The North Caucasus retains an anomalous position within the Russian Federation – a kind of “internal abroad.” Since the Soviet collapse, most of the European population has left for the Russian interior, increasingly differentiating the North Caucasus from the rest of the country.
Three years following the declared end of Russia’s “counter-terrorist operations” in Chechnya, the North Caucasus remains a source of instability for Russia and the region. While a wary calm reins in Chechnya itself, the problems that fueled the Chechen insurgency have spread to other parts of the mostly Muslim North Caucasus. Developments outside the region have raised the stakes further, while the growth of public protest in Russia itself has cast a critical light on Moscow’s policy in the region. Unfortunately, Moscow’s options, especially in the short-run are limited. It has to ensure security as a prelude to economic development, which in turn requires seeing the North Caucasus as an integral part of Russia itself.
The North Caucasus retains an anomalous position within the Russian Federation – a kind of “internal abroad.” Since the Soviet collapse, most of the European population has left for the Russian interior, increasingly differentiating the North Caucasus from the rest of the country. According to the 2010 census, ethnic Russians comprise only 3.6% of the population in Dagestan, 0.8% in Ingushetia, and 1.9% in Chechnya (their percentages are higher in Adygeya, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia). Nowhere else in the Russian Federation is the ethnic Russian population so low. Though the North Caucasus remains subject to Moscow, it increasingly looks and feels like a foreign land, the more so given the growth of Islamic piety and Islamism across much of the region in recent years.
The status of the North Caucasus as an unsettled frontier is also problematic because of its ties to the equally unsettled South Caucasus. During the wars in Chechnya, fighters frequently slipped across the border into Georgia’s lawless Pankisi Gorge. Links continue to exist between militant groups on both sides of the Caucasus today. The Azerbaijani authorities recently arrested members of an extremist organization in Sumgait with ties to the Caucasus Emirate, the principal jihadist organization in the Russian North Caucasus. Since the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Tbilisi has also been actively involving itself in the North Caucasus – offering visa-free travel to North Caucasus residents (before recently extending the privilege to all Russian citizens) and providing support for the increasingly influential Circassian nationalist movement The 2014 Olympics in Sochi (a region from which the Circassians were expelled by Tsarist troops in the 19th century) could be a major flashpoint on both sides of the mountains.
Within the North Caucasus, a surface calm belies deeper problems. The appointment of Ramzan Kadyrov as the Kremlin’s proconsul, coupled with large subsidies from the federal budget, have succeeded in bringing a degree of calm to Chechnya, albeit one based on a significant degree of state-sanctioned terror. Kadyrov’s suppression of militant groups has however fueled the spread of radicalism to neighboring parts of the North Caucasus. Ingushetia and Dagestan have struggled for several years with extremist groups, but the past year or so has also seen an uptick in militancy in previously calm regions such as Karachaevo-Cherkessia, where the authorities launched a crackdown on suspected Islamists last spring. The Caucasus Emirate, led by Doku Umarov, is active across the region. Corruptions, poor governance, abuses by the security forces and a lack of economic opportunities have all fueled the rise of militancy. Outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev acknowledged the depth of the problems, and brought in officials – such as plenipotentiary for the new North Caucasus Federal District Alexander Khloponin – committed to addressing the underlying factors that contribute to militancy. Unfortunately, Khloponin and other reformist officials like Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov (who was nearly assassinated soon after taking office) have little to show for their efforts.
Part of the problem is mixed signals coming out of Moscow. The veneer of success achieved by Kadyrov in Chechnya has fed calls for officials elsewhere in the region to respond in kind – particularly in the aftermath of high-profile terrorist attacks such as the bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in January 2010. Moscow is profoundly concerned at the prospect of unrest from the North Caucasus affecting preparations for the nearby Sochi Olympics, and reluctant to make any radical changes in its approach to the region before the Games.
The Kremlin also has to deal with the majority population’s growing dissatisfaction at its handling of the North Caucasus. Apart from the vast, remote Russian Far East, the North Caucasus receives higher levels of assistance from the federal budget than any other part of the country. Even by Russian standards, a high proportion of this money is wasted or embezzled. A growing number of ethnic Russians are upset that the state is pouring so much taxpayer money into the culturally alien North Caucasus with so little result. Protests calling for Moscow to “stop feeding the Caucasus” were common last year, before being overshadowed by anti-government protests in the aftermath of Russia’s parliamentary and presidential elections. Nevertheless, disaffection with the Kremlin’s decision to pour money into the region remains strong.
Moscow’s options for dealing with the region are limited. To stop “feeding” the region would further weaken Moscow’s influence while encouraging criminality and instability (as happened after Moscow’s defeat in the First Chechen War). Replicating the current Chechen model of repression plus state-funded development on a regional scale comes with too high political and economic costs. Reform and sustainable development – as promoted by Khloponin – are necessary, but will not solve the region’s problems overnight. The obstacles, from militancy to ethnic and religious polarization, are just too high. Fully integrating the North Caucasus into the national and regional economies is the most promising long-run solution, but will require addressing a welter of political problems first. In the interim, Moscow needs to address the security challenges in a way that does not make the problem of militancy worse. It also needs to stop thinking of the North Caucasus as an inner abroad, and do more to integrate it into the fabric of the Russian Federation as a prelude to developing trade and transit links across the entire region. That is a tall order, particularly given the myriad other challenges the Kremlin confronts. Yet the North Caucasus represents one of the most fundamental security challenges the Kremlin faces today, one that is inextricably linked to Russia’s regional influence, and indeed to security for the entire Russian Federation.