklisted separatist leader Doku Umarov and the Caucasus Emirate organization as terrorist in 2010 and 2011, respectively. In this, Moscow and Washington demonstrated a rare case of unity against the background of numerous disagreements over Georgia, Syria, Iran and missile defense. But all the achievements described above are just one side of the medal. The reverse side shows a growing instability in the North Caucasus and the Volga region and rising ethnic Russian nationalism.



In the 1990s, the North Caucasus was mostly associated with Chechnya. Today, Dagestan and Ingushetia have become the prime source of concern. The situation in the hitherto quieter western part of the Russian Caucasus has become much more complicated, in particular in Kabardino-Balkaria which Chechen separatists of the 1990s called “the sleeping beauty of the Caucasus.” Whereas a terrorist attack on Kabardino-Balkaria’s capital Nalchik on October 13, 2005 was viewed as an extraordinary event both by experts and politicians, now reports on explosions, acts of terror and special operations in Kabardino-Balkaria have become routine in recent years. In 2010, Kabardino-Balkaria left Chechnya behind in the number of terrorism-related incidents. In January-September 2012, more than 90 people died and over 40 were injured in acts of terror and sabotage in the region. Acts of terror have not stopped even in Chechnya where the counter-terrorism operation was officially declared over in 2009. On August 6, 2012, four people died and another three were injured in an explosion in Grozny’s Oktyabrsky district.

It would be a mistake to view the present unstable situation in Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria or Chechnya as a manifestation of separatism. Those who are behind these acts of terror do not call for establishing independent nation states. Furthermore, back in October 2007, “the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria” was abolished by its leader Doku Umarov. However, the nationalist discourse has given way to radical Islamism, while the Islamist Caucasus Emirate news portal has replaced unrecognized Ichkeria as Russia’s main opponent. Ethnic nationalism in the North Caucasus has backed off. Its relapses might be possible now and again, especially if the federal center fails to pursue a prudent policy in the region. The present-day radical protest movements against the federal or local authorities use the Islamist, rather than ethno-nationalist (or separatist), lexicon. It is used to describe acts of terror and sabotage and clashes with the military and law-enforcement personnel.

Ethnic nationalism, on which great hopes were pinned in the early 1990s, has been unable to resolve some pressing problems of ethnic elites (such as territorial rehabilitation). The ethnic elites that came to power began to privatize power and property, forgetting the promises they had given to the people. The failed state experiment “Ichkeria” contributed immensely to the plunging popularity of ethnic nationalism and separatism. It fell back not because of Russian military interference (although it made many consider secession costs unacceptable). De-facto independent Chechnya was unable to build a reasonably effective state (at least one comparable with Abkhazia or Nagorno-Karabakh). Furthermore, the Dudayev-Maskhadov regime in Ichkeria behaved very aggressively towards its neighbors, eventually causing them to view Russia as a lesser evil than “free Ichkeria.” It should be noted that “pure Islam,” as a project for the Caucasus, was a result of not so much interference by outside forces (Saudis or Pakistanis) as the domestic situation. The radical Islamist project emphasized universal values (over and above ethnic, religious and clan codes), egalitarianism, and the evil of corruption and social injustice. The ideologists of “pure Islam” skillfully used psychological methods of influence, appealing to young people who were deprived of opportunities for career promotion and quality education.

Islamism grew stronger in the absence of a coherent strategy for social, economic and political development of the North Caucasus. In the recent years, the Defense Ministry has repeatedly discussed reducing or stopping conscription from North Caucasian republics. Although the issue is not fully resolved yet, the very discussion indicates that the state has problems with its key function – integrating the country’s multi-ethnic population into a single political nation (and the conscription army is a key instrument of such integration). Appeasing the local bureaucracies, while giving up the idea of the region’s full-fledged integration, has reached a critical level. The irremovability of the regional elites only provokes radicalism, instead of promoting stability.

The increasingly popular Islamic sentiment is explained not so much by successful efforts by its proponents as by the breakup of secular systems that regulated various spheres of life. In this context, we should note the shortage of land and continuing urbanization. The population of rural settlements, especially in highlands, is shrinking due to unemployment. Traditional ethnic areas are losing homogeneity, and private property principles come into conflict with ideas of ethnic property, where representatives of a dominant ethnic group can enjoy preferred access to property and power in its territory. The situation is exacerbated by insufficiently effective judicial and governance systems. Hence appeals to mosques, sheikhs, or Salafi (Wahhabi) groups as possible arbiters. As a result, the “competition of jurisdictions” breeds conflicts and violence, as there is no consensus in recognizing this or that cleric as the only legitimate religious authority.

It should be emphasized that those who call themselves defenders of “pure Islam” are not homogeneous. They have no unified and rigidly structured organization. Even various divisions of the Caucasus Emirate (vilayats and jamaats) largely operate independently. Islamists also differ in motivation and the degrees of radicalism.

Some Islamists have broken the law, and others are simply not ready to become affiliated with official Muslim Spiritual Directorates, or they take “pure Islam” as a fashion, a fad. Also, some have just strayed from the right path and lost their bearings. In November 2011, Dagestan set up a commission to help former militants adapt to peaceful life, while a moderate Islamic association, Ahlu Sunnah wal Jamaah, has been involved in legal socio-political processes. The high-profile assassination of Sufi Sheikh Said Afandi al-Chirkawi in August 2012 has put this process on hold (possibly for long), yet it has not abolished the public demand for such dialogue.



Despite Islamism coming to the forefront, ethnic nationalism in the North Caucasus has proven its viability, too. One of its most prominent manifestations is the Circassian issue. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are intended to demonstrate Russia’s success in overcoming the difficulties of the transitional period and symbolize its comeback to the top league of world politics. But the implementation of these objectives has encountered various difficulties. For the Circassian world, stretching from the North Caucasus republics (Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia) and the Krasnodar Territory to Turkey, the Middle East, European countries and the United States, Sochi has special significance. It was there that the Circassian Majlis was established in 1861, called a “great free assembly,” where local tribes united in the face of the Russian Empire’s expansion to the western Caucasus. Three years later, on May 21, 1864, Russian troops took Kbaada, the last pocket of Circassian resistance in the western Caucasus. Now it is the Krasnaya Polyana settlement of Sochi’s Adler district, a popular recreation center for Russian elites.

The Sochi Olympics project has brought to the fore and politicized the Circassian issue. In 2011, the parliament of neighboring Georgia recognized “genocide of the Circassians” in the Russian Empire, which has exacerbated the issue. In effect, the problem has several independent aspects. First, it is the land issue that has been aggravated within the context of local self-government reforms. For example, for Kabardino-Balkaria, where Adygs (Kabardins) are a majority, attempts to merge Balkar settlements with the capital Nalchik caused problems that remain unresolved to this day. Second, it is the issue of representation in government, which is particularly pressing for Karachay-Cherkessia, where Circassians are a minority. Third, it is the repatriation of Adygs to their historical homeland. The issue has become particular acute amidst the escalation of the civil confrontation in Syria, where 30,000 to 120,000 Circassians live. Since late 2011, Syrian Circassians, caught in the conflict, have repeatedly asked Moscow to let them return to their historical homeland. Seven such appeals had been made by the autumn of 2012. If Russia fails to find an answer to the “Circassian issue,” radicals may replace moderate leaders.



The situation in the Volga region has come into the media limelight in recent years. Russian society has got used to socio-political violence in the North Caucasus in the past two decades. Sadly, the public takes any report about acts of terror or sabotage from the North Caucasus as an inherent regional feature. The assassination attempt on Tatarstan’s chief mufti Ildus Faizov and the murder of well-known public figure and Muslim cleric Valiulla Yakupov (deputy to Tatarstan’s chief mufti in 2008-2011) shocked society and increased alarmist sentiment and forecasts. The attack was the first act of terror against official Muslim clergymen outside of the North Caucasus. Some analysts drew an analogy with Dagestan where religious and political violence was triggered by the high-profile murder of mufti Said Muhammad Haji Abubakarov on August 21, 1998. Like Faizov and Yakupov, the Dagestani mufti opposed Salafism.

In October 2012, on the eve of the Muslim holiday Kurban Bairam, the Russian Federal Security Service reported it had prevented a large terrorist attack in Tatarstan. A day before the announcement, the authorities launched an anti-terrorist operation in Kazan against extremists suspected of involvement in the murder of Yakupov and the assassination attempt on Faizov. The general strategic significance of this province for Russia adds to the tenseness of the situation. The Volga region is sometimes called a second Baku, because the oil and gas reserves there make up 13 and 12 percent, respectively, of Russia’s total reserves, while its share in national industrial production is close to 24 percent. Security in the region is assuming not only national but also international significance. Despite disagreements with NATO, the Russian authorities opened a transit hub for NATO in Ulyanovsk to supply military cargoes to Afghanistan. In addition, Tatarstan’s capital will host the 27th World University Games in 2013, and the 16th World Aquatics Championships in 2015. Finally, Kazan, Samara and Nizhny Novgorod will be among the Russian towns that will host matches of the 2018 Football World Cup Finals, an event comparable in significance to the Olympic Games.

The situation in this region was for a long time contrasted with the developments in the North Caucasus. There were historical and socio-political reasons for it, both in the past and the present. The Volga-Ural lands were integrated into the Russian state (under various ideas and banners) much earlier than the Caucasus. It is in the Volga region that the phenomenon of “traditional” or “loyal” Islam emerged. In September 1788, the Orenburg Mohammedan Spiritual Assembly was established in the territory of the modern Volga Federal District, the first systemic experience of interaction between the Russian authorities and a Muslim community.

In the 1990s, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan certainly created many problems for Moscow, but the religious issue moved to the background as the two republics were looking for a model for their sovereignty and a special position in the Russian Federation. It seemed there were no serious prerequisites for radicalism in the Volga, Kama and Ural areas. Unlike the Caucasus, the Volga region is far more urbanized and integrated into the rest of Russia. Compared with European municipalities, there had been no special Muslim neighborhoods in cities in the Volga region which could provoke religious insularity and xenophobia. It is not accidental that a public opinion poll in Tatarstan in the middle of the 1990s showed that 44.6 percent of Tatars in the countryside and 33.5 percent of townspeople believed that “religion brings one closer to one’s people,” while 41 percent of Tatar town dwellers regarded Islamic holidays as national.

However, the spread of unofficial Islamic movements, including extremist ones, began long before 2012. Today, unofficial and radical Islam in the Volga region has many faces. Aside from Salafis, in the mid-1990s-early 2000s there appeared in the region followers of the religious-political party Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami. Many journalists and experts identify them with the Wahhabis, which is not quite correct. In both theory and practice, the latter have a very negative opinion of Hizb ut-Tahrir, rejecting the principles of party membership and party rhetoric calling for peaceful building of a caliphate and dismantling of secular statehood. Incidentally, Hizb ut-Tahrir failed to gain strong positions in the North Caucasus largely due to the above reasons. They faced opposition from both the local authorities and Salafis. Another Islamic organization that has followers in the Volga Federal District is Tablighi Jamaat (Society for Spreading Faith), a smaller and less active non-traditional movement. It focuses on literal observation of religious tradition and practices. Also, there are followers of religious movements of Turkish origin operating in the region (though not as actively as in the early 1990s), such as Nurjular. Their objectives are the Turkification of Islam and the Islamization of the Turkic world. Disciples of moderate preachers often do not limit themselves to theological discussions. The Volga region, unlike the Middle East and even Central Asia, is a periphery for both Salafis and Hizb ut-Tahrir members, so ideological purity is often defied there.



In the 1990s-2000s, xenophobia among isolated movements of ethnic Russian nationalists was not viewed as a direct threat to the country’s territorial integrity. Protests on Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square in December 2010 and subsequent actions by Russian nationalist movements (“Russian Marches,” “Russian May 1,” and protests under the slogan “Stop Subsidizing the Caucasus!”) showed that, first, the territorial integrity of the country is now threatened not only by separatist and particularist sentiment in the provinces, but also by movements of the ethnic Russian majority. Secondly, riots and pogroms, as well as the reaction of certain Russian experts and politicians to “the growth of the Russian spirit,” showed that a new public-political force was emerging in Russia. It can be defined as “new Russian nationalism” or “Russian separatism.”

Today, this force has not become fully institutionalized yet, although it was precisely in 2011 that moves were made in that direction. Russian separatism has no registered political parties, but it does have sympathizers in various political associations, including respectable parliament factions and government agencies of various levels. A study by the Levada Center on January 21-24, 2011, a month after the Manezhnaya Square riots, showed that 58 percent of respondents supported the “Russia for Russians” slogan, while 59 percent of non-Russians described the slogan as extremely reactionary and even “fascist” in essence.

Since the December 2010 riots, Russian ethno-nationalist forces have become increasingly louder in calling for separating the Russian “core” from the North Caucasus. So there has emerged a clear public and political demand for separating Central Russia and the most troublesome region – through the complete secession of the North Caucasian republics, or (as a moderate option) the establishment of a special regime for their existence within the Russian Federation. Dmitry Furman, one of the main theorists of post-Soviet transition, has described this phenomenon in the following way: “We have achieved pure formality in the Caucasus. The Russian public mind at the grassroots level has an understanding that the North Caucasus is not Russia. Polls show that Russians view North Caucasus natives as more alien to them than Ukrainians or Belarusians. Any ideas on migration restrictions concern people from Asian and South Caucasian countries and the Russian North Caucasus.” This factor allows one to speak of “new Russian nationalism” as a specific form of not only xenophobia, but also separatism. This movement received some additional clout from “knowing” comments by respectable experts, journalists and government officials, including the liberal spectrum of public opinion. These comments were made not on marginal websites, but in well-known media outlets and live on television and radio.

The key role in the organization of “Russian separatists” is played by the Russian Civil Union (RGS), which has merged with the Russian Public Movement (ROD) into the “Russian Platform.” The leaders of this movement hold that Russia should be transformed from a multi-ethnic federation into a Russian national democratic state. Platform ideologists give special attention to the North Caucasus. They insist on a fundamental revision of the socio-political status of the North Caucasian republics and reduced subsidies from the federal budget. RGS leaders call for changing the borders of the North Caucasus to bring border districts with a predominantly Russian population in those republics under Russia’s control and to evacuate ethnic Russians from the republics. Also, they call for giving ethnic Russians in the Stavropol and Krasnodar Territories the status of titular nation. Another major demand of the movement is tightening customs and border control on the borders with other former Soviet republics and introducing a visa regime with Central Asian and South Caucasian countries.

Thus, the separatist threat in modern Russia has changed considerably, compared with the first post-Soviet years. Nowadays, the federal center is not confronted by outstanding leaders such as Dzhokhar Dudayev or Aslan Maskhadov, or by de-facto states, like the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. The separatist threat does not come from organized and structured secular nationalist movements in the regions, such as the All-Tatar Public Center. The key role is now played by network structures, where leaders are hard or impossible to identify. On the one hand, it makes things easier for the state, because there is no need to look for communication or optimize conflicting interests. On the other hand, the points from which challenges and threats emanate are difficult to discern, if at all. Therefore it is impossible to measure the strength and resources of opponents.

Ideologically, the provinces have become center stage for protests that have taken religious-political forms of radical Islamism. At the same time, people in Central Russia attach more importance to ethnic nationalism under the slogan of protecting the ethnic Russian majority, possibly even through its self-determination. As Emil Pain put it, the “ethno-political pendulum” is swinging back, implying Russian reaction to the self-determination, the “parade of sovereignties” and ethnocratic projects in non-Russian republics within the Russian Federation. The absence of outstanding leaders and powerful and structured organizations does not at all mean that the present Russian setup and its geographical and constitutional configuration are acceptable to a certain segment of the Russian population. Unlike Chechnya in the 1990s, now it is far more difficult to measure the conflict space both in the provinces and Central Russia. Acts of violence abound, but each has a background of its own. Conflicts of so different origins can only exist when social relations are based not on institutions but informal principles. If there are no opportunities for career growth, running a business or implementing civil projects, social activity takes the form of radicalism, and problems are resolved by shooting or blackmail. The choice in favor of “separating the Caucasus,” or the precedence of religious loyalty over civil identity destroy national unity. The problems of alienation and violence cannot be solved without a well thought-out ethnic policy (not a folk/ethnographic one) and without de-privatization of power. Consequently, it is premature to say that the ‘Belavezha syndrome” has been overcome and that the government has completed building a post-Soviet Russian state.