November 18th 2009 · Prague Watchdog / German Sadulayev · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

The rules of the game

The rules of the game

By German Sadulayev, special to Prague Watchdog

St.Petersburg, Russia

Last week President Dmitry Medvedev delivered his second Annual Address to Russia’s parliament, the Federal Assembly. An important section of the address was devoted to the  North Caucasus. The President clearly stated the key social and economic problems of the region.

It appears that the new "czar” for the North Caucasus will be primarily a governor-general. The question of who will take up the new post is less important than the fact that it has been created at all.

In any confrontation, especially a military one, one side always tries to impose its strategy and tactics on the other, and if unsuccessful the defeated party is compelled to limit itself to retaliatory actions, to react to the moves of the adversary, unable to carry out its own plan. After Basayev's incursion into Dagestan at the beginning of the second Chechen war, Ichkeria’s armed forces lost the initiative. The federal troops carried out their plan, but the militants could only react, attempting to put up obstacles, launch counterattacks, and so on. Within a few months Maskhadov’s regular army was done for, and  the war continued only as a guerrilla conflict.
Even several years after the actual defeat of Ichkeria the situation has remained the same, in my view. The strategic initiative has been firmly in the hands of the federal law enforcement agencies and the new Chechen government, while the radical opposition has conducted sorties that were sometimes sensational and bloody, but always local, with no single obvious plan and therefore no chance of seizing the initiative. But the geographical area of the confrontation has widened. The conflict has spread from Chechnya to neighbouring Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria. In 2007 Dokka Umarov, head of the Islamic militants, announced that the "Caucasus Front" was to be turned into a "North Caucasus Emirate", an Islamic state. He declared himself “Emir of the Mujahideen” and leader of the Jihad, the only legitimate authority and ruler of the Muslims.

The new quasi-state seemed to be more of a virtual creation than a political reality. It  is easy to understand the manner in which most of the region’s Muslims reacted to Umarov’s announcement. Islamic scholars, even those of a Salafist persuasion, expressed doubts that a small group of believers would gather in the forest, elect an Emir, proclaim the formation of a new Islamic on a territory that was home to millions of people, and declare a jihad – in essence, an offensive one – without the consent of the Ummah. From the perspective of secular jurisprudence and political science the North Caucasus Emirate’s pretensions to “statehood”  looked even more ridiculous and hopeless: it possessed no structures of civil authority, no control over its territory, no recognition by the population, while Russia was actually in charge of the region’s government.

Quite objectively, therefore, the Emirate showed no signs of being a state, either from the viewpoint of Islam or from the standpoint of international law. Viewed charitably, it may be characterized as a group of underground militant units of the guerrilla type. But otherwise it is just a terrorist network.

The organization’s  chances of presenting a real military and material challenge are not very great, and are even declining. Aware of this, the insurgents have adopted a literally suicidal tactic in the form of “human bombs”. The security forces, particularly in Chechnya, are applying a policy of unlimited retaliatory terror, combined with pressure and the cutting off of ties and support among the population. They regularly uncover and destroy the Emirate’s fighting units, and the Chechen president recently baptized his new major general’s stripes in blood by announcing the liquidation of two dozen militants, who presumably included Dokka Umarov. It doesn’t look as though there is much hope for the Emirate’s forces. 

The fact is that not so very long ago the "North Caucasus" was a purely geographical concept – partly cultural, perhaps, but  not political. The political entities on the map of the Russian Federation were the ethnic republics, the krais and oblasts, the Southern Federal District, to which Kalmykia, Volgograd and Astrakhan Oblast also belong. There was no political entity called the “North Caucasus” – until recently, that is.

The creation of a special post of "Governor-General for the North Caucasus” looks like an indirect recognition of the new political reality – a regional power that stands in opposition to Russia's government, a structure of resistance. For this, the militants can be congratulated. But Moscow's decision on the matter looks short-sighted and unwise. It may signify a loss of initiative, an acceptance of the invisible enemy’s "rules of the game", a transition from the ability to dictate to the need to react, from the offensive to the defensive.

Medvedev’s political adventure in the North Caucasus may possibly have a tactical justification – it will be easier for the Russian authorities to manage their counter-terrorist operations in situ.  But in terms of the president’s avowed goal of modernization it is an absolutely senseless act which will destroy all possibility of a single economic and political space within Russia. It is also a mistake from the point of view of geopolitics and strategy, and its consequences are hard to predict.

Picture: "SOVA" (The 2004 pre-election poster of Russian nationalist Yevgeny Golubyatnikov: the words in red lettering say "This is not the Caucasus!"  )

(Translation by DM)




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