Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Kabardino-Balkaria Highlights Putin’s ‘Failure’ in the Caucasus

Paul Goble

Baku, January 23 – The descent into chaos of Kabardino-Balkaria, long considered “an island of stability” in a region with all too little of that, is the direct result of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy failures in the North Caucasus as a whole, according to a Moscow analyst.
In an article posted online yesterday, Dmitry Tarskiy carefully traces the ways in which Putin’s approach not only has failed to reverse the destructive trends of the past two decades but in fact has accelerated them to the point that their resolution may no longer be possible (
Although its favorable geographic location, benign climate, and wealth of natural resources and well-trained workers had made Kabardino-Balkaria a success story in Soviet times, by 2005, the Moscow analyst says, the situation there had reached a point that could only be described as “catastrophic.”
The initial reasons for that development, he continues, are to be found in “the clan-elite privatization of economic and political life” there and the increasing use by such groups of measures ranging from the “administrative-legal” to “pure banditry” against anyone who tried to oppose them.
After failing to do much about this during his first term, Putin n 2005 thought he had the chance to correct the situation, the Moscow analyst writes. Valery Kokov, who had run Kabardino-Balkaria for more than 20 years, stepped down, and Putin appointed Arsen Kanokov in his stead.
From Putin’s perspective, Kanokov was “’a young professional’” who stood outside the clan system in the republic and thus could rein in its activities, lead the republic out of the crisis and immunize its people from the kind of extremism that the Russian president saw sweeping the region.
“However,” Tarskiy writes, Putin’s expectations that and outsider and a businessman could solve the problem were misplaced, and consequently, despite some positive developments in the economy, the crisis in that sector and the social one as well “has continued to grow.”
Moreover, problems in these two have been exacerbated by ethnic issues, creating a lethal combination that Kanokov has not figured out a way to deal with. As evidence of these linkages, Tarskiy points to the way in which the political-economic clans seized land from the Balkars to build ski areas, something that infuriated the others.
Kanokov acted to restrain that but did not do anything to support the survival of the lowland resorts, for which Kabardino-Balkaria had been famous and which had employed many people there. Nor did he do anything to ensure that the wolfram and molybdenum mines in the Balkar area would be able to continue to operate.
In addition, he did not find a way to restore any of the defense industries or bring back other plants and agriculture from their “half dead” state. As a result, unemployment in the republic is now officially 23 percent – three times more than the all-Russia average – and the flight of skilled labor is thus continuing.
The only sector of the economy which is flourishing, given this lack of “a systematic approach” on the part of Moscow’s man on the scene, Tarskiy notes, is vodka production, which has shot u but which has had a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of the population.
This pattern, Tarskiy argues, shows that Putin’s decision to rely on businessmen and to give them “a completely free hand” in exchange for declarations of loyalty is “a dead end” for the region. Such business types simply do not know enough to be able destroy the clan-administrative system and often are captured by it.
And that in turn is only accelerating the descent of these regions into chaos, Tarskiy insists. Putin’s outsiders arrive, spark a new fight over the division of property, and the people suffer as a result, with many becoming ever more hostile to those in positions of power.
Despite what some in the Kremlin apparently believe, Tarskiy argues, “the Caucasus is not Taiwan or an early South Korea were poverty and economic isolation are balanced by identification with the state and a high level of trust” in its officials from top to bottom.
At present, in fact, the public standing of the president of Kabardino-Balkaria is so low that he has to regularly invoke Putin’s somewhat better reputation in order to have enough authority to function at all. But given how conditions there are becoming for most of its residents, even that “resource” is far from infinite.
Kabards and Balkars, Tarskiy says, now remember Soviet times with nostalgia, not simply because their economic situation was better but also because there was a sense then of communal purpose. That has been destroyed and it will not be restored by the purely “business” approach Putin and his representatives favor.
The clearest indications of how far this social decay has developed, he writes, are social pathologies ranging “from the growth of alcoholism to the appearance of terrorist networks.” But instead of addressing their root causes, Tarskiy says, Putin is choosing to address only the symptoms and to assume that business will take care of everything.
Unless the Kremlin leader or his successors change course radically and soon, T. concludes, any “positive change” in the situation in KB or elsewhere in the North Caucasus will soon “become completely impossible,” with increasingly disturbing consequences for all concerned.
Just how serious they may already be was underscored by Andrei Soldatov, a specialist on counter-terrorism, in an article this week in which he described the increasingly close ties between developments there and Islamist radicals elsewhere in the North Caucasus (http://www.novayagazeta.aru/data/2008/04/15.html).
To the extent Soldatov’s reporting and analysis are correct – and he is one of the most respected commentators on this aspect of the Russian scene -- the impact of Putin’s policy failures in the region may soon mean that Kabardino-Balkaria will challenge Ingushetia as the hottest of the hot spots in the North Caucasus.

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