NORTH CAUCASIAN INSURGENCY CHANGES STRATEGY
Kavkaz Center, the major publication of the North Caucasian resistance, has always provided positive evaluations of any anti-Kremlin activities. For example, the clashes between protestors in Moscow and riot police on 7 May, the day of Putin’s inauguration, led Kavkaz Center to present the protestors as heroic fighters. In February 2012, the emir of the North Caucasian Emirate, Doku Umarov, made a statement where he termed the anti-Putin demonstrations a manifestation of the discontent of considerable segments of the Russian population with the regime, implying that the Russian masses and North Caucasian fighters have a common enemy. Consequently, Umarov stated that he ordered his fighters to stop attacking Russian civilians.
BACKGROUND: It is questionable whether Umarov’s decisions will have any implications for the Russian regime. Yet, insulating the Russian heartland from major attacks against civilians and concentrating major terrorist activities to the North Caucasus is one of the major demands of the Russian nationalist opposition and such ideas could translate into real policy in the case of a major political crisis.
After the 2004 terrorist attack in Beslan, the Kremlin outsourced the job of maintaining order in Chechnya and implicitly adjacent regions to the Kadyrov clan, which was to quell the resistance in exchange for generous subsidies from Moscow. However, terrorist attacks continued not just in the North Caucasus but in also Russia’s heartland. By continuously engaging in terrorism, the resistance sought to convince the Kremlin that supporting the Kadyrov clan would not provide a feasible solution to the North Caucasus insurgency. Rather, the Kadyrov regime would quickly collapse in the absence of Moscow’s support, opening the door for a jihadist takeover.
However, terrorism has actually helped Putin to justify both Russia’s presence in the North Caucasus and its generous subsidies to the Kadyrov regime. Indeed, the Kremlin’s understanding has been that reduced control over the North Caucasus would only increase terrorist activities in Russia and that the North Caucasus must hence be controlled at any cost. This emphasis on the importance of maintaining the North Caucasus as part of the Russian Federation has gone hand in hand with the Putin regime’s ideology of residual neo-imperialism, at least during what can in retrospect be considered Putin’s first term. Yet, the neo-imperial ideology is becoming less attractive in Russia, in spite of Putin’s grand plans of a “Eurasian Union,” giving way to a new form of nationalism.
This new variation of Russian nationalism is a complicated phenomenon. Some of its proponents believe that ethnic Russians could assimilate and/or fully control only certain groups of minorities while other groups, such as the North Caucasian peoples, cannot be either assimilated or controlled. Consequently, while preserving the other ethnic enclaves in their midst, Russia should not opt for solutions involving more autonomy for the North Caucasus, but shed these regions altogether. The slogan “We shall end feeding the Caucasus!” has become popular among considerable numbers of ethnic Russians, including those who engaged in the anti-Putin demonstrations. It is quite possible that an end to terrorist attacks against civilians – provided that Umarov’s promise is indeed fulfilled – could stimulate such sentiments, which could play an important role in the case of a major political crisis.
IMPLICATIONS: There are several reasons why the Putin regime is extremely reluctant to consider any solution involving a reduced control of the North Caucasus. Concerning security in Russia itself, the regime believes that Russia would not be able to insulate itself from terrorism in case the North Caucasus is separated from its control, and that terrorism might actually increase in such a case. However, a possibly even more important reason that is not officially discussed is that ceding the North Caucasus could easily be interpreted as a sign of weakness on the Kremlin’s part, which could trigger a much broader array of separatist movements.
It is clear that the Kremlin and the broader Russian elite are extremely displeased with the idea of the country’s disintegration. Still, the scenario is not regarded as completely impossible and solutions reducing Moscow’s control are discussed for other parts of the federation. Indeed, Putin recently proposed the creation of a state corporation that, if implemented, would separate more than half of Russia’s territory – Siberia and Far East – in a special domain. It would have its own laws, law enforcement agencies, and be responsible only before the president. The very fact that creation of such a body would actually divide Russia and potentially nurture separatist feelings among residents of the regions does not seem to bother the Kremlin and its affiliated elite. The reason is simple: under the disguise of an autonomous Siberia and Far East, the elite could plunder the natural resources more efficiently. The economic benefits available to the elite through this project seem much more important than its long term implications for the stability and integrity of the state.
Economic interests are not the only factor that could push the Kremlin elite to accept devolving control of certain parts of the state. Territories could also be ceded as a means for appeasing the masses in the same way as despotic rulers of the past delivered unpopular ministers to outraged crowds for public execution, in order to retain their own power. It should also be recalled that Putin’s regime is far from monolithic and has until now tried to limit the use of force so as not to lead to deadly confrontation with possibly unpredictable results. In most cases when the regime has faced serious public discontent, Putin has tried to accommodate the masses’ demands as long as they have not threatened the most vital interests of the elite and, of course, Putin’s personal power.
The increasing and unpredictable public pressure caused by socio-economic and political problems could well encourage Putin to cede the North Caucasus if this would become a major demand of the unruly population. These actions could well be combined with other similar actions such as the deportation of a considerable number of Caucasians from the Russian heartland and large cities. Putin actually already undertook similar actions after the Kondopoga riots and the increasing conflict with Georgia in the mid-2000s, when many ethnic Georgians were deported regardless of their legal status.
Thus, cutting of Chechnya and possibly other territories of the North Caucasus, followed by the deportation of “Caucasians” is not unthinkable. These regions could well emerge as “associated territories,” possibly featuring the attributes of independent states and having a merely symbolic connection with Russia, something akin to the relationship between Russia and Belarus. It should be pointed out that Belarus, in spite of its occasionally quite tense relationship with Russia, is still formally part of a “union state” with Russia.
It is of course possible that Kadyrov’s and similar regimes could fall and be replaced by jihadist regimes, as Umarov indeed hopes. However, even in such a case the Kremlin might think that it could avoid the problems emerging from such a scenario, or even turn such developments to its own advantage. The Kremlin elite’s perceptions of U.S. policies in Afghanistan are telling in this regard. There is a belief in Moscow that upon retreating from Afghanistan, the U.S. could try to “direct” jihadists against its enemies – Russia and Iran. Moscow could well try to do the same with a jihadist North Caucasus. While sealing its borders, or at least trying to, Moscow might expect jihadists to move their activities elsewhere. Thus, separating the Northern Caucasus from Russia, or at least its more unmanageable parts, is not excluded and Umarov’s declaration to stop attacking Russian civilians might well contribute to the public popularity of the idea that Russia would do better without the North Caucasus.
CONCLUSIONS: Since the beginning of its struggle against Moscow, the North Caucasian resistance has been involved in indiscriminate terror against civilians. However, Umarov’s recent declaration that his insurgents would cease attacks against Russian civilians implies a change of strategy. In Umarov’s thinking, the fact that an increasing number of Russians have decided to stand against Putin’s regime and its policies also implies that they disagree with the Kremlin’s intention to keep the North Caucasus as part of Russia. While it is unclear to what degree Umarov’s statement, if it will be followed, will actually affect the public mood in Russia, its potential role should not be discarded if the increasing opposition to Putin would prove capable to replace him or compel him to act according to their plans.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, Indiana University at South Bend. and Finally, the Kremlin may demand a payback of Kyrgyzstan’s official debt to Russia, and which Kyrgyzstan with its stalled economy is unable to pay.