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Complex Theatre: Russia’s North Caucasus

Fall / Winter 2016 Features

Complex Theatre: Russia’s North Caucasus

Trudeau, Turkey and a Tour d’HorizonAs the world focusses on its moves internationally, Moscow’s awkward domestic dance continues in the region it understands least

If asymmetrical federalism remains topical in Russia, then it applies most directly to the complex North Caucasus region. The North Caucasus is distinct from other Russian regions in multiple ways – for some observers, because of its deeply archaic nature, the adherence of most of its population to Islam, its susceptibility to conflict, and the prevalence of violent social practices. Of course, some might contend that there is little that is fundamentally unique about the region, as clannism, corruption, limited upward mobility, and a predisposition to violent dispute resolution are present in many parts of contemporary Russia.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere between these two camps. The North Caucasus macro-region is indeed very different from most other Russian regions, though it is not internally monolithic: the larger constituent republics are Dagestan (population of approximately three million) and Chechnya (population of 1.4 million), while the smaller republics, each with populations of less than 500,000, are Ingushetia and Karachay-Cherkessia. Multiethnic (with Avars, Dargin, Kumyks and Lezgin) and very Islamized, Dagestan is different from the ethnically homogeneous and more traditional (though also Islamized) Chechnya and Ingushetia.

The Northeast Caucasus, which includes these three republics, is different from the Northwest Caucasus, which includes Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, and North Ossetia-Alania. The most distinct province is Stavropol Krai, which is culturally much closer to other Russian regions, and where diverse values and ethnic groups often collide due to regular migration into the province.

The key defect of present-day Russian public policy in the North Caucasus is that it does not take account of the not inconsiderable internal resources of the region – to wit, the existence of centres of economic development and modernization (including in the underground economy).

For purposes of public policy, no less important than the particularities of North Caucasian societies is the need for these not to be supplanted by myths and stereotypes that have been built up over time in the Russian public and policy understanding. For now, public policy in contemporary Russia is in many ways still based on unsophisticated representations of the North Caucasus – perceived as depressed, primitive and inhabited by a passive population. Indeed, the key defect of present-day Russian public policy in the North Caucasus is that it does not take account of the not inconsiderable internal resources of the region – to wit, the existence of centres of economic development and modernization (including in the underground economy), an active, young and increasingly urban population, and also a proper culture of dialogue in the resolution of conflicts.

There are arguably four dominant Russian policy stereotypes of the North Caucasus that must be corrected in order to make the national policy approach to the region more effective.

Stereotype 1: The North Caucasus is a depressed region with high unemployment and no resources for investment.

The policy approach taken by Moscow envisages the development of the Caucasus through private investment from outside the region, accompanied by significant state guarantees as compensation for the high investment risks. Moscow presumes that such development – starting with the regional tourist industry – can create jobs and otherwise decrease the tensions in the region.

In reality, this policy approach has run into serious problems of implementation. While external investments (external to the Caucasus, but still largely Russian) have flowed into some of the North Caucasian provinces – first and foremost, to Stavropol Krai and the republics of the Northwest Caucasus – these investments have been unable to substantially change the economic situation on the ground. For its part, the Northeast Caucasus has seen no real external investment projects, except those launched strictly for demonstration purposes and delivered by politically motivated local oligarchs.

What happened? The push to deliver large-scale projects with outside investment significantly increased conflict between private investors and local residents. Lands proposed for the projects belonged to local residents. Thus, instead of giving local people sources of survival and reason for hope, the investments were seen by these people as a threat – that is, as presenting the prospect of expropriation, as well as the sudden need to compete with new and more powerful economic actors. This led, predictably, to public protests, resulting in the delay or termination of certain projects.

Bref, the North Caucasus is not a stagnant, depressed region. But if the economic processes in the North Caucasus are highly differentiated across the different territories, and if there are some areas of economic dynamism and modernization in both the official and underground economies, then it follows that external investors will often enter into competition with internal projects. In this context, the chief problem of the macro-region is not so much its depressed state and unemployment as the lack of protection for entrepreneurs and workers, the precariousness of labour and income, and the absence of social guarantees combined with widespread black market activity – not to mention ineffectual institutional mechanisms for insuring against agricultural risks. There are therefore no long-term economic incentives for private investors, resulting in a public preference for quick-spend projects and conspicuous consumption.

Economic policy for the Caucasus should, as a matter of priority, operate on the basis of the internal resources of the region, including support for local economic projects at the level of municipal governments, the removal of barriers to accelerated economic development based on the self-organization of local communities, support for the existing tourism infrastructure, and support for small- and medium-sized businesses and start-ups. Moreover, a policy of careful legalization of the underground economy must be developed, based on negotiations and consultations with local business groups and associations.

Stereotype 2: The core problems in the North Caucasus have an ethnic character – or, interethnic tensions are the foundation of the conflict potential in the region.

In Russian public policy, ethnicity is typically taken to be something fixed and unalterable. The conflicts in the Caucasus region are therefore seen as inevitably springing from the very nature of things, as it were. There really is no precise strategic framework to address the ethnic issues in the region, but instead a deference to quite general sociological concepts and constructs, the creation of state organs responsible for national policy in strictly functional terms, as well as organs trading in extreme forms of intervention, including through the use of force in conflicts that reach a ‘hot’ stage.

What are the real factors that strengthen or weaken interethnic tensions in the North Caucasus – that is, what are the factors that are so poorly appreciated by Russian policy-makers? First, power and property are the foundation of nearly all of the conflicts between ethnicities in the region. The absence of normal democratic mechanisms for transitions of power, the absence of strong property rights protections, and especially the non-susceptibility of land questions to regulation, all lead to heightened tensions. Land problems are aggravated by the extant moratorium on the privatization of land.

Land conflicts are most characteristic of Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, where highly discretionary administrative decision-making in respect of land and abuse of power are relatively common.

Land conflicts are most characteristic of Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, where highly discretionary administrative decision-making in respect of land and abuse of power are relatively common. In Dagestan, flat lands are also used for the migration of highlanders (gortsy), which leads to increased tension between incumbent residents and newcomers or settlers, along ethnic lines. At the same time, in Karachay-Cherkessia, where land reform was undertaken and there is, exceptionally, no moratorium on land purchases, such conflicts are less common – although, of course, at the end of the 1990s, there were extremely sharp (prima facie interethnic) internal conflicts over political power in Karachay-Cherkessia.

Second, many of the interethnic conflicts – once again, interethnic in form, but essentially about land – are the long-term consequence of the deportations of the Stalin period and the less well known compensatory repopulations in which the residents of other territories were resettled by force to take the place of deported people. When those deported returned, tensions erupted among conflicting claimants – most famously in the Prigorodny district of North Ossetia and in lands in and near Dagestan’s Khasavyurt district, where Chechens are trying to re-establish the Aukhovsky district that existed prior to their deportation. Of course, these are very complex problems, for which the path to resolution is not yet apparent.

Third, in the cities of the North Caucasus – especially in the larger cities of Chechnya and Dagestan – ethnic identity is starting to fade due to the high rate of urbanization. It is being supplanted by urban identity, and often by Islamic identity. This transformation is not fully appreciated and incorporated into policy – that is, the new supra-ethnic or extra-ethnic character and consciousness of these urban communities are not taken into account.

To regulate interethnic conflicts, the central policy task is surely the resolution of land questions. This is a manifestly complicated task, given that a significant part of the land is already allocated via corrupt practices (with the allocation acquiring ‘legal’ status). At the same time, the land is in many cases used according to customary law and unofficial norms, on the basis of decisions made by local communities.

Migration also causes problems. In Dagestan, for example, there are more than 200 unregistered population settlements as a result of highlander migration to flat lands. Questions have been raised about settlement legalization, against which the residents of flat lands began to protest publicly from the start of the 1990s. Of course, national movements exploit all of these problems – typically without any interest in a peaceful resolution.

Policy here should be restarted from scratch. For it is impossible to change the present general equilibrium in land relations – specifically, to bring these into the legal sphere – without a rapid escalation of conflict. An alternative process should review land relations on a case-by-case basis – that is, gradually, on the basis of compromises and non-zero sum solutions, levering the authority of the state, but without direct pressure on the relevant parties. Given that regional level officials often belong to particular ethnicities and may even represent the interests of these minorities in a conflict, this process should be curated by the authorities at the level of the North Caucasus federal ‘okrug,’ which sits between the federal and regional levels of Russian government.

Stereotype 3: Intra-Islamic conflict in the North Caucasus is linked to the fact that the Islam that is traditional to this region is unlike the radical variant imported from Arabia (the adherents of which are, or will become, terrorists or supporters of terrorists).

Russian public policy is based, on the one hand, on unconditional support for so-called traditional, official Islam and, on the other hand, the suppression of alternative Islamic currents. This suppression sometimes even includes maltreatment of people based on their appearance (e.g. women in hijabs and men with beards). The results of this policy approach are mixed. Terrorist activity in the North Caucasus has been largely crushed, including through special operations and clampdowns. However, it is not obvious that this outcome is sustainable – for one thing, there has been a massive exodus of North Caucasian youth to Syria. Ultimately, the price that will be paid for this outcome is high: bloated state security forces, massive infringement of citizens’ rights based on people’s religious beliefs, marginalization of large numbers of young people, and underground radicalization as a reaction to violent repression.

What is the reality of the relationship between conflict and Islam in the region? First, there are important internal factors driving North Caucasian youth to reject traditional Islam in favour of more fundamentalist strands of Islam – specifically, the profound shifts in the nature of social relations in the North Caucasus, as well as intergenerational conflicts, the erosion of traditional sources of authority in the region, social protest, and the tendency of the younger generations to search for a fairer system of rules and norms in the absence of social and professional upward mobility.

To be sure, not everyone in the North Caucasus who has switched to Islamic fundamentalism is radicalized. Instead, the believers arguably fall into three categories, depending on how they see their place in contemporary society, how they conceive of their future goals, and how they wish to achieve these goals: first, Muslims who wish to live according to Islam at home and in their family life, observing all of the rules, but without pursuing any political goals; second, Muslims working to stand up a caliphate in the long run, by peaceful means, and only when the necessary conditions are in place; and third, Muslims who wish to create the caliphate immediately, by violent means.

The use of force is manifestly legitimate against the third of these groups, and especially against those involved in violent or terrorist activities, or who call for armed struggle against the Russian state.

Evidently, having a uniform policy approach, based on force and involving massive infringements of citizens’ rights, for all three groups leads only to increased protest and radicalization – even if the use of force is manifestly legitimate against the third of these groups, and especially against those involved in violent or terrorist activities, or who call for armed struggle against the Russian state. Overall, however, public policy in this area must be significantly transformed, putting at its core not pressure by force, but rather measures to advance civic agreement and consensus. Some attempts were made at such a policy posture in various Caucasian republics, but they were inconsistent and ultimately negligible in impact. The policy settings must be based on the following: sustained protection of the principle of freedom of conscience in Russian law (as guaranteed by the Constitution); development of civic dialogue, including intra-Islamic dialogue; the creation of robust institutions for the reintegration of fighters into civilian life; the establishment of credible civilian control and oversight over force operations; guarantees against religious discrimination in employment and mobility rights; and inclusion of Muslim youth in different mechanisms and processes of socialization.

The region also requires a sophisticated policy revamp for its Sharia courts. While Sharia courts should not be suppressed, guarantees in respect of the life and health of Russian citizens should be fully protected, and attempts to violate these guarantees on the basis of Sharia law should be stopped. The primacy of Russian law must be strengthened by increasing its efficiency and fairness – a major challenge today in the North Caucasus, given that the professionalism of Russian courts in the region is low, and corruption is widespread.

Stereotype 4: Clannism and corruption in the North Caucasus can be overcome by political will, using the legal mechanisms currently available.

This was the governing ideology of the last major ‘cleansing’ campaign targeting abuse of power, when a large number of criminal charges were laid against members of the political elites in the region – especially in Dagestan. What was partly broken in this and past similar campaigns was the link between guerrilla fighters (militant groups) and North Caucasian elites, leading to a weakening of the armed or underground resistance.

However, given the structure of Caucasian societies, such initiatives will not have enduring systemic effects. The overwhelming majority of the residents of the North Caucasus tend to solve their problems with the help of clan-related mechanisms, including through influential relatives. Although the growth of cities and economic development of the region will gradually break down the universality of these mechanisms, this will not happen quickly.

Clan-based practices and corruption are common to North Caucasian elites. The high degree of ‘closedness’ – largely preserved from the Soviet period – is particularly characteristic of elite groups in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria. The situation is different in Chechnya, where elites changed as a result of social shocks and wars, and where the principle of ‘loyalty in exchange for social mobility’ remains du jour. In the Chechen context, of course, authoritarian rule militates against the recruitment of the most talented and capable into the elites. Indeed, the most educated youth try to leave the republic.

The character of the North Caucasian elites not only freezes the development of the republics, but also holds the federal government hostage, with huge grants from Moscow to the region accumulating primarily within the elite groups. Cuts in these grants from Moscow, if significant, could lead to social disturbances, provoked by these very groups. This leads to the vexed question of whether there needs to be a wholesale ‘renewal’ of North Caucasian elites as a prerequisite to regional development. For one thing, free elections in the North Caucasus could to some extent improve the situation, but would almost certainly result in the reshuffling of the same political class. Indeed, the key ‘real’ opposition to the old elite is an Islamized youth, whose integration into political power would come with its own – granted, sometimes exaggerated – political risks.

Large-scale educational programmes, along the lines of the selective kadroviy rezerv programme launched by the Russian government in 2008, are critical for the creation of a community of highly talented North Caucasian youth – indeed, to create a future regional elite – with modern skills and a broad outlook, capable of developing their own views on the challenges and strategic prospects of the North Caucasus. These programmes should include the study of modern administrative methods, immersion in new cultural contexts, linguistic training, and also practical exposure to the cultures, economies and public systems of other countries, at both the national and local levels.

Bref, the fundamental weakness of contemporary Russian policy settings in the North Caucasus consists in the fact that they do not recognize and do not properly account for the internal resources of the region. Incorrect diagnostique leads to incorrect and often counterproductive policy moves in practice. The decrease of conflict potential, the introduction of democratic political mechanisms, and credible guarantees of rights and freedoms for people of all religious and ethnic groups – all of these are part of a revised institutional framework that can lighten the inevitable problems of transitions to a more modern and urbanized society in the North Caucasus, and form the basis for proper use of the human, economic and natural potential of the region.


Irina Starodubrovskaya is Director of the Centre for Political Economy and Regional Development in the Gaidar Institute in Moscow.


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