Monday, October 6, 2008

Window on Eurasia: National Movements in North Caucasus Now Threaten Existing Borders

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 6 – After Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, several national movements in the North Caucasus have stepped up their efforts to unite the territories on which their communities live, drives that threaten not only to spark new conflicts in that region but also to challenge existing domestic and international borders.
In an extensive article that appeared in “Dagestanskaya Pravda” on Friday, Abdulgamid Aliyev describes the various and often mutually reinforcing ethnic and religious problems of the Caucasus that in his view are growing more acute even though the power of the federal center has increased (
Despite the strengthening of federal power,” he writes, “various conflict-generating factors continue to operate” in the region. Among the most important are the conflicts between the Circassians and the Turkic language groups, the Ossetian and Ingush movements, and the traditional Muslims and the Wahhabis.
The tensions among Muslim groups have attracted a great deal of attention, but “the most important factor of political processes” in the North Caucasus, Aliyev argues, is “the poly-ethnic quality” of the region and the efforts of various groups to form their own republics either by breaking with existing republics or combining several of those into one.
The efforts of Circassian groups to combine all or parts of the five different republics Stalin divided them into have attracted some attention, the Daghestani author says, but other groups which are becoming more active in this regard have received less, even though their efforts might prove an even greater threat to existing arrangements.
At a meeting in Yekerinburg in July of this year, a congress of Lezgin peoples, organized by the Sadval Movement called for the restoration – in fact, establishment -- of a sovereign and possibly independent Republic of Lezginistan, a territory that include parts of Daghestan and northern Azerbaijan.
The Kumyk national movement Tenglik, Aliyev notes, is pressing for the creation of a Kumyk Republic within a federalized Daghestan, a drive that is encouraging other groups in that most multi-national republic to do the same and leading at least some of them to use “unconstitutional forms and methods of struggle” against the authorities in Makhachkala.
Meanwhile, he points out, the Birlik Organization seeks to bring together “by means of democratic methods” the Turkic-speaking Nogay, who are “currently split among Stavropol kray, Daghestan, Astrakhan , Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and Chechnya.” Nogay people, which is split among Stavropol kray, Daghestan, Astrakhan oblast, Karachay-Cherkessia and Chechnya.
And, Aliyev continues, “similar processes” now exist among other national groups in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karacyaevo-Cherkessia,” processes that Moscow, Baku, and the existing republic elites in the North Caucasus oppose but have not found a way to block, especially when these ethnic challenges combine with religious and criminal ones.
Most of the nationalities involved are relatively small, Aliyev concedes, but that does not make the ethno-territorial conflicts these national movements are certain to provoke irrelevant: More than eight out of ten of the terrorist acts in the Russian Federation last year took place in the Southern Federal District, and one fifth of the country’s criminal groups are based there.
Moreover, with the collapse of the Muslim spiritual directorate (MSD) system in the North Caucasus at the end of Soviet times, Aliyev continues, Wahhabism has assumed an ever greater role and now serves “as a suitable ideological platform for a large number of destructive forces” in the North Caucasus, including ethno-national ones.
This religio-nationalist combination, he continues, has been further exacerbated by social-economic problems and outside interference. Economic problems have multiplied since 1991, and unemployment is high across the region, thus creating a potential army of militants for various movements.
And as the recent events in Georgia have shown, Aliyev says, the United States and NATO are quite prepared to play in these troubled waters, either directly or through clients like Georgia whose “dangerous level of militarization” threatened so many people in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Given these threats, the Daghestani commentator says, it is imperative that Moscow do more than it has done so far. Strengthening the vertical of power was a good start, but “a governmental nationality policy, especially in such a multinational and poly-confessional region as the North Caucasus will not be realized without a coordinating organ.”
That is something Russia has not had since the dismantling of the ministry for nationality affairs six years ago. But it is more than just a new bureaucracy that is needed, Aliyev says. “a totally new policy for the resolution of the problems of the region, the prevention of extremism and terrorism, and the realization of the most important economic tasks is needed as well.”
And that policy, he concludes, to be effective will have to reflect the history and culture of all the peoples of the region because as the popular saying has it, “a tree can live without branches and leave, but having lost its roots, it will die.” Those trying to impose outside models on the North Caucasus need to remember that as well.

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