Thursday, December 6, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Putin’s Policies Blamed for Growing Threats from North Caucasus

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 6 – Russians usually blame Boris Yeltsin for the problems their country faces in the North Caucasus and credit Vladimir Putin for taking the kind of steps that they believe have significantly reduced the threats emanating from that predominantly Muslim region.
But in fact, a leading Russian specialist on that region says, Yeltsin dealt remarkably well with many of these problems, while Putin with far more resources at his command has adopted an approach that has made the situation in the North Caucasus far more dangerous.
In a provocative article entitled “Putin’s Caucasus: An Unfavorable Prognosis,” Sergei Markedonov says that those who blame Yeltsin for problems in the Caucasus and praise his successor for somehow solving them are guilty of applying the wrong standards (
Those who pass a negative judgment on Yeltsin fail to recognize two important things. On the one hand, they fail to recognize that almost all the challenges to Moscow’s rule in the 1990s were the result not of his policies by of Soviet policies that the victims were seeking to redress.
And on the other, such people fail to remember that the Russian state Yeltsin presided over was far weaker than the one he bequeathed to his successor. Consequently, his successes in containing ethno-national challenges at a time of continuing imperial decay are not to be denigrated
In short, Markedonov adds, citing the argument of political scientist Fedor Lukyanov, those who evaluate Yeltsin’s role in a negative way are guilty of judging him according to some abstract measure rather than in comparison to the nature of the challenges he faced and the resources he had to deal with them.
Compared to the leaders of many of the other post-Soviet states, Yeltsin did remarkably well in reining in ethno-national challenges, even if one includes his ill-fated involvement in Chechnya. Indeed, had he not done as well as he did, Markedonov says, many of the conflicts he contained might very well have exploded.
Russian assessments of Putin’s efforts suffer from very different problems. While it is certainly true that Yeltsin’s policies were not ideal in any sense, Putin has taken “all the worst” of that inheritance and then compounded this mistake by his obsession with the power vertical and his lack of attention to the changing nature of the problem.
Indeed, Markedonov argues, “the present-day crisis phenomena in the Caucasus cannot be ascribed to Yeltsin. They are rooted in [Putin’s own pursuit of] the power vertical,” a pursuit even less justified than it might be, the Moscow analyst continues, because Putin has more political resources he could choose to deploy.
Beginning shortly after he came into office, Putin’s efforts in this regard have led “to the conclusion of a new pact between the federal center and regional elites,” in which the Kremlin agrees to “close its eyes” to whatever the regional heads do as long as they “demonstrate loyalty and devotion to the Kremlin.”
That means that these elites are free to behave in ways that further alienate their own population and increasingly drive them into the arms of anti-regime activists that neither Putin nor those around him understand or appear capable of designing policies to limit.
Thanks to an ideological evolution much like that which the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa passed through a generation ago, many in the Muslim republics are shifting their allegiance from the ethno-national challenges of the past to the radical views of “pure Islam.”
That shift, one that Putin does not appear to understand, Markedonov suggests, has led to three developments, none of which is in Russia’s interest. First, it has helped to unify the peoples of the North Caucasus, meaning that Moscow now faces not so much a Chechen challenge as one from the region as a whole.
In many ways, the Moscow analyst says, “’Pure Islam’ is adapted better than any other ideology to the conditions of the Caucasus as a protest ideology.” Unlike traditionalist Muslims, it is a universalistic creed and a kind of “’green communism’” whose calls for equality resonate in that increasingly impoverished area
Second, its adherents are even more ideologically grounded and committed than the ethno-nationalists with whom Yeltsin had to cope. That puts a premium on the ideological qualities of those who stand against them, something that Putin’s use of loyalists does nothing to address.
Moreover, Markedonov continues, it means that those in Moscow who argue that the struggle in the Caucasus can be won either by force or “a program of societal rehabilitation” are wrong. Russians now face an enemy now that is more ideologically grounded than the government is, something the people in the region can see.
And third, the proclivity of Putin and his regime to blame all the problems in the Caucasus on outside agitators or Wahhabis, while it contains a grain of truth, has the effect of allowing these groups to pose as the spokesmen for all the Muslims in the North Caucasus, something they clearly are not.
Indeed, Markedonov argues, “it would be a fatal mistake” if Moscow continues to describe as Wahhabis and Russophobes all the opponents of the republic elites.” Such an error, one often observed at present, will leave a situation in which “Russia will not be able to count” many of the people there as “its own citizens.”
Putin has been absolutely right to talk about “strengthening the state,” Markedonov concedes, but the question is what should this strengthened state be like. Obviously, he argues, it should not involve “the strengthening of local ethno-nomenklatura regimes and their corrupt ties with [their] Moscow protectors.”
Instead, he says, it should involve “the “de-privatization” of territories like Chechnya that today are effectively corporations and the creation of a Russian Federation that is “a full-blown state, “which will be impossible to buy and which the residents of the Caucasus will be prepared to swear allegiance to and serve.”
Such a state, thanks to Putin’s own acts of commission and commission, Markedonov argues, does not now exist. And because the current Russian president does not understand the nature of the ideologically committed forces he is up against, it is entirely possible that the future of Russia in this region will become even bleaker.

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