Russia’s Endgame in the North Caucasus

November 6, 2013
Site of October bombing at a railroad crossing in Dagestan - Photo: ITAR-TASS

News of the stabbing death of a 25-year-old ethnic Russian by a non-Russian, and the subsequent rioting in Biryulyovo, a district of Moscow, was not particularly surprising – Russia has been experiencing inter-ethnic violence and subsequent protests with alarming frequency. What set the Biryulyovo pogroms apart was both the extreme nationalist catharsis that characterized the events and the wide attention that the incident received from international social media, thanks to videos of enraged crowds chanting “Russia for Russians!” while torching shops, flipping cars, and audaciously sparring with Russia’s notorious riot police, OMON. The Biryulyovo pogroms have allowed the rest of the world to glimpse not only the increasingly strained relations between ethnic Russians and Caucasians, but the hopeless and moribund nature of Russian rule in the North Caucasus itself: as the Russian security state spends billions of dollars in Sochi to hermetically seal off the Olympics from the violence that continues to devastate much of the nearby North Caucasus republics, anti-Caucasus pogroms explode a mere 20 kilometers from the Kremlin.

Lords of War

Hundreds of kilometers south of Moscow, Russian rule in the North Caucasus is not administered by the Kremlin, but by a series of venal viceroys and their rent-seeking clans. Wikileaks cables from America’s embassy in Moscow detailing Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov’s rapacious graft and the opulent weddings among the region’s political elite should come as no surprise, for Russian rule throughout the region is held in place by a ramshackle system of flooding the clans in power with cash in return for a semblance of order. As a result of this system, as well as the region’s dire economic situation and lack of tax infrastructure, the North Caucasus provides the Russian state almost no revenue, with Moscow instead providing the vast majority of the budgets of the republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. As a result, the amount of money per capita that the Kremlin spends in the republics of the North Caucasus is almost double the national average, a fact that Russian nationalists frequently allude to with their chants of “Stop feeding the Caucasus!”

Putin’s imposition of his much-vaunted “vertical power” in the region by directly appointing and removing the republics’ political leaders has in some cases even increased instability. The destruction of Dagestan’s fragile, if corrupt, system of democracy, which had managed to keep stability in the region by dividing up power between ethnic groups during the 1990s, and its replacement by a peremptory figurehead, goes a long way to explain how the region became the most unstable republic in the North Caucasus. Killings and terrorist attacks have become a near-daily occurrence in the republic as the Kremlin values the loyalty of the Dagestani elite over their efficacy in improving the lives of their citizens. In Chechyna, the existence of Kadyrov’s neo-Sultanate, ruled by a combination of conservative Islamic posturing and secret police brutality, not only makes a mockery of any claim that Russia possesses rule of law, but is a PR disaster for the Kremlin as Kadyrov’s secret police thugs murder Chechen dissidents abroad, leaving a trail of blood across Europe and the Middle East.

Alongside ailing state institutions, the fate of the region’s post-Soviet generation is quite worrying, given how dramatically the demographics of the North Caucasus differ from those of other regions of the Russian Federation. Whereas most parts of the Russian Federation have been in demographic decline, the population of Chechnya is projected to increase by fifty percent over the next two decades. The other North Caucasus republics will also see substantial population increases of fifteen to twenty percent, while most other regions of Russia will face population declines of the same magnitude. The populations of these regions are therefore young, increasingly lacking in knowledge of the Russian language, and facing mass unemployment due to lack of industry, while the rest of Russia resents the inflow of these populations to northern metropolitan areas in search of employment. An exploding youth population facing poor employment prospects and discrimination, as in the Arab world, has become both increasingly conservative in its Islamic practice and radicalized, joining insurgencies across the region and supporting the imposition of Sharia law.

Separate but Unequal

Given these political, religious, and demographic differences, it is not surprising that an increasing number of Russians do not consider the North Caucasus to be a part of Russia. The belief that the republics of the North Caucasus are not part of the Russian Federation is a sentiment that is now shared by 60 percent of Russia’s population. Most of the ethnic Russian populations that inhabited the North Caucasus during the Soviet period have left the region, while nationalists in Stavropol Krai, the one region of the North Caucasus Federal District where an ethnic-Russian majority exists, are demanding that their region be proclaimed an ethnically Russian republic as a warning to the Caucasus populations that are relocating in large numbers to the region in search of employment. Russian nationalists, who have made the imposition of a visa regime with the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the South Caucasus one of their principal demands, are also increasingly calling for a visa regime to be enacted with the North Caucasus regions, effectively rendering the region a separate state.

Unfortunately, the Russian state is increasingly adopting the views of its populace in terms of treating the Caucasus as a separate and unequal population. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than the situation for these ethnic minorities in the Russian Armed Forces. The Russian army continues to fall far short of its conscription targets, filling only 80% of quotas and damaging the image of Putin’s enormous military modernization effort, yet recruiters make no attempt to reach their targets with the burgeoning youth populations of the North Caucasus, exacerbating high unemployment in the region. An anonymous official from the Ministry of Defense recently admitted to the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta that an unspoken policy of discriminating against North Caucasians exists not only at the conscript level but throughout the entire chain of command, where almost no officers from the Caucasus are present, making the Russian army appear to be nothing more than an “occupation force” in the region. Fear of ethnic conflict between Russians and Caucasian conscripts, high levels of insubordination among Caucasians in the army, and, most importantly, anxieties about Caucasian veterans utilizing military training in support of the region’s smoldering insurgences, have all outweighed the importance of the massive effort on the part of the Kremlin to create a 21st century fighting force.

Russia’s Coming Endgame

Perhaps the worst threat from these insurgencies to the region’s stability is yet to come. Hundreds of fighters from the North Caucasus are currently battling Assad’s regime in Syria, gaining insurgent warfare experience while being placed in contact with members of international jihad networks. The potential for these seasoned fighters to return to the North Caucasus when the fighting in Syria ends, bringing with them their networks and experience, is great enough to deeply trouble Moscow and remains one of the major reasons for Putin’s dogged support for the beleaguered Assad regime. Putin is willing to defy the international community and continue support for Assad as a result of fears that an insurgent victory in Syria will further destabilize regions that a majority of Russians no longer consider to be a part of Russia, perhaps the strongest sign that Russian colonial rule in the North Caucasus is reaching a bitter denouement.

The slow end of Russian rule in the North Caucasus is by no means surprising, but is simply the logical result of a world-historical shift from empires to nation-states. Ilyas Akhmadov, the Chechen minister of Foreign Affairs for the Chechen republic before the Second Chechen War, noted in his recent memoirs that, “for the resistance, the long-term prognosis is promising. Russia is in the grips of financial crisis and cannot subsidize local tyrants and Russian military presence forever… Rule through brute strength only perpetuates the absence of political legitimacy. Will Russians always be willing to spend real money to maintain the illusion of control over the North Caucasus?“ As Russian politicians across the spectrum construct increasingly nationalist platforms and Putin fitfully attempts to assuage burgeoning Russian nationalist sentiment, the answer is increasingly a negative one.

The question for the West is whether it is prepared to deal with the consequences of a potential collapse of Russian power in one of the most ethnically diverse and troubled regions of the world. The West turned a blind eye to Chechnya in the 1990s as Russia reinforced its rule over the republic, killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians in the process, but it can no longer ignore the consequences of the steady disintegration of Russian rule across the region. All the might of Russia’s modernized armed forces cannot keep the Russian Federation together when its citizens in Moscow and Grozny no longer feel that they are part of the same country.