The North Caucasus is far more unstable and more threatening to Moscow’s control than it was a year ago, despite widespread acceptance of Vladimir Putin’s assertions to the contrary. There are three reasons for that conclusion: First, across the region, Islam and nationalism are reinforcing rather than undercutting one another, something that makes dealing with either far more difficult. Second, the militants in the field have changed their strategy, shifting to smaller groups that are harder to identify, even as they get more support from those who are nominally part of the official government power structures. And third, the situations in the region’s republics east to west are far more diverse than even 12 months ago, and thus policies that will work in one place will not work elsewhere and may even create dangerous precedents that will further enflame the region.
Just how much more explosive the North Caucasus now is can be seen by reviewing conditions in five different areas. First, in Chechnya—the focal point of so much of Moscow’s attention in the past—opposition to the center is more often found in Ramzan Kadyrov’s halls of power than it is in the mountains. But that opposition, which has left this restive republic more Islamic and independent-minded than it ever was in the 1990s, presents ever greater threats to Moscow even as it offers greater opportunities for the opponents of secularism elsewhere in the region (see EDM, September 28, 2012).
Second, in Dagestan, the situation has deteriorated to the point that Moscow reversed itself this fall and decided it could live more easily with Dagestanis inside the Russian army than with Dagestanis going into the hills to fight the Moscow-backed government. At this writing, it is not clear whether this strategy will work or if it will in fact, as it has in the past, produce even more anti-Russian attitudes among young men who experience dedovshchina (hazing) and anti-Muslim attitudes among the still predominantly ethnic Russian soldiers and officer corps (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2012/11/window-on-eurasia-new-russian-defense.html; www.odnako.org/blogs/sow_22348; www.bigcaucasus.com/events/topday/29-11-2012/81657-dagestan_army-0/).
Third, particularly in the remaining bi- or multi-national republics—such as Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Dagestan—conflicts over land use as well as over the allocation of resources and positions in the government have intensified over the last year, with some of them leading to violence. Moscow faces a Hobson’s choice: if it backs one side or the other, it will infuriate some locally; if it refuses to do so, the center virtually guarantees that at least portions of these republics will pass out of its control (www.eng.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/21530/).
Fourth, the developments in Georgia, as Valery Dzutsev has pointed out in his writings (see EDM, November 27, 2012) have left the North Caucasians uncertain about the foreign capital that had been their greatest ally. Tbilisi’s shift away from open support of the North Caucasus, however, may not help Moscow. Instead, it could easily have the effect of radicalizing some in the region who no longer have to worry about currying favor with any foreign government and who will argue that they must press their case now in order to pick up new support from elsewhere, possibly including from some of the Arab states.
And fifth, and this may be the most serious development in the region over the past year, migration flows and differential birthrates mean that Muslim North Caucasians now form an increasingly large and vocal part of the population of adjoining and as yet predominantly ethnic Russian regions such as Stavropol krai. Not only has this demographic shift generated a sharp uptick in Islamophobia among ethnic Russians there and elsewhere, but it has produced several open clashes, which in a few cases have resulted in deaths. Moreover, it has called into question Moscow’s policy of including Stavropol in the North Caucasus Federal District, sparking Russian nationalism there, and the center’s continuing support of regimes across the region, few of whom seem able to cope with the situation (kavpolit.com/svetskaya-nauka-protiv-islamofobii/; windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2012/12/window-on-eurasia-stavropol-has-ever.html).
In addition to these broad trends, there are three other more specific ones that have grown in the past year and seem set to define much of Russian policy in the region over the next twelve months. First, there is the complicated issue of the possible repatriation of Circassians from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, something that most Circassian leaders in the North Caucasus would like to see because it would boost their influence—but a development that most non-Circassians oppose for precisely that reason. That issue in turn is linked to the question of the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Because those games have been slated by Vladimir Putin to take place precisely on the site of and on the 150th anniversary of the “Circassian genocide,” this issue will assume an ever higher profile in the coming months.
Second, as the violence in the region continues, particularly in Dagestan and in the bi-national republics, ever more Russians appear likely to again ask themselves whether the North Caucasus is worth the cost in either lives or treasure. Indeed, even though some in the West appear to believe that Russian protests against Putin are something that can be spoken of in the past tense, problems in the Caucasus give every indication of serving as a new and especially powerful impulse for a new wave of protests either by those who would not object to seeing the North Caucasus go its own way or who fear that the often vicious authoritarianism the Kremlin has visited upon that region may soon be visited upon them.
And third, precisely because the North Caucasus is becoming ever more diverse in terms of its religious, ethnic and religio-ethnic identities, and in terms of its political and economic situations, Moscow is certain to face an ever greater challenge in managing the situation—once again as in the past finding itself in the position of fighting a grease fire only with water. Such a strategy will work only if the Russian state is prepared to “douse” the region heavily, but it may backfire there with anything less or, elsewhere, even with that.