Vienna, April 20 – The Russian government’s recent policies in the Northern Caucasus increasingly resembles the approach adopted by the Soviet regime during its period of stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev, according to one of Moscow’s leading experts on ethnic and religious politics in that region.
And such parallels, Sergei Markedonov argues, reflect the willingness of both central governments to believe their own propaganda, to rely on outwardly loyal local elites, and to ignore social developments below the surface that ultimately threaten Moscow’s position (http://www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=12434).
At one level, the Moscow analyst notes, “the Brezhnev period was the most stable in the history of the Caucasus.” There were no deportations or major shifts in borders, nor were there any “ethnic purges” or major “inter-ethnic clashes.” And feeling comfortable with that situation, the Soviet authorities devoted relatively little attention to the region.
The Soviet authorities accepted without question the assurances of loyalty on the part of local Communist Party and Soviet leaders that everything was under control, and they thus ignored the rise of what Markedonov calls the division of the region into “two Caucasuses.”
The first Caucasus, he notes, “greeted ‘dear Leonid Il’ich’ [Brezhnev]’, “celebrated ‘the voluntary inclusion’” of their peoples into Russia, and “fulfilled” at least on paper all the economic production goals set by the Soviet leadership.
But “the other Caucasus,” Markedonov continues, “was developing ‘early capitalist relations,’ was waiting for revenge, was forming nationalist groups, was terrorizing minority nationalities, and was secretly visiting religious circles and mosques.”
Most of the time, these activities remained below Moscow’s radar screen, and when clashes did break out as in Chechnya-Ingushetiya in 1965 and 1973, people in Moscow took on face value the assurances of the local leaders that these were the actions of a few marginals rather than a reflection of underlying problems.
Now, “completely in the traditions of Brezhnev’s USSR,” the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin is doing much the same thing: It is relying on elites it has selected and accepting their version of a pleasant and stable reality in exchange for proclamations of undying loyalty to the Kremlin.
Like their Soviet predecessors in “the notorious times of stagnation,” Moscow officials today think that “the first Caucasus” is the only one that matters, and thus, again like their forefathers, the current Russian leadership is ignoring the growth of problems in“the second North Caucasus.”
In this “other” Caucasus today, there are “the unresolved Osetin-Ingush conflict,” Adygei resistance to the “enlargement of regions,” “latent” conflicts between Daghestan and Chechnya, problems involving the selection of leaders, and “the growth of radical Islam as a political protest against regional and federal authorities.”
Dismissing all such “problems” now is perhaps even more a mistake than it was 35 years ago, Markedonov continues, because the challenges facing Moscow at present are even greater than they were under Brezhnev and at the end of the Soviet period for at least three reasons.
First, most political action then in contrast to political action now involved only the top elites. It was the tiny number of officials at the top who lead the “parade of sovereignties” at the time of the collapse of the USSR. Now, mass groups are involved even if the local regimes and Moscow refuse to see it.
Second, the actions of the North Caucasians at the end of the Soviet period were generally a form of “pay back on Soviet debts,” a response to what the regime had done. Now, Markedonov says, these actions have been generated “by the mistakes and miscalculations by those in power and their unwillingness to resolve existing problems.”
And third, unlike the situation at the end of Soviet times when the regime faced ethnic challenges against which Moscow could pursue a divide and rule strategy, Moscow now faces a serious “Islamic challenge,” one whose ideological basis it neither understands nor seems willing to do anything about concretely.
As a result, “if Russia wants to preserve its position in the Caucasus, it has no alternatives besides strengthening the state in the region.” But saying that begs a larger question, Markedonov says: “What does ‘strengthening the state’ mean for [the Russian state as a whole]?”
A genuine strengthening of the state, he concludes, does not mean the surrender of resources and power to local elites in exchange for “purely external declarations of loyalty.” Nor does it mean closer checking of passports, ethnic purges, and the use of force.
Instead, Markedonov says, it requires the creation of a state authority not only in the region but also n the Russian Federation as a whole whose officials “cannot be bought off” and one which “the residents of the Caucasus will be prepared to swear their loyalty to and serve”