The North Caucasus and the Future of Russian Statehood
No. 1 2006 January/March

Protracted discussions over particular “failed” states in the
post-Soviet space overshadow the fact that this very same word has
become fully applicable to the North Caucasus; but the price of
this “failedness” is much higher for Russia.

Terrorist sorties, unparalleled in audacity and scale, have
acquired a tenacity and regularity in that region. Events that were
at one time confined to Chechnya are now found all across the North
Caucasus. These events seem to have formed a systemic process with
deep-lying sources of reproduction.

The attractive and optimistic theory that recent developments in
the North Caucasus are nothing more than a residual, sporadic
reaction to the suppression of organized Chechen separatism and
chaotic acts of revenge seems rather doubtful.

Nor is there enough clear proof in favor of the pessimistic
theory that points to a natural and irreversible historical
evolution, which ostensibly dooms Russia and the North Caucasus to
a bitter divorce.

We know practically everything about the immediate and tentative
causes of the current situation in the region. In an attempt to
explain the current developments, the experts have a tendency to
give some of their aspects a speculative and ideological nature.
These have remained unchanged for several years, although real life
shows that many things change spontaneously and without

The real objective here is not at all to draw up a catalog of
logically arranged causes of the crisis. It is much more important
to find effective answers, especially to the challenges whose
origins are fairly well known. The possibility to identify those
challenges, however, does not make them either simple or
unequivocal. Destabilizing factors in the North Caucasus are
intertwined in a complicated and chaotic way, often making it hard
to identify the primary and secondary, as well as the logical and
haphazard, elements.

Since other experts have, in a professional and comprehensive
manner, exposed the root causes and nature of threats to Russia’s
security in the North Caucasus, let us simply sum up some plainly
obvious facts.

Let us be blunt and call a spade a spade. Since 1991, Russia has
been slowly but surely losing sovereignty over the North Caucasus.
The region is de facto pulling out of the legislative framework of
the Russian Federation along two synchronized directions, which can
be described as “sporadic” and “deliberate.” The sporadic element
of this highly explosive evolution springs from the realities of
everyday existence that dissuade the population from observing
Russian legislation. The latter is widely looked at as a source of
profiteering for some and a source of losses or animosity for
others, not as the primary institution of the nation. This means
that the natural pace of events is wearing away Russia’s legal
sovereignty, so to speak.

Public opinion associates legislation and all of its basic
functions with the names – or colorful nicknames – of the local
“guardians of the law” who have the final word on all

As those individuals holding the reins of power “privatize”
federal law, they recklessly tear the regions entrusted to them out
of the framework of Russian statehood, while inflicting moral
damage on the country’s image and reputation in the eyes of its
compatriots, not to mention the international community.

Yet chaotic tendencies cease to be chaotic where and when they
form a social, political, economic, ideological, cultural, and
psychological environment that gives broad leeway to individuals
with highly specified interests. These may coincide or conflict
with one another or serve to compromise solutions. Whatever the
case, such interests always inflict damage on the man in the street
– on his welfare, security or moral health. Herein lies the major
and most ominous threat of a total loss of control over society,
driving it to the verge of a social and political collapse, and not
only in the North Caucasus.

he very nature of corrupt power cancels out its strength. Being
fully aware of this, it goes to great lengths to rally Moscow’s
support in a standoff against contentious society. It has inflated
the staff of the security agencies, while building partnerships
with local oligarchic (i.e. criminal) groups. It bribes – overtly
or covertly – clan leaders, religious authorities, notable
intellectuals, or generally anyone in the regional political arena
who presents a challenge and is hence dangerous.

To ensure the smooth functioning of the corrupt administrative
machinery, the ethnocratic regimes do not pull any punches. They
seek to convince the Kremlin that they are irreplaceable in this
kind of situation. And that is why “this kind of situation” is bred
artificially. The local political and economic elites have an
interest in stability on a theoretical plane only. Stability
implies a commitment to law and this may mean heavy losses for
those people who are accustomed to playing by the existing rules.
An array of tools comes in handy to maintain those rules. People of
clout try to aggravate tensions in all spheres of social relations,
never allowing them to rise to the point of exploding, nor
permitting them to completely disappear. So far, efforts to manage
these “ballistic” processes have been successful, although very

Local power desperately needs emergency situations as a way of
proving to the Kremlin its importance, which makes the federal
government turn a blind eye to the administrative and judiciary
arbitrariness in the region as it continues to pay off the loyalty.
The North Caucasian feudal princes address their motto “don’t rock
the boat” primarily to Moscow, and the latter gladly repeats it,
without noticing, apparently, that it covers up outright

Even those who avoid conspiracy theories are astonished by the
bizarre methods that local authorities and security services use in
fighting with gangsters and terrorists. Many of the latter do not
fear anyone, while their audacity grows day by day. They apparently
recognize that no one will touch them for a number of weighty
reasons, but most importantly because someone needs them safe and
sound. No doubt, it is important to make demonstrative ritual
sacrifices to the altar of Themis, the goddess of law and justice,
but they are made selectively and cautiously.
The real problem is: How long can all of this continue?

Social and political tightrope walking on the part of local
authorities disrupts control over the general situation instead of
consolidating it. The strategy of reigning in the region, which
boils down to trivial self-preservation, is profoundly vicious. Yet
it cannot be otherwise given the presence of vulnerable
underbellies, from which the thriving atmosphere of immorality has
stripped off its protective covering.

It has become customary to describe the North Caucasian crisis
as systemic. Moscow’s interpretation of ‘system’ argues that
factors generating the crisis are positioned in a horizontal
relationship and play more or less equally destructive roles. This
explanation of the principle of a system furnishes the federal and
regional authorities with a number of advantages, as they find it
convenient for explaining what is happening, or not happening, in
the Caucasus.

Apportioning of equal blame for tragic events in the region to
objective – or haphazard – factors deflects criticism away from the
people who must bear the brunt of responsibility for it.

The main blame cannot be placed on the terrorists because they
are simply doing what they should be doing by virtue of their
heinous trade or inherent pathologies. Rather, it is power as a
system that often fails to do even the most elementary things it
has been supposed to do since the beginning of time.

Competition or, rather said, warring for access to control over
one or another region in the North Caucasus, involves individuals
that have grabbed big wealth but are still yearning for more.
Remarkably, no one gives a thought about ensuring the safety of
what was grabbed. This seems to be taken for granted. Big owners
have no fear of losing their property, at least they do not receive
threats from the federal and legal centers. Each owner is the state
and law unto himself, and a bullet fired by an assassin seems to be
the only restraint on his permissiveness.

Regional election campaigns often get an absurd as much as a
bloody taint, and instead of conceptual programs they witness a
contention between individuals with big money who have a total
deficit of everything else.

This system, however, will exist as long as the federal center
and the ruling class of the North Caucasian provinces, which live
by the same corporate norms, have an interest in maintaining

The numerous factors fueling and deepening the crisis in the
North Caucasus have also a vertical structure, i.e. they have a
hierarchic organization. The question of what is at the top or at
the bottom of that hierarchy is hard to answer and is of secondary
importance. The main thing is that room at the top of that pyramid
belongs to only one factor, yet it is a super-factor and pertains
to the ongoing collapse of the system of local government. Anything
else, including terrorism, is a product of that process in the
final count. This is a process that is dangerous beyond comparison
and that may prove lethal for Russia’s statehood.

We are purposefully using simplified images to portray the
situation since a very simple yet dramatic dilemma – the survival
or demise of the Russian Federation – lies at the root of the
problem. The alienation of the North Caucasus (de facto and, more
importantly, de jure) and the subsequent reshaping of borders would
mean that a country named Russia in its present form would cease to
exist. This is not a Cassandra hypothesis; this is a tough
prognosis of the foreseeable future that will occur as inevitably
as a cyclical natural phenomenon if we allow the current tendencies
to develop according to their natural logic.

Powerful forces outside that region and outside Russia have a
great interest in either preserving the present situation in the
North Caucasus or aggravating it further. The region has long been
entangled in a great game of chess now being played within modern
international politics, but however strongly one might feel
inclined to use the word ‘conspiracy’ in this case, it would be
totally out of place. There is no place for guesswork here, since
everything is clear as daylight. What we are witnessing is a
normal, strong and somewhat decent struggle for geopolitical,
cultural, civilizational, and religious re-partitioning of the
world, correlating with the leading powers’ potentials that changed
after the end of the Cold War. And let us be sure that no one will
try and stop us from losing the battle if we really want to lose
Now we arrive at the eternal Russian question: What to do? Everyone
knows the answer, yet everyone from bottom up refuses to mention it
for a variety of reasons. In the meantime, the voice of the people
is heard quite distinctly in the North Caucasus. Indignant crowds
on the streets of Beslan, Vladikavkaz, Nalchik, Makhachkala or
Maikop are asking in frustration: For how long? What more must
happen for the government to become Real Power and to begin acting
on its commitments to the people and to society? The question is
addressed not to the local presidents who have never been trusted,
but to the President of Russia, who still has the trust of the

The resource of this trust is becoming depleted, however,
because everything and everyone remains in their old places. People
in power continue acting in their petty interests with no benefits
for society. More problematic, the regional elites expertly exploit
the generally justified postulation that “fish rots from the head
backwards.” When someone asks them about particular subjects, they
answer rhetorically: “Well, what do you want from us when God only
knows what’s happening in Moscow?” The tactic of “kicking it
upstairs” often works well. At the very least, it teaches public
opinion to discern the Kremlin’s silent blessings in the perverse
policies of the regional leaders.

One might think the Kremlin has its own trump cards. It may cite
a classical Soviet aphorism that says, “I don’t have any other
writers in store for you,” but this will not help save the
situation. If there are no others in store – which is doubtful – it
is important then to make the existing “writers” work. It is
important to tap and activate vital stimuli that will change the
philosophy and conduct of the ruling class dramatically.
Furthermore, if need be, one must implement an array of
non-economic and economic methods of coercion.

As a rule, the powers that be do not have any other goal and
super-objective than self-preservation and self-regeneration. This
is neither bad nor good. This is reality growing out of the nature
of politics as such. However, since this is the nature of the
beast, it would be senseless to try and overpower it; better to try
and use it. Caring for people’s security and welfare must become a
beneficial, prestigious and mandatory task for politicians.

Heaps of articles, analytic reviews and books have been written
about terrorism, religious fundamentalism, ethnocratism, clan-based
mafias, corporate cover-ups, and the merger of government agencies
with criminal groups. The study of those factors that are injecting
increasingly negative dynamics into regional processes goes along
the same line. Numerous official organizations give enthusiastic
support to analysis in that vein. But by doing so, they willingly
or unwillingly prevent intellectual powers from working on more
important factors behind the regional developments. This work
requires that researchers use different methods of analysis of the
North Caucasian reality, and make other conclusions and other
recommendations for practical policy.

Everyday allusions to the “hard times of change” that have
befallen Russia have obviously inspired those who have carved
attractive niches for themselves in these very times and hesitate
at lifting a finger to bring about other times. On the contrary,
they attempt to prolong this “moment of sweetness” and sabotage –
quite openly – any attempts to change our common life (not their
corporate life) for the better. To put at ease the less sanguine
Russians, they argue that such moments of difficulty are
unavoidable at abrupt turning points of history. It’s sort of
unassailable logic, you see.

In the meantime, the unassailable element will remain unless the
people in power have common sense, willingness for action, and
morality. It is the latter three categories that have always
determined everything in this country, and logic based on them is
unassailable, indeed, and nothing can be done about it.
The so-called in-depth (i.e. irrevocable) historical processes
ostensibly taking place in the North Caucasus are secondary and
derivative in nature. Of primary importance is the systemic,
functional and moral degeneration of state power, government and
the executive sphere. To put the situation in the terms of physics,
power is turning into vacuum.

Meanwhile, complaints about the proponents of Wahhabi Islam,
terrorists, nationalists and other destructive elements that are
rushing in to the open space (“Nature abhors a vacuum”) are like
the grievances of a man whose car has been stolen. However, the
vehicle, it turns out, was left on the street with the doors open,
the engine running and a pile of banknotes lying on the seat.

The eternal Russian dilemma “What to do?” is no longer a
rhetorical question. Our tolerant people might wait indefinitely
for an answer if they did not have to pay for it with horrible
tragedies that make everything else pale by comparison.

A response to the above question, however, does exist. Remove
the causes that entice and compel a person to engage in terrorism,
fundamentalism, national radicalism, separatism, extortions, or
banal criminality. Offer him or her an alternative path that will
be more attractive and viable.

At the same time, condemn every criminal to an inescapable
punishment, regardless of his material or social status, and
Russia’s malignant illnesses will recede to zero.

The question “How can it be done?” is an operative and technical
problem, despite all of the complexities connected with the social,
political and moral disjointedness of Russian society – a society
that presently lacks ideas, faith and material status. Yet it
remains united on one point, namely, that Russia does have a future
and that its ills, although dangerous, are not fatal. It must be
said that should this hope vanish, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s well-known
geopolitical reveries will turn into reality.
We must act without hesitation, haste or feverishness, regardless
as to whether or not we believe in historical predestination. We
must act in spite of the forecasts that have been made for us.
Whatever end of the rope we finally decide to pull at, a powerful
and efficacious instrument will be needed. It was invented ages ago
and is called the Institution of Power. It must be made operational
in Russia generally and in the North Caucasus in particular. Only
then will we get the levers of direct control over the processes
that are now growing chaotic; the levers of immediate impact over
the causes and consequences that are often mixed up

Throughout Russian history, all creative and destructive plans
have been conceived and implemented from above. The Institution of
Power, half-dilapidated in the regions of the North Caucasus, is
the main source and catalyst of highly dangerous social tendencies.
It is no use sparing efforts or money for an overhaul, readjustment
and – if need be – full upgrade of the mechanism. Politics is a
costly thing, but economizing on it is much more costly.

Unlike the incessantly hesitant and pensive Russian
intellectuals, the bureaucrats know perfectly well what they want
to achieve and how to do it. However, since this kind of “esoteric
knowledge” aims to undermine the welfare of the people, the answer
is to build a system capable of radically changing the vector of
application of the force and talents of politicians and

The ruling class will never relinquish its own interests
voluntarily and the chances that the grim reality around it,
equally detrimental for those at the helm of power, will motivate
them to do so are also slim. They will continue to ignore this
objective reality until the branch of the tree they are sitting on
and chopping at the same time finally falls down. And yet there is
a chance that the political elite is rational enough to subdue to
the will, arguments and personal example shown by a charismatic
leader (or leaders) who is guided by passions loftier than simply
the desire to prolong his power.

Nowhere in the world do people feel any special love for the
Institution of Power. However, it does not have to be loved,
because it does not exist for this purpose. The population in the
North Caucasus dislikes state power, but it has a much greater
dislike for the absence of power; this situation brings to a head
the problem of the balance between freedom and security. These two
notions or ideals in North Caucasian society resemble a system of
communicating vessels to a greater degree than anywhere else. In
other words, the more water in one vessel, the less water in the

Public opinion in the North Caucasus is not simply loyal to the
idea of strengthening the vertical structure of state power. It
demands that words finally give way to deeds.

Rank-and-file working people are ready for a strategic union
with the Kremlin to bridle the boundless arbitrariness of their
elites. The people await clear signals from Moscow for some sort of
resolution to launch a new course. The Russian President has so far
refrained from sending those signals, and it is easy to understand
him. Fierce resistance on the part of those who may suffer from
such a volte-face is almost guaranteed. Thus, it may take the most
sophisticated forms of action – from petty sabotage to organized
protests employing a range of political technologies up to
large-scale provocations or even terror. But the federal
authorities have a well-tested tool for handling such situations;
it is a direct appeal to the nation. People’s rage against criminal
bureaucracy, on the one hand, and the Kremlin’s political will, on
the other, could turn into something of a Scylla and Charybdis
situation for the degenerate ruling class.

The struggle against a dragon with a hundred heads will never
result in a full victory, since it is not a zero-sum game. Yet it
can deal a telling blow, even though this will not be an easy
struggle. If the Kremlin decides to build an alliance with the
working masses of the Caucasus, their chances for victory will
increase. And who can prevent the federal authorities from using
equally effective political technologies against the outrageous
bureaucracy? In many cases, there will be no need for special
tricks. The Kremlin has a fine trump card in the pack: the class of
furtive administrators has enough things to lose. It cannot be
ruled out that this consideration will lead to the basic conclusion
that it is highly desirable to do guaranteed safekeeping of what it
has gained rather than to run neck-breaking risks of continued
enrichment, once this choice comes into limelight. It is important
to put those who deserve it in that dilemma.

After this happens, the Kremlin will have to offer a reward in
the form of the notorious economic amnesty. However, those
amnesties must not be granted to everyone. Such campaigns
necessarily require victims that should be selected prudently from
among the most odious figures, that is, those who hurl abusive
challenges unbearable even in a society with devalued notions of
dignity, consciousness, and justice.

History knows many instances of rulers directly appealing to the
people, yet the contemporary code of civilized behavior, however,
declares it a forbidden technique and bad taste. But the problem is
that the decorum and political correctness in the conduct of top
state officials contrast sharply with the bloodstained reality in
the North Caucasus that calls for a more adequate treatment and a
more functional approach.

Ideally, the prerogative of putting things into order would
belong to a strong democratic power, otherwise the working masses
might bless an authoritarian state power to do the job. This would
entice authoritarians to concentrate maximum power in their hands;
this usually comes to mean totalitarianism.

Another option, known as “the golden mean,” is generally
possible in Russia, considering its huge size, but unfortunately it
does not exist in the North Caucasus. Following the collapse of the
Soviet Union, which removed Russia’s supra-identity of a strong
power, the masses of the North Caucasian population adopted ethnic,
clan, corporate and other highly marginalized forms of
self-identification as replacements for it. The paradox of
globalization in that region is that its peoples have chosen the
path of restoring traditionalist patriarchal relations dating from
the 17th and 18th centuries. These presuppose clan hierarchy,
infighting among clans for top positions on the hierarchic ladder,
a system of subordination resembling that of vassals and suzerains,
and the practice of subservience and tributes with a respective
distribution of community wealth and important roles. Add to this
list the guaranteed collective cover-ups and very specific notions
of crime and punishment, implemented through the sporadic revival
of common law.

All of these factors intertwine in a complicated way with the
latest assets of modern civilization, including those from the
realm of economics and finance.
These circumstances make it highly impractical to hold out hope for
the self-organization of the North Caucasian regions along the
principles of civic society’s dictum “from the bottom to the top,”
a general pattern of social relations which evolved in Western
countries over many centuries. At the same time, the coercive
materialization of such a democratic utopia in the North Caucasus
would only mean a huge squandering of resources with unpredictable
consequences. If the Kremlin aims to breed evolutional democracy in
the North Caucasus, that region will be lost for Russia and for
democracy likewise.

Post-Soviet experience shows that building parties and
democracies in small traditionalist societies becomes a plausible
and “civilized” cover for inter-clan and inter-mafia wars, and
infighting between criminal groupings. The North Caucasian blend of
“democracy” paves a direct and legal road to power for people
engaged in ominous and destructive “passionarity,” a term coined by
20th century Russian philosopher Lev Gumilyov. The most tragic fact
in all of this is that society stops distinguishing between the
much-hated image of predator and the image of the Russian

The outstanding liberal historian Vassily Klyuchevsky, the
leader of Russian historiography at the turn of the 19th and 20th
centuries, made public his aversion against the principle of tying
Russia’s social life to political parties, believing it might bring
about a split in society. Imagine the impact of that principle on
tiny (compared with the Russian nation) social, ethnic and cultural

The history of Russia’s imposition of power in the North
Caucasus was a dilemma of choosing between “much blood” and “little
blood.” Oftentimes, the czarist government managed to settle its
problems there through a minimum of political intervention. The war
in the Caucasus in the middle of the 19th century embodied a war
between two civilizational projects – the Russian Imperial and the
Islamic Fundamentalist (so-called muridist) models. Strength alone
was not the only reason why the former project emerged victorious.
The people viewed it as a much more promising option for a number
of reasons. The main reason was the confidence that the power of
the Russian Empire would guarantee external and internal security
to its subjects, and security is a precondition for survival,
welfare and development.

The “struggle between projects” is making a return today, not
because the idea of strong power has become less attractive, but
rather because of the dearth of people ready to translate it into
practice. Adepts of radical Islam have a keen sense for the general
moods in impoverished, multiethnic, corrupt and ethnocratic
societies with a deficit of order, justice and unity. Wahhabi
fundamentalists, for example, have an advantage in that they have a
clear program for how to implement their ideals. Its provisions are
clear-cut and presuppose the forming of a supra-national spiritual
identity based on the commandments of pure Islam, which opposes
human and social vices, nationalism, social fractures, public
disorder, and crime, on the one hand, and Russia’s secular
‘infidel’ presence as the embodiment of all those vices, on the
other. In a situation where the Kremlin does not have a
counter-project with a comparable moral charge, the Wahhabi ideas
are gaining momentum in people’s minds, especially among the
naturally radical young.

Those Russian liberals and Great Russia chauvinists, acting
under the slogan, “Jettison them [the North Caucasus] and live a
happy life,” simply play into the hands of the fundamentalists.
While the liberals cite the “sacred” principle of
self-determination and the absence of readiness in patriarchal
societies to go over to the post-industrial stage of development,
the chauvinists claim that the “non-Russian” region is incompatible
with the rest of Russia.

Nothing is more dangerous and vicious than an approach of that
kind, and the harder the West pushes us in that direction, the more
grounds we have to believe that its intentions are not all

There was an occasion in 1991 when we jettisoned the “worthless
baggage” of the former Soviet republics, and yet the prospects of
leading a happy life are as remote now as they were at that time,
to say nothing of the geopolitical consequences.

The English philosopher William of Ockham warned that “entities
must not be multiplied beyond what is necessary.” His call is
especially topical in the North Caucasus where “entities have
multiplied” to a degree that borders on chaos. Lest that chaos
should set in, the situation must be made simpler, and this process
must be implemented from above. Otherwise it will become so complex
at the bottom that the situation will spiral out of control

The spaces of the North Caucasus abound in Gordian knots these
days and we will have to cut them. This will require willingness
and courage, and the sources we can draw them from still exist. One
of them derives from the Caucasian mentality. People in the
Caucasus have always praised a government that behaves like a
government. Today, it is the Kremlin’s turn to understand this.