‘Perfect Storm’ over Land May Push the North Caucasus into Chaos, Sokolov Says

April 16, 2015
Karachayev-Cherkesiya, 2009. Photo by Olaf Koens

Staunton, April 9 – The Kavkazskaya Politika portal has launched a new series of articles that pose the question as to what “a perfect storm” might look like that would overthrow the existing political order; whether such a whirlwind is approaching; and how both regional elites and Moscow might be able to cope.

The first article is by Denis Sokolov, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service, who argues that increasing competition for land will undermine official control because it shift the balance from the public sector to the private sector and leave the public one with fewer resources to buy off the population.

And that shift in turn is already intensifying the concerns of many in the region that they face “a perfect storm,” something that in the past allowed regional elites to consolidate their position by playing on the fears of chaos but that now may be beyond their capacity to cope.

For the past two decades, Sokolov acknowledges, “apocalyptic predictions” about the impact of conflicts over land have not proved to be true. Officials using various means have been able to “neutralize” such conflicts and even to exploit them to build their own power. But that may be ending, the Moscow scholar suggests.

As one of his friends has observed, he continues, “there are two means of struggle with chaos: national liberal democracy with human rights, an open market and accessible justice and empire in which everything proceeds not according to law but by understandings, where there is a secret police, where obscurantism is promoted, and where corruption flourishes.”

The events in Ukraine over the last year, Sokolov says, “show how complicated it is to build a state on the remnants of an empire.” The risks of a breakdown into chaos and the fears of that are great, and “there are no entirely positive examples” on the territory of what was once the Soviet Union.

In Dagestan, he says, there is a system which is best described by the Arabic word nizam. “This is not adat or shariat; it is a system of unpublished rules which define who can speak at a meeting and who should remain silent, who can be elected head, become an imam or leader of a jamaat, and who cannot.”

Such rules have “several sources,” Sokolov points out, including the stratification of Dagestani society going back centuries and “the natural inequality which arises” with private property. “The Most High has given us equal rights, but has made us different,” the Moscow analyst continues.

If one translates nizam into “the language of political anthropology, he says, then this is the collection of rules “which supports stability in a society where two or more clanic groups compete for rule.” It is “a universal order, arising out of necessity to “informally distribute power and financial flows.”

Regional elites in the North Caucasus and the Moscow bureaucracy “function not according to law but according to nizam,” a system that “is everywhere different” but based on “a single principle: with the aid of unwritten rules to strengthen the hierarchy and avoid force and chaos.”

Nizam is thus the first step away from chaos, one that does not require from those taking part in it a high degree of social organization but effectively limits force, compensates for the absence of justice, while at the same time “catastrophically limiting competition.” That last is not only bad news but ultimately can be the source of instability.

On the one hand, it means that fighting corruption is a threat to the continuing operation of nizam. And on the other, it limits the ability of the powers that be to maintain themselves if economic situations change and they have fewer resources to offer than do those who may be able to operate in the private sector.

As long as officials have more money and other goods to distribute than the private sector does, “the political system appears to be irreplaceable.” Almost everyone is dependent on officials, Sokolov says, and “even leaders of the opposition are appointed by the administration,” he suggests.

But that situation isn’t in fact eternal, especially given that increasing competition for what is “the chief resource” of the North Caucasus – land — is intensifying and the rewards of controlling it are becoming greater than those the state which has relied on profits from oil and gas have to hand out.

Ever more people in the North Caucasus see control of land as the best way to make a profit for themselves, especially given the declining value of the ruble, increasing demand for agricultural products, and the absence of other investment opportunities, and officials themselves have intensified this feeling with projects that require control over land as well.

At present, “no free land remains,” and with population increasing, competition over land and its repartition is growing, something likely to take on an ethnic and regional dimension and thus call into question the current arrangements of nizam and make chaos, at least in the short term, more likely, Sokolov concludes.