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Sochi and Northwest Caucasus – I

GB Geo-Blog

Sochi and Northwest Caucasus – I

In 2007, the International Olympic Committee announced that the 2014 winter Olympics would be awarded to Russia. The games are to be held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where the Caucasus Mountains rise abruptly out of a subtropical coastline. The IOC’s decision brought international attention to an area that is often ignored by outside observers: Russia’s Northwest Caucasus. As a glance at the map will show, Sochi itself is not far from the troubled provinces of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan, leading many to wonder why the Kremlin would want to host the Olympics in an apparently tense region. Such questions will doubtless be raised more vigorously following the recent terrorist attacks against the Moscow subway system, which have reminded Russians, and the rest of the world, that the multiple conflicts that plague the Caucasus have not been resolved.

Despite the lack of attention to it in the Western press, the Northwest Caucasus is of major importance to Russia. It contains the country’s leading resort areas, including Sochi, as well as the country’s major remaining Black Sea port – possibly the future home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. And, of course, the Northwest Caucasus also borders Russia’s estranged neighbour, the Republic of Georgia. The Northwest Caucasus thus holds strategic significance for Russia as a relatively calm and reliable outpost in a turbulent frontier region, and indeed, the region is now assuming greater importance for the Kremlin than at any time in the recent past.

The Kremlin has been moving to assert greater central control over the three provinces of the Northwest Caucasus. As a result, the region may be entering a period both of greater salience on the national and international political scene, and also of greater instability. In this first of two web exclusives, we discuss the three provinces of the Northwest Caucasus and briefly discuss their political leadership. In next week’s article, the survey will continue with an exploration of the reasons for the Sochi Olympics, the place of the games in the Kremlin’s plans for the region, and the preparations for the 2014 Olympiad.

In Russian political parlance, the Northwest Caucasus consists of three provinces: Krasnodar, on the Black Sea coast; Adygeia, a small enclave surrounded by Krasnodar; and Stavropol, inland in the foothills of the Caucasus. All were incorporated relatively late into the Russian state – from the 18th to the 19th centuries – following years of war between the forces of the Russian Empire (often assisted by Cossacks, a partially autonomous military caste) and indigenous peoples. The conquest included a component of massacre and expulsion abroad of the native inhabitants – notably the Circassians, an ethnic group who formerly inhabited much of what is now Russia’s Black Sea coastline, as well as some inland areas. Over the next century, settlers from central Russia and Ukraine flooded into the region, resulting in a population that is now predominantly ethnically Slavic. Today, Stavropol and Krasnodar are each around 85 percent ethnically Russian, and even Adygeia – ostensibly an autonomous region set aside for the remaining Circassian population – has an ethnically Slavic majority. It is this Slavic preponderance that sets the Northwest Caucasus apart from both the Northeastern Caucasus, with its non-Russian autonomous republics, and the South (or Trans-) Caucasus – today the independent states of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.

Indeed, the political chasm between the eastern and western provinces of Russia’s North Caucasus has only grown more marked in the post-Soviet period. In the western provinces, the Russian state’s authority is relatively intact, albeit threatened. The eastern autonomous republics, in contrast, have become a zone of low-intensity conflict marked by serious political violence. Stavropol occupies an ambiguous position in this dichotomy. It is the easternmost of the western ‘Russian’ provinces, and borders Chechnya and other unstable provinces. Thus, to one degree or another, all three provinces can be viewed as an outpost of Russia in the Caucasus.

Yet, although calmer than neighbouring regions, the Northwest Caucasus has been affected by the refugee flows generated by ethnic conflict elsewhere in the Caucasus. Both Stavropol and Krasnodar were major destinations for internally displaced persons (predominantly ethnic Russians, but also including many other ethnic groups, notably Armenians) who left other regions of the Caucasus (in particular Chechnya) or other former Soviet republics for political reasons during the 1990s and early 2000s. According to different estimates, Stavropol alone holds between 200,000 to 700,000 such persons out of a total population of 2.7 million. While Russian holiday-makers sun themselves on the beaches of the Black Sea, the presence of these internally displaces persons is a reminder that the violent politics of the eastern Caucasus are not really remote.

Despite these commonalities, there are significant differences between the three provinces. Krasnodar is the largest and richest, with a population of over five million and a booming economy based on highly productive agriculture and tourism. Stavropol, with a population of around 2.7 million, is less prosperous, and has suffered more from its proximity to Chechnya: there were several major terrorist incidents in the province during the 1990s. Finally, tiny Adgyeia, with approximately 450,000 inhabitants, holds the official status of ‘republic’ in the post-Soviet period. This status is supposed to offer substantial autonomy to the indigenous Circassian (in their own language, Adyg) ethnic group, although the latter actually represent only 20 to 25 percent of the total population. Adygeia is also the most economically depressed of the three provinces, with an unemployment rate of around 50 percent.

The post-Soviet political life of the three provinces also displays a common trajectory. In the 1990s and early 2000s, all three pursued a relatively independent line, and clashed frequently with the Russian federal government. Yet today, all three regions have been effectively brought into line with the Kremlin’s plans for the region.

Here is a quick overview of the evolving political leadership in each province:

Krasnodar’s governor since 2000 has been Aleksandr Tkachev – once a leading politician in Russia’s Communist Party. His relationship with Putin has been fraught. While he received Putin’s nomination to serve a third term, and was confirmed by the Krasnodar legislature in April 2007, Tkachev’s abuse of local minorities (notably the Armenian community) embarrassed the Kremlin and brought a rebuke from Putin. Later, Tkachev mended fences with Putin and, under pressure, joined the United Russia Party, the so-called ‘party of power’ created by Putin.

While Stavropol was also Communist-dominated in the 1990s, the leadership of this smaller and poorer province never sought out confrontation with the Kremlin. Alexander Chernogorov was the governor of Stavropol from 1996 to 2008. Unlike Tkachev, he maintained more correct relations with the Kremlin, and also eventually left the Communists for United Russia. However, in the 2007 elections to the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian federal parliament), Chernogorov failed to deliver a majority of his province’s votes to United Russia. In 2008, he resigned under pressure from Putin, and was replaced by Valeriy Gayevskiy, a former federal official.

Adygeia’s chief executive holds the formal title of ‘President’ because of Adygeia’s ‘autonomous republic’ status. The first two post-Soviet Presidents were Adyg nationalists, including Khazret Sovmen, who was elected in 2002. Sovmen had spent most of his career outside Adygeia, and was better known as a mining magnate than as a politician. He was elected partially on the strength of hopes that he could revitalize Adygeia’s flagging economy, but was eventually brought down by the province’s complex ethnic relations. In 2006, the Kremlin began floating rumours that Adygeia would be merged with neighbouring Krasnodar. Following vigorous protests by the Adyg political leadership, and Sovmen’s public opposition to the merger, these plans were shelved. But Sovmen’s independence brought to an end his political career: in 2007 he resigned, and was replaced by the former academic Aslan Tkhakushinov. Moreover, while the republic remains formerly separate from Krasnodar, important ministries have now been transferred to the control of Tkachev.

Thus, in all three provinces, the Kremlin has recently been playing an increasingly active role in supervising local politics, replacing the chief executives of Stavropol and Adygeia, and converting Krasnodar’s governor from an obstreperous opponent into a relatively tame partner. As the next installment for GB will explain, the 2014 Sochi Olympics must be understood against the political backdrop of the Russian government’s determination to assert control over the Northwest Caucasus region.

biolineMatthew Light is Assistant Professor at the Centre of Criminology and Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (CERES), University of Toronto.


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