Vienna, July 8 – Most Russian and Western critics of Moscow’s policies in the North Caucasus have focused either on the center’s counterproductive reliance on force to solve political problems or its willingness to cede effective control of the situation to local leaders in exchange for declarations of loyalty, neither of which has reduced violence there.
But in fact, Aleksey Malashenko, a leading specialist on Islamic societies, argues in this week’s “New Times,” “the problem of the North Caucasus is today broader than is imagined in Moscow. It is “not simply instability;” rather what is taking place there is “the systemic degradation of the region,” especially in its eastern sections (newtimes.ru/articles/detail/4408/).
The region, he argues, is being “transformed into an enclave, living by its own laws, where shootings, explosions and attacks on the representatives of the powers that be and terror in response are in the order of things,” toward a system not of this century or the past one but toward a more distant time.
In these republics, there is “practically no economy in the generally accepted meaning of this word,” and there has been the complete collapse of the educational system, with “Russian instructors having [already] left and the local intelligentsia now fleeing.” As a result, what is taking place today is “the second wave of Islamization of the region.”
“In the 1990s,” the Moscow scholar says, “the rebirth of Islam was the inevitable reaction to Soviet atheism. But now Islam is becoming the regulator of social relations” in the region, a regular which “the local civil elites use everywhere.” Indeed, he argues, what is occurring in Chechnya and Daghestan is “the fusion [‘sliyaniye’] of civil power and religious leaders.”
That development, Malashenko says, is “an obvious step backwards,” one that inevitably complicates Moscow’s relationship with the regimes both individually and collectively, all the more so, the Moscow specialist on Islam argues, because so few in the Russian capital appear to understand this change.
In the first instance, by solidifying these societies around those in power locally, this will exacerbate the problem of borders. As Malashenko points out, there are already border disputes between Chechnya and Daghestan, between Chechnya and Ingushetia, and between Ingushetia and North Ossetia, not to mention within some of these republics.
Leaders like Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov are ready to exploit this fused identity, and that alone makes the suggestions that “the Kremlin will play the ‘Ramzan card’ … in Ingushetia extraordinarily dangerous.” If Moscow does so, he warns, that will likely provoke other regional leaders to play their “cards” against their neighbors.
Of course, there are good reasons for Moscow to be pleased with much of what Kadyrov has achieved inside Chechnya. In contrast to only a few years ago, he has won over many of the militants and restored Grozny. And while that “façade looks better” than the reality behind it, one must not dismiss it as simply the latest edition of “a Potemkin village.”
But if Kadyrov has been a net plus for Moscow up to now, he is rapidly “transforming himself into a problem.” Not only has he made himself an absolute and uncontrolled power there, but his program of Islamization split society, with the older age groups who grew up in Soviet times are against and the younger people are all in favor.
Among the younger residents of Chechnya, Malashenko says, there is the widespread view that Ramzan Kadyrov is “fulfilling the mission which Dudayev proved incapable of.” That is a complete misreading of Kadyrov’s intentions and of the very different situation that exists in Chechnya now as opposed to 20 years ago when it was far more secular.
But Malashenko continues, “the decisive argument that ought to stop those in Moscow who support Ramzan in his political expansion [into Ingushetia] is that ‘greater Chechnya’ will lead to a greater interethnic war,” one in which Moscow will inevitably be drawn into but may not be in a position to contain.
All these observations, the Russian scholar says, reflect “the absolute lack” of any serious Moscow policy toward the region, one that is based on an understanding that what Russia has in that region now is “a feudal, semi-traditional society,” one that cannot be governed by the interests of Gazprom and Rosneft.
And Malashenko concludes with words certain to anger many in Russia’s powers that be: “How can one struggle with corruption in Ingushetia and Daghestan if Russian society is penetrated by corruption? How can one end the rule of clans there if it is cultivated here? [And] how can one demand obedience to the laws there,” when Moscow doesn’t here?
“In the final analysis,” the Moscow expert says, “what is the difference between Putin and Kadyrov?” Ramzan seeks to destroy his opponents, just as Putin does his regardless of the rules. And consequently, despite everything else, “Ramzan is not a Caucasian politician [as most appear to think] but a Russian one of ‘Caucasian nationality.’”