Vienna, June 8 – Unlike their predecessors in the 1990s, the militants in the North Caucasus today were not formed by the Soviet system, do not define themselves or their movements in Russian terms, and thus are not as susceptible to influence from Moscow, a generational shift that is adding to the problems the Russian government faces in the region.
In an essay posted online at the end of last week, Sergey Markedonov, one of the most thoughtful Russian commentators on ethnic and religious activism in the North Caucasus, argues that what is taking place in that region is “a change of generations” from one formed in Soviet times to one formed in post-Soviet realities (www.politcom.ru/8274.html).
Almost all commentators have pointed out that opposition to Moscow has spread from Chechnya to the entire region and that what he calls “the North Caucasus extremists have essentially changed their priorities in this struggle” from a focus on the national independence of a particular republic to the promotion of “’pure Islam.’”
But lying behind both these shifts, Markedonov says, is a generational one, because unlike the fighters of the first post-Soviet decade, “today’s protesters are not by education and training Soviet people.” Instead, their “intellectual and political maturity came during the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
That difference is greater than many appear to recognize. Not only were many of the leaders of the Chechen national movement trained in Soviet institutions – Ichkeria President Jokhar Dudayev was an air force general, after all – but even Muslim leaders at that time had a Soviet background.
Kazbek Chomayev, one of the leaders of the Karachay Jamagat movement a decade ago, was himself a former instructor of Marxism-Leninism, not the kind of background, the Moscow analyst notes, one would or even could find among jamaat leaders in the North Caucasus at the present time
And that kind of training, Markedonov continues, meant that “a remarkable majority of ethnic nationalists of Soviet origin were not prepared for a radical break with Russian legal and political realities and were less drawn toward the ideas of ‘religious purity,” a pattern that the Russian government could have exploited far more than it did.
Thus, Dudayev could talk with General Pavel Grachev because they shared an “Afghan past,” and Aslan Maskhadov, a Soviet-era colonel who had been awarded the order “For Service to the Fatherland,” could find a common language at some levels at least with his Russian opposite numbers who had the same experience.
But that cannot be said of the present-day leaders of “the extremist underground. Born much later, Markedonov notes, “their education and practical live experience came at the time of an identification crisis,” one marked by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the threat that Russia would follow the same path.
Many of them trained in the Middle East or worked there. And as a result, “they had much less close ties with Russia but greater ideological consistency (unlike former instructors on the history of the CPSU and scientific communism) and simply greater freedom” to define themselves and their goals.
This new generation knew Russian society far less well and was much less interested in it, Markedonov continues. Instead, they seek social, political and ideological arrangements drawn from other parts of the world and have a system of values which puts them at odds with Russians.
As a result -- and this is “the main thing” -- Markedonov argues, “the Russian powers that be have many fewer opportunities to influence the new generation of extremists in the Caucasus” than Moscow did with the previous generation, a pattern that means that the conflict there will continue long into the future with few chances for any negotiated settlements.
“In this situation,” Markedonov warns, “it is extraordinarily important to understand that far from all those supporting Islamic ‘renewal’ have crossed the line separating terrorism and the struggle with Russia from simple dissatisfaction about the level of corruption and the closed nature of local power” in the North Caucasus.
But in doing so, he concludes, it is equally critical for the Russian government to recognize that it faces a serious ideological challenge rather than simple criminal activity as many in Moscow appear to believe and to understand that the victory will go to the side whose “ideas and goals are more attractive and whose faith is stronger.”