Yorktown, December 5 – The growing influence of Islam in the North Caucasus, a reflection of increasing disillusionment with the Russian political system, is transforming the region into Russia’s “internal abroad,” where people “have portraits of Putin and Medvedev [on their walls] but are for shariat law,” according to a leading Moscow specialist.
In a speech last week, Aleksey Malashenko, a scholar at the Moscow Carnegie Center, says that this trend, rather than support for separatist movements is behind what he says is a nearly equal “civil war” there, between those who want the imposition of Islamic law and those who back Russian legislation (www.slon.ru/articles/203931/).
Six or seven years ago, the Moscow analyst said, few people responded to calls for the imposition of shariat in these republics, but “now certainly have of society is demanding” that, not because they want independence from Russia but because they want a system in which their rights are protected, something the Russian powers that be cannot supply.
At a meeting in Daghestan a month ago, Malashenko continued, a group of Daghestanis expressed their views. Half of the speeches concerned Islam, and of those, “approximately 25 percent had approximately the following motif:” If the current disorder in our society continues, “we will all go into the mountains.”
Ten years ago, many in the North Caucasus had turned from Islam in the hopes that Putin, “despite the second Chechen war,” would restore order. Those hopes have collapsed, Malashenko argued, because “there is no feedback loop between the powers that be and society, between the federal powers that be and society there.”
In short, “there are no normal relations between the federal powers that be and that power” which exist in the North Caucasus, and consequently, people are again turning to Islam, not because they want independence but because they want law and order which Islam promises to provide.
There are precedents for this, he suggested. Many in the North Caucasus recall that in 1999, four villages in Daghestan’s Kadar district declared themselves “a Shariat Territory of the Russian Federation” in which all narcotics were banned and the militia, subordinate to Makhachkala was prevented from “stealing” from the population.
The people who formed that “shariat territory” and those who support the imposition of shariat law elsewhere are “absolutely” loyal to Moscow. They want to have shariat laws because in their regions “there is no Russian law.” Hence, they form what could be called “an internal abroad.”
Malashenko said that he had frequently heard people in Daghestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Chechnya say “’Let us live as we like.’” You in Moscow created the current problems with the war in Chechnya and the imposition of lawless officials who declare loyalty to Moscow, but “we are Russians and we do not think about life without Russia.”
There needs to be dialogue between the Russian powers that be and those who support shariat law, the Moscow analyst argued, and that will be possible only if the former understand that shariat law does not simply mean the lopping off of hands or heads, as some Russian commentators imagine.
In tsarist times, the imperial government allowed people in the North Caucasus to continue to live according to shariat after the victory of the Russian army. And “it is not only possible but necessary” for contemporary Russian officials to make use of this pre-revolutionary experience.
Simply assigning a new person responsible for the region will do nothing, Malashenko said. Indeed, that Kremlin proposal, is “an indication of the complete impotence of the powers that be and of their lack of understanding of what they are doing” in the North Caucasus and more generally.
And Malashenko, one of the Russian capital’s most authoritative commentators on the North Caucasus, concluded by pointing out that separatism in Russia, if it begins, will not start in the North Caucasus, where the population is quite prepared to continue to receive subventions from the center. Instead, he suggested, it will occur in the Far East and in Kaliningrad.
The disintegration of the Russian Federation will occur, he said, “when the Far East understands that not only are South Korea and Japan closer but it is less expensive to build relations with them [than with Moscow],” or when people in Kaliningrad face up to the question “are we the citizens of Konigsberg with Europe or with Russia?”