Vienna, September 22 – The three so-called “quiet” republics in the North Caucasus – Adygeya, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachayevo-Cherkessia – could quickly lose that description if Moscow fails to navigate between excessive Russian intervention and excessive reliance on native elites, according to a new book.
But because these republics have not yet experienced the violence seen elsewhere, Konstantin Kazenin argues in “’Quiet’ Conflicts in the North Caucasus” (in Russian, Moscow: Regnum, 2009, 180 pp.), focusing on them can both help explain why things went wrong elsewhere and provide guidance on what Moscow should to overcome problems in both places.
Kazenin, a longtime Regnum journalist who has specialized on the Caucasus, says that until relatively recently, most people in Russia thought of the North Caucasus essentially as “Chechnya and its neighbors,” a perspective that limited attention to and understanding of the others (the full text of the book is at common.regnum.ru/documents/still-conflicts.pdf).
The relative stabilization of Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov and increasing violence in Ingushetia and Daghestan have changed that approach somewhat, but Adygeya, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachayevo-Cherkessia (three wholly or in part Circassian republics) have remained in the shadows, except when there is an outburst of violence in one or another of them.
Over the last year, however, in the wake of the five-day war between Russia and Georgia, this approach too has become untenable, Kazenin suggests, not only because the entire region is capable of mobilizing large numbers of people but also because of the consequences for it of Moscow’s decision to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
According to Kazenin, the three “quiet republics” share “a common many centuries long history and at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century developed along a parallel course.” Unlike elsewhere in the North Caucasus, the leaders at the end of Soviet times retained key posts well into the post-Soviet period.
Indeed, he says, “one can say that the generational change which took place then in the structures of power of many regions did not occur in the western part of the Caucasus with the departure of the communist regime.” But in the last decade, “in all three republics,” a feverish struggle has taken place among clans, business groups and regional elites.
While such competition is almost the norm “in many other subjects of the Russian Federation,” Kazenin says, “in this case, the significance and potential danger of any such conflict is intensified by features specific to the Caucasus” involving the ethnic and demographic history of that region.
“The North Caucasus, and especially in its more densely populated urban sector has brought together various peoples but not become ‘a melting pot,’ which deprives them of their ethnic self-consciousness.” Instead, Kazenin notes, the various peoples there hold on tightly to their very different “fates, both in the distant and not so distant past.”
Each of the peoples involved has its own unique view of every historical personality and of its proper territory, but, Kazenin suggests, “that does not make inter-ethnic confrontation inevitable.” Instead, “even in the difficult moments,” the peoples in the Western North Caucasus have been able to avoid an outbreak, fearful that if it begins it may not easily stop.
Because of the extremely variegated nature of the region, the most important part of Kazenin’s work is his specific description of developments in each of the three republics over the last 20 years. But while insisting that he wrote the book to do just that, Kazenin does offer several general conclusions about the region.
First, he says, “one must acknowledge” that underlying the conflicts in all these regions are “contradictions among the residents themselves” rather than the activities of any outside force. The latter may intensify the problems, but they cannot in any case create them where there are no tensions to begin with.
Second, he points to five variables which he suggests are the keys to understanding the potential for conflicts: the existence of groups under the control of small groups of leaders but claiming to speak for the entire people, struggle within the elites for property and control of budget funds, the readiness of the siloviki and judicial authorities to support one side of the conflict against another, unresolved social problems, and tightly held ethnic self-consciousness.
Where these are greatest, he says, conflicts are likely; where they are less intense, conflicts are smaller and more easily controlled. So far, in the Western North Caucasus, most of these factors have lacked the intensity they have manifested elsewhere, particularly in Chechnya and Daghestan.
And third, and this is likely to be the point most readers will take from Kazenin’s book, he argues that Moscow must avoid “two extremes,” either of which will tend to make the situation worse if not immediately then later. On the one hand, Moscow must avoid being the primary actor in any particular conflict lest it mobilize people against Russia.
But on the other, the Regnum journalist suggests, the center must also avoid handing over complete control to an individual or group, who almost always will represent only one part of the local population, in exchange for expressions of undying loyalty to the center and for guarantees of the correct outcome in elections.
If Moscow cannot find a path sufficiently “distant from these two extremes,” Kazenin warns, then many conflicts in the South of Russia could lose the reassuring epithet ‘quiet’ at a most unexpected moment,” a time when the central authorities may not be in a position to restore any semblance of order.