Russia's Caucasian fate
By Ruslan Kurbanov
As it moves further and further away from Russia at a spiritual and ideological level, the Caucasus is receding ever deeper into its own social and political agenda. The greater the threat of the Kremlin’s losing the Caucasus, the more of a thorn the Caucasus becomes in the collective side of Russia's political elite. In other words, the more independence the Caucasus acquires, the more the Kremlin strives to return it to the status of a governable region.
Once again, Russia is living according to a script that has been written for it by the Caucasus. This happened during the Great Caucasian War, and also during the First Chechen War. It is happening again today. Hence the historical logic of the interrelationship of the Caucasus and the Centre as the logic of the relations between a difficult child and an eternally busy parent. The more problems the child is able to cause his busy parents, the greater his chance of attracting their attention.
It is now clear that the Islamic "fundamentalization” of those areas of the Caucasus (the Nogay districts, southern Dagestan, Kabarda) which had lost their Muslim traditions in Soviet times has become almost irreversible. The situation in each of these regions has developed in such a way that many members of the moderate Salafi communities who earlier openly distanced themselves from the ideology and practice of armed confrontation with the authorities, have joined the armed Islamist insurgency.
In Dagestan this process began in the second half of the 1990s, while in Ingushetia and Kabarda it took place in the early 2000s. As a result, since 2003 there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of incidents in Dagestan related to the killing of law enforcement officers involved in the repression of “Salafists” (Islamic fundamentalists). Officials of the FSB and Interior Ministry, and even ordinary police patrolmen have been routinely killed, almost at a rate of several each day. In Dagestan, the peak of this subversive activity was reached in the spring of 2005, while in Ingushetia and Kabarda the significant years were 2004 and 2005 respectively. The Nazran raid of June 21-22, 2004 and the Nalchik raid of October 13, 2005 were a clear indication that the federal centre’s policy of pacification had failed, since the war in Chechnya spilled over its borders. After the death of Ichkeria’s President Aslan Maskhadov, the elimination of Ichkeria and the promulgation of the “Caucasus Emirate”, hundreds of young Muslim males took to the forest and began to swear allegiance to the new “amir”, Dokka Umarov.
The region’s irreversible “Salafization” is leading to an increasing number of young men completely switching off from Russian information media and moving to an alternative space that exists in mosques, Koran study circles, Islamic web sites, chat rooms and countless forums. Today, the Caucasus insurgents see themselves as part of a global Islamic war on the world of the infidel kufr. Their natural allies and role models are the fighters of the Taliban and the Somali Islamist al-Shabaab Mujahideen. For example, in one of their manifestos they note that compared with the rest of the Islamic movement, the Taliban are "the most consistent in the observance of Islamic beliefs". The Dagestani political commentator Artur Mammayev writes: "Dagestan has failed to put come up with any ideas that could neutralize fundamentalism. The alien ideology of the "Arab mercenaries" has turned out to be not so alien to some of Dagestan’s youth ... " In Mammayev’s view, Khattab and Basayev may be long dead, but what they brought to Dagestan is still alive. It is obvious that if the young fundamentalists are ignored, they will join the insurgency.
It is an indisputable fact that the modern Islamic renaissance has a potential both for good and for ill. Undoubtedly, the government should engage in dialogue with the adherents of moderate Islam – above all, it is the moderate Salafists who need to be thus engaged and found common ground with, reflecting their increasing influence in the region. In the republics of the North Caucasus, the first step in this direction should be a separation of the religious institutions and leaders, whether Salafist or traditional, from the official organs of power. This position, in our view, would be more consistent with the separation of church and state, and would be preferable to the currently existing state protection and patronage exclusively for one branch and direction of Islam. There must be a clear distinction between radical and moderate Salafists. The difference between them must be brought to the attention of government officials and law enforcement officers, and also to the awareness of the general public.
Given the growing delegitimization of secular government and constitutional law among Muslims, the authorities should begin to take this into account and try to find ways in which the social norms and legal heritage of Islam can co-exist with Russia's legislation. Moderate Salafists should be drawn into the political process, so as to prevent the radicalization of the entire spectrum of Salafi movements. It does not need to repeated that the Muslims of the Caucasus are already one of the most influential political players in the region. Is it possible that that the peace agreement signed between Tajik leaders Emomali Rakhmonov and Sayid Abdulloh Nuri in 1997, putting an end to the bloody Tajik Civil War of 1992-1997, could serve as a model for some similar process of reconciliation?
In this context it is probably worth noting, however, that the project, mooted in some quarters, of uniting the three mountain republics into a single entity would inevitably lead to an explosion of the entire region, where unresolved ethnic conflicts lurk ready to ignite at any moment. If the ethnic boundaries that separate the republics were to be erased, there would be a rapid ethnographic expansion of groups like the Chechens and Avars. There would be a narrowing-down of the political elite to the administration of a single region, and this would ultimately exacerbate political competition between the different ethnic groups, as they vied for representative positions in the local government.
The North Caucasus has no common unifying force that would be capable of assuming responsibility for the fate of the region, or that might offer a coherent plan for its development, both within Russia and outside it. It will take time for such a force to emerge and take responsibility for solving the problems of this region. The peoples of the North Caucasus, who during the tsarist and Soviet eras completely lost their experience of independence and their ability to co-exist, will be able to live in peace only by means of some kind of larger system which stands above the ethnic squabbles and problems. Today that system is still Russia.
If a real Islamic Emirate does appear on the map of the region, we can be sure that it will violently suppress any internal resistance, and will establish a unified system of Sharia law. This might be followed by Western intervention along the lines of the invasion of Afghanistan, and would be the cause of carnage on Russia’s southern borders for several decades to come. Thus, Russia is fated to go on engaging with the Caucasus, adjusting to its pulse, soaking up its energy. It cannot isolate itself from the Caucasus, or forget it – for even an abandoned child will still return, but with much bigger problems. The sooner Moscow is aware of this, the fewer urgent and emergency solutions – like the recent hasty creation of a new Southern Federal District – it will have to resort to in the future.
Ruslan Kurbanov is co-chair of the Russian Congress of Caucasian Peoples and deputy head of the Working Group of the Public Chamber of the President of Russia on the Caucasus.
(Translation by DM)
© 2010 Prague Watchdog (see Reprint info).