The North Caucasus: The Value and Costs for Russia
No. 4 2013 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

From a Regional Problem to a National Dilemma

The North Caucasus is a delicate issue among the Russian expert community and foreign analysts examining the problems of Russia and post-Soviet space. Remarkably, there have been profound shifts in those discussions. While previously developments in the North Caucasus were primarily looked at from the viewpoint of inter-ethnic relations and regional policies, today this theme has expanded to a pan-Russian scale. It is not Chechnya, Ingushetia, or Dagestan per se that matter; rather, it is how the Russian heartland perceives those regions.

What price is Russia paying for the North Caucasus—not only in material terms, but also in political terms? Does the presence of the problem region within Russia make it stronger or weaker? Does the North Caucasus open up new opportunities for Russia in international politics? To what degree can the government trust the North Caucasian regional elites? Do Moscow residents and people living in other historically central areas perceive people from the Caucasus as fellow-countrymen or foreigners? Should the federal government continue to “feed” the North Caucasus by supporting loss-making regions in southern Russia? Should Russia draft soldiers from the region to serve in its military? Is Russia correct in bringing executives, researchers, students, and postgraduates from the region, and collaborating with local businesses?

These questions are the focus of the North Caucasian agenda today. All these problems did not spring up recently. Indeed, issues arose when the “new Russia,” which had just repelled attacks by proponents of the Soviet project, faced a separatist challenge from Chechnya and numerous ethnic political and religious problems in the southern part of its territory. In the two decades since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the subject of the North Caucasus has reemerged habitually not only in current political debates, but also in a historical context. For instance, the “Circassian problem” intensified during preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Additionally, during the numerous “memory wars,” historical figures such as the nineteenth-century generals Yermolov and Zass, Admiral Lazarev and Imam Shamil, ceased to be legendary heroes or antiheroes; instead, they were made active participants in current political debates. In the fall of 2013, two events caught the attention of the mass media and experts: the first event was the reopening of the Dadi-Yurt memorial in Chechnya after its reconstruction. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov fully supported the concept of a memorial devoted to victims of the Caucasian War of 1819. Activists from the Officers of Russia organization responded to the memorial by sending a request to Russian President Vladimir Putin to erect a monument to General Alexei Yermolov, a famous Russian commander. In the second case, President Ramazan Abdulatipov of Dagestan criticized the official hymn of Krasnodar Territory. He saw signs of ethnic strife in its lyrics (which read, in part, “We shall wage a mortal fight against the enemy, the busurman” [a busurman is an enemy of Islamic origin in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—Ed.].

The pervasive spread of separatism continues to exacerbate the current political situation. As a result, federal and regional officials have to figure out the benefits and costs of living together. The search for answers to these questions stretches far beyond the boundaries of the North Caucasus and relates to the active formation of Russia’s civic and political identity. The solution to the Caucasus issue is synonymous with determining the future of the project for building Russian statehood, in both domestic and foreign policy.

Statements about the strategic value of the North Caucasus for Russia and Eurasia have turned into a truism. Yet the region is more than simply a gateway to warm seas, a land rich in mineral resources (a fact political commenters frequently overstate when oil is concerned), and a territory with a great potential for tourism. As the Russian scholar Yuri Polyakov sagely remarked: “the Caucasus is not a gate one can open or close.” It is, above all, a territory made up of ethnic political and religious interactions that, under certain circumstances, might play a role in the strengthening of Russia and its global positions. Yet it may also evolve into a dangerous frontier that will continue to pose a challenge even if Russia decides it is too expensive and disadvantageous to continue supporting the region financially. Much has been done over the past twenty years to translate the frontier scenario into reality. Yet the situation is not irreversible. A serious debate about how the North Caucasus fits into the Russian state is needed in order to curb the growth of dangerous tendencies that threaten Russia’s unity and territorial integrity.


A disturbing conclusion can be drawn from sociological research conducted in the past several years: the attitude of Russians towards the North Caucasus ranges from antagonistic to utter contempt. The North Caucasus, which is part of the Russian Federation, is not considered a valuable asset. Alternatively, a de facto introduction of apartheid has been proposed as the price to maintain Russia’s integrity. Sharp antagonistic reactions most typically occur after huge terrorist attacks, such as the 24 January 2011 suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport (which claimed 37 lives and was the biggest terrorist attack against any international airport). According to research conducted by the Levada Center in February 2011, 24% of respondents said they supported the idea of sealing the borders between the North Caucasus and Russia. When asked what instruments should be used to enforce policies in the North Caucasus, 36% of respondents pointed to tighter control over migration and another 18% wanted to separate from the North Caucasus. But even without linking the “North Caucasian issue” to terrorist acts, the respondents tended towards a tough reaction. In December 2012, the Levada Center conducted a poll on Russia’s hypothetical enemies, in which “Chechen separatists” and Islamic fundamentalists ranked second and fifth respectively, with 39% and 20% (while the U.S., NATO, and Western forces were first, third, and fourth). The Russian Academy of Sciences’ Sociology Institute cites its own data for 2012, which shows that 10%-15% of those polled supported the “Russia for the Russians” idea, and 30% spoke in favor of granting political and legal privileges to Russians, the country’s biggest ethnic group. A Levada Center poll in October 2013 in 130 towns and cities in 45 constituent regions revealed that 71% of respondents supported the idea that “it is time to stop feeding the Caucasus,” while 63% spoke in favor of toughening the registration regulations for migrants and for their movement around the country in general. Moreover, 61.5% of those polled said they were afraid when they met people from the North Caucasian regions and from former Central Asian republics. They did not see any major differences between the two categories, although the former are Russian citizens and the latter are foreigners. Also, 62% expressed confidence that there would be a repeat of inter-ethnic clashes similar to those that took place on Moscow’s Manezh Square in 2010 or in the capital’s southern Biryulyovo district in the autumn of 2013.Dmitry Furman, one of the main theorists of Russia’s post-Soviet transition, described the phenomenon as follows: “We have achieved a pure formality in the Caucasus. The notion that the North Caucasus is not part of Russia is embedded in the mass consciousness of the average Russian. Polls show that people from the North Caucasus are more alien for ordinary Russians than Ukrainians or Belarusians. All sorts of ideas about restrictions on migration refer to individuals of the Asiatic race, descendants from the Caucasus, and our North Caucasus, too.”

Still, the problem does not boil down to sociology alone. Demands for the political and legal isolation of the North Caucasus, and the introduction of an apartheid regime, come from certain public movements (their low numbers and seemingly marginal position should not mislead anyone) and state power agencies. A new public and political trend has become popular in Russia in recent years that can be defined as a new Russian nationalism or Russian separatism (represented by the Russian Civil Union, the Russian Public Movement, the Russian Platform, and the New Force party). It has not taken on institutional forms, although some steps in that direction have already been made. In contrast to previous generations of politicians who spoke out in defense of the Russian people and called for preferential treatment for ethnic Russians, the “new nationalists” neither deny federalism nor democracy. The rhetoric of human rights also creeps into the speeches of its representatives and ideologists. But along with that, they unambiguously stand against the asymmetric structure of the country and call for a unification of the political and legal status of all constituent territories of the Russian Federation (which in itself arouses the concern of ethnic state entities). In addition, those politicians want to introduce visas for citizens of Central Asian and South Caucasian countries, and enact a set of restrictions for Russian citizens living in the North Caucasus (stricter resident registration rules, introducing internal migration regulations, and scaling back on financial aide to subsidized regions in the North Caucasus).

Recently, the New Force party has been rather active. It has a “Stop Migration!” action and a campaign called “The Stavropol Territory Is Not the Caucasus” on its record. The idea of “separating” the Stavropol Territory from the North Caucasian republics has been raised in public discussions on two occasions at least in recent years. An Internet poll conducted in 2010 to examine public opinion about the idea of returning the Stavropol Territory from the North Caucasian Federal District to the South Federal District was supported by 10,500 people. Furthermore, the idea was voiced by various public associations in Stavropol and presented publicly during the so-called Russian March campaign the same year. Proposals went as far as renaming the Stavropol Territory as the Stavropol Russian Republic. The 2013 campaign organized by New Force ended after several attempts to make it a pan-Russian event. A mass rally held in Nevinnomyssk on 26 January 2013, where the police detained 139 participants at the unauthorized public meeting, turned into a particularly resounding event.

Executive officials and ‘system’ politicians with parliamentary mandates have introduced ideas promulgated by the “new nationalists” into the public discourse. The idea of separating the Stavropol Territory from the North Caucasus received support from Ilya Drozdov, a State Duma deputy representing the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and a member of the parliamentary Committee on CIS Affairs.

On 2 August 2012, Krasnodar Territory Governor Alexander Tkachev came up with a new initiative to establish a Cossack police force in the region. At an enlarged session of the territorial Interior Department board, Tkachev explained that the Cossacks should help prevent a mass resettlement of residents of the North Caucasus into his region. He laid out a super-task for himself—to turn the Krasnodar Territory into a sort of “migration filter” because, as he put it, the neighboring Stavropol Territory had proven inefficient in that regard. “Here we have the people of Kuban [the name of a major river in southern Russia, after which the entire Krasnodar territory is often referred—Ed.], who have their own laws and who are really tough guys,” Tkachev said. Notably, Tkachev has an informal status that is higher than the position of an ordinary regional governor. Tkachev presides over a region where top government officials spend their holidays, as well as have protocol and informal meetings. Moreover, Sochi, the territory’s major resort city, is the host of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games—an event whose significance expands far beyond the scope of a just another global sporting event. The Sochi Games are meant to demonstrate Russia’s return to the premier league of world politics. The strategic positioning of Kuban is crucial: it is Russia’s number three constituent region (with a population of around 5.5 million) after Moscow and Moscow region. Kuban encompasses the entire sector of the Black Sea coast that Russia inherited after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The ports of Novorossiysk and Tuapse are first and third in the country in terms of cargo turnover.

Russians are accustomed to hearing bizarre statements from LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is also a Deputy Speaker of the State Duma. However, his calls for restricting childbirths in the ethnic republics of the North Caucasus (by introducing a penalty for the birth of a third child) and fencing off the area with barbed wire, which he made on 26 October 2013 during a television program hosted by the journalist Vladimir Solovyov, sparked indignation among the North Caucasian elites and human rights activists, and produced a strong negative reaction from the public and politicians. Yet it is clear that complete separation or, at a minimum, isolation of the North Caucasus is a potentially appealing idea for some politicians in their efforts to attract voters.

Furthermore, officials and MPs apply the term ‘diaspora’ to people living in the North Caucasian ethnic republics, although the word denotes a community of people who are from one country, but live in another country.

Russia’s supreme power has the opposite position: the federal government persistently defends the principles of political unity for Russian citizens and the territorial integrity of the country. This policy has been manifest in the creation of the Presidential Council for Inter-Ethnic Relations (which held its first session on 24 August 2012) and the adoption of the State National Policy Strategy up until 2025 (endorsed on 19 December 2012). The document highlights the consolidation of an “all-Russian civic consciousness and spiritual community of the multiethnic people of the Russian Federation (the Russian nation).” Also, Zhirinovsky’s aforesaid declaration received sharp criticism from Putin, who told the LDPR leader in explicit terms on 6 November 2013: “You have a stable electorate and there is no need to address just one part of it in order to consolidate your personal positions in detriment to the fundamental interests of the entire country.” Yet, in spite of consistent efforts to protect the principles of a pan-Russian civil nation and reject xenophobia, top-ranking state officials in some statements put the North Caucasus in opposition to the rest of the country. For instance, after riots broke out on Moscow’s Manezh Square, then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on 21 December 2010: “Each of us has a small motherland of his own and each of us takes pride in it. But I wouldn’t give ten kopecks for the health of someone who comes to the Caucasus from the central parts of Russia and mistreats the Quran there.” Putin called for toughening the registration rules for migrants in big cities if they continued to encroach on local customs and laws. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said at the Mashuk 2013 forum in August 2013 that a transition period prior to the reintroduction of direct elections of regional governors might be necessary in cases “where the political culture is still different.”


In their presentations human rights activists and U.S. and European experts refer to the growing contrast between the North Caucasus and the rest of Russia as a result of rising xenophobia in central parts of the country. This is often perceived as a legacy of the “imperial tradition” or a manifestation of “great power chauvinism.” There is no doubt that xenophobia and Russian ethnic nationalism play a role in this process, but reducing the problem in this way would be an oversimplification.

Firstly, the North Caucasus is regarded, and not without reason, as a region that generates threats and political instability. Of the 19 entities included on the Russian Supreme Court’s list of designated terrorist organizations, three are associated with the North Caucasus (the remaining 16 are foreign, originating mainly in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). The “Emirate Caucasus” is the only organization operating in Russia that appears on the terrorist lists of other countries. The U.S. State Department has included the Emirate’s leader Doku Umarov on those lists as a person whose actions pose a threat not only to Russia, but also to the U.S. A total of 1,225 people fell victim to armed violence in the North Caucasus in 2012 alone (700 were killed and 525 injured). Despite a considerable decline in the number of incidents in 2013, the region is still a dangerous place. Some 124 people were killed and 75 injured in the first quarter of 2013; 118 were killed and 178 were injured in the second quarter of the year; and 133 were killed and 90 were injured in the third quarter of the year. Instability in the North Caucasus is spreading far beyond the region. Jihad fighters from the North Caucasus have carried out terrorist attacks against railways (an attack on a high-speed train between Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2009), in Moscow (subway bombings in 2010 and at the Domodedovo airport in 2011), and in Volgograd (a bomb went off on a bus in 2013). North Caucasian jihadist fighters also claimed to have taken their activities to the Volga Federal District. In fact, Islamic groups, including radical ones, have become a much more significant factor in the social and political life of the Volga and Urals regions over the past several years.

Secondly, the ethnic and demographic balance in the North Caucasus changed considerably between the last Soviet census in 1989 and the second Russian census in 2010. Some authors speak of the region’s “de-Russification,” while others describe the region as the “internal abroad” within Russia. In any case, many ties between the Russian ethnic majority and the North Caucasian world (in a broader cultural sense) have been severed. Of the seven North Caucasian republics, tiny Adygeya (surrounded by Krasnodar Territory) is the only one where the number of ethnic Russians has not declined significantly. This trend was first registered in the Soviet era (as evidenced in the censuses of 1959-1989), but assumed a markedly new dimension in the past two and a half decades. The share of ethnic Russians has shrunk to 3.5% from 9% in Dagestan, to 22.55% from 31.95% in Kabardino-Balkaria, and to 31.4% from 45% in Karachayevo-Cherkessia (where Russians used to make up the largest community. They are now the second largest). Chechnya and Ingushetia stand out in this respect. In 1989, Russians made up 24% percent of the population in the Chechen-Ingush Republic. According to the national census of 2010, their share decreased to 1.92% in Chechnya and to 0.78% in Ingushetia. Russians were forced out of Chechnya in unspeakable ways, which were largely overlooked by Russian and Western human rights activists. In one of her interviews, Lidia Grafova, Chair of the Forum for Migrants’ Organizations, said: “We are guilty towards Russian refugees from Chechnya. By ‘we’ I mean the human rights movement as a whole. We allowed public sympathy to focus solely on Chechens. It’s probably one of the twists of democracy when society supports the minority by discriminating against the majority.” One way or another, ethnic and demographic processes in the North Caucasus after the breakup of the Soviet Union, which were accompanied by conflict, socioeconomic transformations, and privatization where ethnic solidarity played a big role, helped foster a negative attitude in society towards the Caucasus.These processes also raised concern about internal migration from the region to other parts of Russia. This is not the only reason, but one of the reasons why relocation programs never worked to attract human resources from Dagestan and Ingushetia, which have an excessive labor supply, to regions lacking it (in the Penza Region’s Narovchatsky District alone the population shrank by 13.4% between 2002-2010). In 2010-2011, 150 people were relocated to the Penza Region from Dagestan and Ingushetia, but a project suggested by Alexander Khloponin, presidential envoy to the North Caucasian Federal District and a deputy prime minister, to move labor migrants from Ingushetia to the Sverdlovsk Region failed.

Thirdly, the North Caucasian republics are disadvantaged both economically and socially, and register the worst performance indicators in Russia (except for some agricultural products). Once leading industrial enterprises have closed (the Tyrnyauz ore mining and processing plant in Kabardino-Balkaria) or have dramatically cut production and barely manage to remain afloat (Electrozinc in North Ossetia, and the Caspian Plant in Dagestan that makes products for the defense industry). It is symbolic that the Federal Security Service and the Interior Ministry conducted a joint operation against armed fighters who had holed up in one of Tyrnyauz’s abandoned mines in October 2010. The North Caucasian republics also have the highest unemployment rates in the country. In 2012, the North Caucasian Federal District topped the list with the most unemployed people (14.6%). This rate is particularly high among young people. All this requires increased attention from the federal government, which, however, is largely seen as giving priority to the Caucasus while neglecting the rest of the country, especially problem-ridden neighboring regions (Stavropol Territory) or Central Russia.

Fourthly, over the past two decades the level of participation by North Caucasian republics in nationwide processes has declined to a critical point. Military service is the most vivid example. The problem of drafting conscripts into the army from this region has remained unsolved since the end of the Soviet era. According to Yavnus Dzhambalayev, head of the department of conscription at a recruiting station in Dagestan (the largest republic in the North Caucasus), 1,335 young men are to be drafted into the Russian army by 31 December 2013, twice as many as last spring. But these are plans. In reality, two groups of 170 and 149 conscripts were actually called up in November, even though Dagestan is believed to have the largest number of young people in Russia, where the average age of residents is 26-27 years old (the upper age limit for conscription), and young people aged from 14-30 years account for 33% of the population. So quantitative improvements in the recruitment process do not appear to be working and may be considered positive only when compared to figures for last autumn, which clearly show that only 179 young men were drafted in Dagestan, the biggest North Caucasian republic. In July 2012, for the first time in many years, 150 Chechens were called up to active duty in the 249th special motorized battalion of the Interior Troops, which is permanently stationed in Chechnya. This news was nearly a sensation, even though the number of young men eligible for conscription in Chechnya was about 80,000.

Things get edgier with the appearance of various “leaks” of “authoritative opinions” or even public positions claiming that no more young men will be drafted into the army from the North Caucasus. On 18 June 2012, RIA Novosti quoted a Defense Ministry official as saying that conscripts from the North Caucasus would not be called up for military service. The official said this would also apply to North Caucasians living in other parts of Russia, purportedly in order to get rid of ethnic “fraternities” and hazing. On 15 April 2011, the Chelyabinsk Region’s chief enlistment officer Nikolai Zakharov said that, in his opinion, young men from the North Caucasian republics should not be drafted into the army and even referred to an order from the General Staff issued in an attempt to reduce ethnic tensions in the military. This “secret order” allegedly issued by the top military command was actively debated in the mass media. Later, Defense Ministry officials denied the existence of a “North Caucasian directive.” And yet, there is no clear plan about how to solve the problem of conscription in the North Caucasus.

Fifthly, the Russian authorities encourage administrative particularism in the North Caucasus, which helps to solve some tactical tasks, but at the same time does little for the region’s integration into Russia’s political, legal, and cultural system. Chechnya’s secession from Russia is no longer a politically relevant issue today. Chechnya is the only unrecognized republic to have split off from a newly independent post-Soviet state and to have been brought back under the control of the central government. Not only was Chechnya brought back, but it was turned into a showcase of exemplary loyalty to the federal authorities. And both the federal government and experts have given credit to Kadyrov for political stability in the republic. In 2009, the counterterrorist regime was lifted in Chechnya. The number of terrorist attacks is decreasing even though they still occur. In 2012, attacks affected 174 people (82 were killed), which is somewhat less than in 2011 (186 injured and 92 killed). For comparison, 695 people were victims of terrorist attacks (405 killed) in neighboring Dagestan. In the fall of 2011, it was announced that Kadyrov had finally eradicated the practice of blood feuds, a centuries-old phenomenon that neither the tsar nor Soviet power could eliminate. In one year, Kadyrov reconciled 450 families and dissolved his ad-hoc reconciliation commission. Large-scale federal funding has turned the republic into a leader of regional investment.

However, there is another side to the story. The cost of Chechnya’s incorporation into Russia is what matters above all. A special political regime has been established in the republic de facto and Russian laws have limited application on its territory (the constitutional principles of separation of church from the state and education, and gender equality are largely ignored). Moreover, the federal authorities (courts, prosecutors, and military units in Chechnya) can only partially perform their functions. Chechen law enforcement agencies are basically subordinated to the republic’s leader. The Chechen leadership is carrying out campaigns against radical insurgents. However, driven by the “Kadyrov effect,” the insurgents simply migrate to other North Caucasian republics (Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria) or outside Russia. There is a certain category of crimes (murders, abductions) in Chechnya that may not be investigated by Russian investigative agencies operating in the republic, and all Chechen law offenders serve their prison terms in Chechnya (if they are detained outside the republic, they must be transported back to their home region). Chechen draftees do not do their military service outside the republic in other Russian regions, and only a limited number of young people are actually called up. Chechnya’s special informal status also strengthens the perception of the North Caucasus as a state within a state.

Undoubtedly, one of the major events of 2013 is the arrest of former Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov, who has been a central figure in Dagestan for years. Amirov had direct access to the top political leadership and important entrepreneurs in Moscow, thus bypassing the republic’s authorities, and had his say in key administrative decisions in areas that went far beyond his professional competence. In addition to administrative influence, he also had his “force resources.” In 1999, when Shamil Basayev and Khattab led a raid on Dagestan, Amirov came up with his own defense group in support of the federal government. That support and similar assistance from other regional “barons” was a key factor in Russia’s successful fight against the spread of separatist tendencies across the North Caucasus. Despite all of this, Amirov not only held office for many years, but also received state awards and public support from the higher authorities. However his arrest has not led to systemic changes in the federal government’s ways of organizing the system of power in the North Caucasus. In fact, people like Amirov did not appear out of the blue. They emerged when the largest North Caucasian republic was basically left to its own devices, with separatist Ichkeria next to it, and had to address the intricate “Lezgin” issue with newly independent Azerbaijan and handle the relocation of Kvareli Avars from Georgia. Other issues included privatization and the transition from a centrally planned economy to new economic mechanisms.

This brings us to the sixth point: the growing isolation of the North Caucasus (accompanied by the rise of ethnic nationalism in the 1990s and Islam in the early 2000s) is to be blamed not so much on local or foreign preachers, as on the collapse of secular systems that regulated different aspects of life. The land shortage and continued urbanization are worth special mention. People are moving out of rural areas because there are no jobs. Traditional ethnic areas are being eroded, and principles of private property are at odds with the perception of ethnic property, when members of a certain ethnic group might have advantages in gaining access to property or power in a specific territory. Additionally, judicial and administrative systems are not efficient. This has prompted appeals to mosques, sheiks, and Salafi groups to act as arbiters. As a result, such “competition of jurisdictions” leads to both conflicts and violence, as there are always problems with recognizing a certain religious leader as the only legitimate authority.SEPARATISM AND APARTHEID: DANGEROUS PROSPECTS

Keeping the North Caucasus as a full part of Russia is a real problem. Yet it is important to avoid simple solutions when addressing this issue. The idea of “separating the Caucasus” through a discretionary decision by the central government, which has been quite popular in the blogosphere, or creating “special conditions” for it (de facto apartheid) do not stand up to close criticism. First of all, such a separation will not stop ethnic migration (the main fear among Muscovites and people living in large central Russian cities). The region is neither homogeneous nor is it united in its opposition to Moscow, as some die-hard media clichés claim. Therefore, such a hypothetical separation would inevitably raise questions about borders, possible countries, and de-facto entities. No strong statehood will exist in the “separated Caucasus,” but there will be “a war of all against all” (Sufis against Salafis, Islamic fundamentalists against secular nationalists, not to mention conflicts between different ethnic projects). The Russian Caucasus “in free float” is not Algeria in the early 1960s. Either the Russian government will have no one with whom to negotiate or it will have to talk with almost every influential field commander. As a result, pulling out of the region will be the only vital alternative for its residents. Furthermore, the U.S. and the European Union, which already have big immigration problems, are unlikely to open their doors to people from the “stateless” North Caucasus.

Second, what is going to happen to ethnic Russians living in Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Adygeya, and in parts of Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia, as well as to members of the ethnic North Caucasian groups living in other regions of Russia from Stavropol to Vladivostok? Third, military infrastructure (the Russian fleet, border outposts, and Defense Ministry units) is another key question, which proves wrong those who insist that Russia should “save budget funds” by ending financial assistance to the North Caucasus. The “stop feeding them” problem will only change into other kinds of expenditures (building military barracks, providing housing to the military and their families, establishing border infrastructure and ensuring its operation). Those who want to isolate the Caucasus obviously forget that there are a significant number of people in the region who want to remain under Russian jurisdiction. These include the people who fought in Chechnya on the side of Russia in the 1990s and in Dagestan in 1999, as well as government officials, police, entrepreneurs, and ordinary citizens.

Fourth, the loss of the Caucasus will inevitably exacerbate problems previously kept on the backburner. If “truncated,” Russia will face problems with other national state entities, such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Tyva, and Yakutia. In fact, even some members of the neo-Cossack movement do not consider themselves Russian and claim Cossacks are a unique people. So, the “separation” of the Caucasus will set a precedent; it will not be an abstract case like that of Kosovo, Abkhazia, or South Ossetia.

Fifth, the loss of the North Caucasus will take a heavy toll on Russian foreign policy. The presence of a North Caucasian republic with a Muslim population within Russia has allowed Moscow to participate in many geopolitical areas and wield its influence not only in the West, but also in the Islamic world. Considering the growing role of the Middle East and Southeast Asia in global political affairs, it would be strange to give up such a tool, let alone take a position in opposition to Islam and its advocates.

And finally, even if we do not talk about the separation of the Caucasus formally, it would be impossible to enforce an apartheid regime in the modern world, and not only because of moral or ethical considerations. Racial segregation in the U.S., Australia, and South Africa in the past was possible only because of the enormous educational gap between the white and non-white population. However, as soon as the level of education among the non-white population increased, those who were repressed started demanding equal rights and the abolition of apartheid. The ideas of a “special” or “closed” status for the Caucasus are based on improper notions of an ostensibly permanent “traditionalism” of this region and its subjugation to blood and family relationships. In reality, traditional Caucasian public structures are undergoing a serious crisis and a deep transformation. The Chechen teips no longer live together and do not share any land. The institution of elders is degenerating, undermined by armed conflicts in which weapons are more important than respect for age. A generational conflict has accompanied the Islamic revival. Older members of society hold no authority for young Salafi people, who consider them “wrong” and “superficial” Muslims. Russian Islamist Vladimir Bobrovnikov may be quite right in saying that “the pre-revolutionary Muslim identity of the Caucasian highlanders changed abruptly and irreversibly at first during pre-revolution Russian reforms in the second half of the 19th century, and then during collectivization and Soviet national and linguistic reorganizations in the 1920-1950s. By and large, the ‘highlanders’ are not highlanders any more but distant descendants of the people who lived in the mountains a long time ago.”

Moreover, at the start of the twenty-first century, North Caucasian society is well educated regardless of ethnic background and is part of the Russian and global information environment. Any attempt to abolish equal citizenship in Russia de facto or implement some kind of apartheid regime will fuel a counter reaction and provoke a tide of separatism and ethnic nationalism, differently directed but equally destructive for the country. In fact, who will voluntarily accept “migration filters” for North Caucasian residents if they are officially put in place in the Stavropol and Krasnodar Territories or in Moscow? That is a rhetorical question.

There are also other reasons why it is impossible to build walls against “aliens”: these are the natural laws of economics, geography and demography. With the growing population in the North Caucasus, a shortage of land in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia, and high unemployment (especially among young people), no cordons could stop people migrating from the region to find work. Moreover, such barriers would actually be desirable as a preventive social measure: the Caucasian “pot” is more likely to explode without internal migration. Farmland in Dagestan makes up 66% of the republic’s territory and about 70% of that land is pastureland, while the amount of arable land per resident is one-third of the Russian average. Additionally, it is important to point out the migration of Russians from rural areas to the cities and the declining efficiency of farming among the “indigenous population.” In the end, this is not about “good Russians” or “good Caucasians,” but about how to effectively and legally ensure loyalty to the Russian state and society, not only among members of different ethnic groups, but also among people with different social and economic practices and work ethics.

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Russian separatist ideas or the introduction of apartheid will not solve the pressing problems of this complicated region and Russia at large. On the contrary, their translation into practice will invite new conflicts and isolate various parts of the country and ethnic groups, as well as fragment the state. Yet this thesis does not mean that the authorities defending the current quo status could restrict their activity to standard criticism of the extremists. The idea of “running away from the Caucasus” is nourished not only by garish populist slogans, but also by inaction on the part of those who should take preventive measures to counter ethnic and religious outbursts, and legally resolve ownership, household, and other disputes.

Consequently, the most important task is to ensure that the Russian state is an integrating force, impartial arbiter, and guarantor of security in the North Caucasus. A conscript army is a power organization and, more importantly, a crucial instrument for integrating various segments of society. Given overpopulation and excessive labor resources in the region, where the average age of the population is between 26-28 years old, the army could be a path to upward social mobility and a real alternative to clandestine groups and criminal businesses. In terms of regional social and economic development, the federal authorities should be guided first by projects that create opportunities for the population (jobs and business) rather than by the interests of important business leaders in Moscow. In turn, this will create foundations of loyalty; while an efficient program of internal migration will help the federal government resolve several tasks (developing neglected and sparsely populated regions of the country, reducing demographic loads on the Caucasus, and engaging the local people in pan-Russia processes). Federal support for civil institutions in the ethnic Caucasus republics would create a massive pillar of support to counter the arbitrary rule of clans and corruption. However, while discussing all these measures we should bear in mind that none of the changes in the North Caucasus will work outside of the general all-Russia context without a radical transformation of the entire federal machinery and a drastic reform of ethnic policies. We will fail to create a prosperous country if we do not transform these policies from a package of folklore and ethnographic festivities into a strategy of forming an all-Russia citizen.