January 22nd 2010 · Prague Watchdog / Vadim Borshchev · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

A project for the manager from Krasnoyarsk

A project for the manager from Krasnoyarsk

By Vadim Borshchev, special to Prague Watchdog

The grouping of the problematic regions of the North Caucasus into a separate okrug seems a reasonable and logical step. In the republics that have received the new administrative-territorial status there are three types of problems. The first and most obviously important for the federal centre is linked to the threat of the further spread of terrorism. It presumably did not escape the notice of Russia’s leaders that this summer the strategy of the armed underground in the Caucasus was radically restructured. The concept of armed resistance is now characterized by full-blown extremism. Among the major changes that have been made to it are the inclusion of civilian objectives as permitted targets, after a long period when they were excluded. According to the Caucasus Emirate’s Islamist leader (“Amir”) Dokka Umarov this decision is warranted by the fact that Russia's population is directly responsible for any action by Russia’s security forces, since it pays the taxes that support them and considers the war to be justified and fair. A second and no less important point is the resumption of the practice of suicide bombing by Muslim fanatics who are ready to sacrifice their lives for the establishment of what they see as a just Islamic state. It is now apparent that Umarov has finally rejected the compromise favoured by Maskhadov's successor Abdul Khalim Sadulayev, who attempted to combine Salafism with elements of national liberation ideas, and has moved to a position of extreme sectarian jihadism.

It quickly became clear that this transformation of ideology was not a speculative or abstract one. In the underground, where the mujahedin hover on the brink between life and death, any new idea instantly becomes flesh. The whole plan of jihadist operations changed. A significant number of terrorist attacks involving suicide bombers did not achieve their goal, but because they were launched on a continuous basis, the damage they caused to Russia’s security forces was so great that the explosive growth of terrorist activity was noticed at the highest level. This is now admitted quite openly by Russia’s president, by its high-ranking officials, and by the heads of its security forces. One is forced to conclude that their attempts to counter the actions of the mujahedin have more or less failed. Parallel with a complete reformatting of the armed struggle, Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov has organized an all-out mobilization of the staff of the Chechen Interior Ministry and has implemented a large-scale military operation aimed at destroying the Emirate’s units within a short time-frame.

Kadyrov's blitzkrieg campaign has obviously played a deterrent role – if the Chechen police units had not been sent into the mountains, the increase in the number of attacks could have proved to be substantially higher than the level of 30 per cent recently announced by presidential envoy Vladimir Ustinov. Kadyrov himself says that his men have managed to prevent many planned murders and attacks. There can be no doubt that these measures and military operations have had an effect.

While the first type of problem does not affect North Ossetia and is presently little felt in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia, the second – in various forms – is typical of all the republics now being grouped in the new North Caucasus okrug. It may be characterized as an economy that is weak and subsidized, and has become a source of poverty, unemployment and growing discontent. The notion that economic backwardness is the main reason for the popularity of Islamic extremism is not a new one, but lately it seems to have made inroads on Russia's leadership. After the summer and autumn terrorist campaign it seems that the Kremlin had to admit that its previous military strategy, on which Vladimir Putin had staked his career as president, had had been ineffective. Alexander Khloponin’s appointment is in fact proof that in its response to the actions of the mujahedin Moscow has decided to apply an integrated approach that includes more than mere law enforcement. The methods of crisis management are to be applied to the conditions of the North Caucasus.

The third type of problem – ethnic conflict – does not at present seem to cause the federal centre much concern, but is in my opinion crucial to an understanding of the nature of what is happening in the North Caucasus.

Life goes on

It is easy to dismiss this new move from above as just another unsuccessful attempt at reform. The scheme is an unambiguous one, and its message is that neither a governor-general nor a crisis manager will be able to provide a fix unless there is a fundamental change in overall approach. So burdened is the situation in the Caucasus by a huge number of chronic fractures – ethnic, religious, cultural, political – that what is needed now is not so much a clever and successful manager as an expert, someone who understands the nature of the local conflicts and tensions. None the less it seems that the faith so deftly inculcated in us by the founders of Marxism-Leninism, which tells us that hearts and minds can be instilled with peace by eliminating the socio-economic causes of a crisis, is anchored in solid ground.

The fight against corruption, cronyism and unemployment, the attraction of investment and the struggle to increase production may partly reduce the pressure and the level of social tension. Moreover, the North Caucasus today is not a zone of universal crisis, ready at any moment to become a source of total defiance. It looks very much as though Khloponin will be able to carry out a series of major reforms in the field of economics and management, but without an understanding of how to solve specific problems of the Caucasus, such reform may be a waste of time and effort. The more affluent Caucasus citizen of today, whose economic and political existence has become less oppressive, is acquiring new strength and fresh courage to return to those issues which he feels are vitally important. Prosperity is giving rise to political activity.

The problems

The crisis-ridden background of the North Caucasus is formed by the deep dissatisfaction of its peoples with their lives. Most of them believe that they have been treated unfairly and are nursing old resentments while adding new ones, both with regard to the central government and to their neighbours. One major issue, though today it may not be the most urgent one, is that of unresolved territorial claims. In the Soviet era the map of the North Caucasus was redrawn several times, with territory being cut from one administrative area and transferred to another. The autonomous republics themselves changed their borders and their status, merged with one another, or acquired independence.

Another problem is the return of acute feelings of ethnic belonging, which were suppressed under Soviet rule. In the absence of civic self-awareness, which could not exist in a Russia that is constantly changing, disordered and unjust, the ethnicization of social reality has generated profound conflicts between the different peoples of the Caucasus. In those republics where members of the minority ethnic groups see themselves as lacking the right to self-determination, only authoritarian methods of control can help to prevent inter-ethnic clashes. But these methods are not a panacea. Discontent is brewing, biding its time. .

The second largest North Caucasus ethnic group – the Cherkess – are divided. While Cherkess unity is more or less a myth, Cherkess resentment against the metropolis, fuelled by conflict with Karachay-Balkarians, is growing and may become a source of attempts to change the existing order.

The past also serves as an inexhaustible source of rejection of Russia. The Cherkess would like a recognition of the genocide to which they claim they fell victim at the time of the nineteenth century Caucasian War. Their attitude is roughly similar to that of modern Chechens, who in their perception of the two recent wars do not see much difference between the harshness with which they were suppressed two centuries ago and today's high-handed brutality.

Yet another level of problems is associated with the erosion of cultural identity. The inhabitants of the Caucasus are powerless in the face of rampant, uncontrolled modernization. It is impossible for them to hold on to their traditional way of life in which family, relatives, and relations between the sexes had strictly designated places. Not only are those social connections falling apart – there is also a blurring and erosion of the local languages, and this loss is perceived by the ethnic intelligentsia as one of the major indicators of the moral and cultural degradation of an ethnic group.

The peoples of the Caucasus are writing out a bill to Russia, slowly, quietly, but steadily. Moscow for them is not an arbitrator but a colonial ruler which does not care about human sorrows and concerns. All Moscow cares about is the maintenance of order, and to that end it buys the loyalty of the ethnic clans, which in exchange for power and money are ready to serve the empire’s interests, keeping their own peoples in a state of neglect.

Of course, I am talking only about the most extreme version of the situation, and am aware that the mood in much of the North Caucasus does not extend into hatred and rage. To some, the picture I paint may seem distorted and hypertrophied. But in fact, on the whole, peoples do not want to offer themselves as guinea pigs to see how far the state can go in its desire to maintain the existing order of things. The Chechens have been given the role of punished people, who to this day, being more or less confined in a ghetto, serve as a lesson to those who may be considering disobedience.


The spread of radical Islam does not seem like a long-term or profound trend in North Caucasian reality. Despite a declaration of supra-ethnic values, the armed underground remains an intensely ethnic phenomenon. The autonomous groups operate strictly within the borders of their own republics, and are only formally subordinate to the Supreme Commissar of hypothetical theocracy. Because it is a network structure, the united front of the Caucasian mujahedin does not need a unified control centre. Therefore, the oath of allegiance (bayat) to the Amir obliges no one to anything, and is part of an initiation – the necessary attribute of any sect. In order to keep the fiery romantics who are ready to sacrifice their own and others’ lives to a higher good and reason from reflecting on its essence, Jihadism is a very rational form of mobilization, appealing to the depths of human nature, seeking the creation of justice and a divine order of things. It seems to me that in the North Caucasus radical Islam is mostly used by its ideologues in an unconscious fashion solely for the shaping of an unstable and volatile source of national sentiment, one that frequently changes its idols and political system. It needs to be rigidly fixed within an immutable system of "ours and theirs”. Salafist doctrine makes it possible for the ideologues to navigate the world order, classifying its inhabitants as true Muslims or infidels by the use of formal categories.

Of itself, radical Islam is a phenomenon deeply peripheral to the Caucasian mind, which is loyal and secular. As soon as national sentiment receives an opportunity to express itself themselves by political means, it will quickly disappear, along with all the previous attempts to graft religious fanaticism onto the Caucasian tree.


The North Caucasus is, among other things, a laboratory in which mutually exclusive methods of control are used practically alongside one another. While in the region’s other republics the national idea can be formulated by the representatives of authority in organizations whose is strictly monitored, Chechnya has been granted the right to a spontaneous, unorganized nationalism, which by virtue of the Chechen government’s lack of restraint at times acquires monstrous, almost Nazi-like forms. In the official offices there is an assumption of the uniqueness of Chechen blood and ethnicity, while other nations, notably Russians, are viewed as genetic rejects. However it cannot be said that this Kremlin project for the republic has been able to override the desire of Chechens to build their own independent destiny. The fact that the armed underground does not simply continue to operate, but is also inventing new, more radical forms of resistance, indicates an unwillingness to put up with the order that has been imposed. Though Kadyrov’s dictatorship is not of course perceived as an alien political system brought in from outside, the Chechens are clearly in no hurry to show it preference. If they were to accept it as their only possible route to the future, then within minutes the corpse of Dokka Umarov would be delivered to Kadyrov’s residence in Tsentoroy. Until that happens, we may be sure that the Chechen people has either not made up its mind or is using the underground as an additional branch of power to establish a necessary balance.


The conclusion is very simple. I have written at such length in order to try to grasp how, against this background, the figure of the ex-governor of Krasnoyarsk is perceived. Will the decision to appoint him to this post be able to appease the nervous peoples of the Caucasus?

 Photo: News agency Khakasia.

(Translation by DM)

© 2010 Prague Watchdog (see Reprint info).




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