Vienna, June 15 – President Dmitry Medvedev’s statement in Daghestan last week that foreign forces are behind anti-Russian movements there is leading some Russian commentators to overstate the role of such forces there and thus to misunderstand the nature of the conflicts in that region, according to a leading Russian expert.
In an essay posted online today, Sergey Markedonov, a longtime specialist on the region, points out that Medvedev’s comments in Makhachkala have not only attracted more media attention to the deteriorating situation in portions of the North Caucasus but also have defined how many Russian writers are describing it (www.polit.ru/author/2009/06/15/cau.html).
Given that senior Russian officials have provided relatively few interpretative comments about developments in the North Caucasus, Markedonov says, many are attending closely to Medvedev’s words, because his comments are likely to become “the official ‘philosophy of history’ of the post-Soviet North Caucasus.”
In his July 9 comments, Medvedev attempted not only to “sum up the threats to Russian statehood” in the region but also “to explain their causes,” the Moscow analyst says. The Russian president pointed to unemployment and poverty as among the most important, but he listed others as well.
Among these, the Russian leader said, are massive and widespread corruption, “systemic deformations of government administration,” and the “extremely low” quality of regional officials, charges that while true raise questions such as “who formed these power structures” if not the current tandem at the head of the much ballyhooed power vertical.
“But,” Markedonov continues, “if you like, the chief point of the presidential interpretation has become the thesis about the impact on the situation in the Russian Caucasus from the outside.” That thesis, of course, is “not new.” Vladimir Putin routinely mentioned in beginning in 1999.
Nonetheless, Medvedev extended it in his Makhachkala remarks. “There are of course also external factors,” he said, such as extremism which has been brought to use from abroad, all sorts of ugly characters who are coming in order to contaminate our territory. But,” the president said, “these problems are not systemic.”
Medvedev’s formulation, Markedonov notes, itself raises questions. On the one hand, the president said the external factor is “important,” adding to that impression by using the term for ugly characters (“urody”) that constitutes a kind of “’outhouse-lite’” extension of Putin’s comments at the time of the launch of the second Chechen war.
But on the other, “in the interpretation of Medvedev,” Markedonov continues, this foreign factor is “not the leading but one of many, less important that corruption of beastial proportions, of poverty or unemployment” – although reference to such outside influences helps to deflect responsibility from Moscow for the situation.
Not surprising, Moscow media have jumped on the foreign factor for precisely that reason. Markedonov recounts that when he was on an RTR program last week, the discussion of Medvedev’s visit to Daghestan began with a discussion of precisely the “external factor,” despite the Russian president’s qualifications of that.
And subsequent media commentaries have been even more focused on that issue. Markedonov cites an article in one Moscow paper which asserted that “all experts in one voice assert” that foreign forces, in the wake of Russia’s conflict with Georgia, bear primary responsibility for the intensification of the conflict in the North Caucasus.
That is simply not true, either as a description of conditions on the ground or as a summary of expert opinion about them, Markedonov says. The indigenous factors underlying these conflicts are obvious for anyone who cares to look, and experts have not asserted as the newspaper claims that outsiders are responsible for everything.
The conclusions that the newspaper offers, he continues, “are based on beautiful schemas, quasi-patriotic rhetoric and anti-Westernism but not on facts and evidence.” But Markedonov acknowledges that Medvedev’s reference to foreign influences has been sufficient to generate stories of this kind.
If one examines “foreign factors of influence in the North Caucasus more precisely and without emotion,” then one can see, Markedonov points out that outside forces have far more often been on Moscow’s side than on the anti-Soviet forces and that these outside forces have seldom if ever acted as a united front against Moscow as some Russian media are implying.
Indeed, he notes, “there has never been, is not and cannot be any coordinated and unified ‘attack’ on the North Caucasus because all the major players have various interests and goals here.” The US has one set, Turkey another, the Europeans a third, and the Muslim world yet another. And they have evolved over time.
Markedonov surveys all of these, pointing out in particular that “the United States during the first Chechen campaign not only officially supported the actions of the Russian Federation,” but Bill Clinton, the American president at that time, even “compared Yeltsin with Lincoln, who had struggled against the secession of the Confederacy.”
When relations between Moscow and Washington deteriorated in the late 1990s, the US was more critical, Markedonov points out, but “after September 11th, official Washington ended any criticism of Washington and even began to consider it as an ally in the anti-terrorist coalition.”
Similar patterns can be observed in case of the other countries, Markedonov says, and consequently, for Russian media now to use President Medvedev’s remarks about foreign influence in the way that some of its components have represents a willful misrepresentation of the facts in the name of an ideological picture at odds with reality.
And that represents a twin danger. On the one hand, it may lead Moscow to adopt the wrong policies on the assumption that it need not address other more fundamental problems. And on the other, it may cause people abroad to raise questions about the Russian government and its reliability as a partner in the anti-terrorist and other enterprises.