Vienna, July 18 -- Russia now faces a “new war” across the North Caucasus, according to the influential director of the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, a conflict which is less about separatism and Islamist extremist than about “the settling of scores” among various groups in the population and the mistakes of the institutions there charged with maintaining order.
In an interview to the translation portal, Inosmi.ru, Vitaly Naumkin says that “today a new war is being conducted in the North Caucasus,” a conflict very different from the struggles in Chechnya in the past and one in which it is very difficult to “find the front lines” or say who is fighting whom and why (islamnews.ru/news-19642.html).
Because Naumkin has close ties with the Russian intelligence and security communities, his comments deserve close attention because they suggest that at least some members of the Moscow elite are now seeking to redefine their understanding of the violence in the North Caucasus, a shift that could presage a change in Moscow’s policies there.
“To a great extent, the longtime specialist on Islamic societies says, “it is not clear who is fighting with whom [in the North Caucasus], why they are fighting or who is behind those in the field. “But it seems to me,” Naumkin said, that if one compares the current situation with those years when military operations were conducted in Chechnya, the situation is entirely different.”
During the first and second Chechen wars, he continues, the situation was “more or less clear: the state was conducting a struggle with aggressive nationalism and separatism, and with terrorism and religious extremism,” and consequently, Naumkin concludes, “the front lay precisely along this line.
But “today, if one looks at what is taking place in Ingushetia and Daghestan, we see that here are acting groups of Islamic extremists who are only covering their actions with Islamic slogans” rather than being guided by those precepts. Indeed, he says, “these people are abusing [this] the Islamic cover.”
Those engaging in violence in the North Caucasus now, he continues, “use Islam to package their aggressive political goals,” an approach Moscow has long insisted upon. “But,” Naumkin continues, “there is something else too,” and it has little to do with either Islamic extremism or nationalism as the Russian government has defined them.
And as a result, it is “insufficient” to identify either those who carry out acts of violence or those who may stand behind them because much of the violence in the North Caucasus now reflects “problems which lie at the root of events in the North Caucasus” and which have “a very deep character.”
These are “the social-economic problems and illnesses which traditionally infect the societies of the North Caucasus: unemployment, corruption, the struggle of clans, and the authoritarianism of many political figures and certainly the not entirely correct actions of those agencies which are called upon to preserve order in the North Caucasus.”
In his opinion, Naumkin says, “it is wrong to say that the processes which are taking place in Daghestan or in Ingushetia now correspond to or can be equated with those which occurred in Chechnya.” In the earlier case, Moscow had to deal with “powerful separatism” or even “aggressive religious extremism.” But in the latter, it is facing something else.
Today, above all, he says, those who look carefully at what is taking place in the North Caucasus will see that events there are “above all about the settling of scores, about the struggle of clans and groups, about revenge and incorrect relations between representatives of the power structures, the local authorities and major groups of the population.”
Naumkin’s analysis is likely to be welcomed by some as an indication that Moscow now faces less powerful enemies than it did in the past, but those who reflect more deeply on what he is saying will see that the challenges Russia must now cope with are likely to prove far more intractable precisely because they are so much more deeply rooted in the life of peoples there.
And coping with them will not only take a more sophisticated strategy involving more than force and costing far more than anything Moscow has been prepared to commit to up to now. As a result and despite Naumkin’s warnings, the “new war” in the North Caucasus, one without clear front lines, is likely to continue and even intensify.