Vienna, June 30 – Russia’s support for a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe resolution on human rights in the North Caucasus last week, the first time Moscow has voted for such a measure in 14 years, suggests that Russia and the West may be able to begin more serious discussions about the future of Russia’s “Achilles’ heel,” the North Caucasus.
But Sergey Markedonov, a Russian specialist on that region who is currently a visiting scholar at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that, for such talks to happen, both Moscow and the West need a clearer understanding of just what the North Caucasus means for the other (www.chaskor.ru/article/slabaya_rossiya_strashnee_silnoj_18216).
According to the Moscow analyst, “the interest of Western countries in the Caucasian problems of Russia is explained by many factors,” two of which are especially important. On the one hand, in the West, where officials must explain themselves to attentive publics, there is and will always be “concern about problems of democracy and human rights.”
And on the other, the West recognizes as Moscow does that today the North Caucasus is “the Achilles’ heel of Russia,” a region whose problems could threaten the Russian Federation as a whole; but Markedonov argues, the West also understands that “a weak Russia is to a much greater degree a challenge for the West than a strong Russia.”
“A weak Eurasian power,” he writes, disintegrating and with the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, “plus the possible growth of radicalism (including its anti-Western forms, and those very Caucasus jihadists in this respect are little different from their Afghan or Iraqi counterparts) is thus viewed not as a gift but as a serious threat” to the West.
Consequently, he continues, “representatives of the Western community would like to more adequately understand what is taking place in the Caucasus. Just how fatal is this threat not just for Russia but for their own security? And what consequences could follow if the position of Moscow [in that region] were to weaken?”
Obviously, Markedonov notes, Europeans and Americans put a slightly different stress on this. While the Europeans, “who fear conflicts seek to limit themselves to the use of ‘soft power’” and thus focus on human rights, the Americans, he says, “a world power more capable of using elements of ‘hard power,’ more often make calculations on the basis of security.
At the same time, Markedonov continues, “for Russia, the North Caucasus also has besides its domestic dimension a foreign policy one,” and that requires Moscow to devote more attention to “the mastery of Western political language” – “not, of course, about the knowledge of English but about the mastery” of how Europeans and Americans understand key concepts.
And that requires, he says, that when Moscow is talking “about investments and support of innovation projects, it is impossible to avoid a conversation about ‘the chief domestic problem of the country’” as President Dmitry Medvedev defined the situation in the North Caucasus in his message to the Federal Assembly last year.
That such discussions are possible and even on the basis of agreement about certain key things is suggested by the June 22nd vote on the PACE resolution, one which “Russia for the first time in 14 years was prepared to support” because “besides criticism of Russia, it contained theses on the terrorist threat and political force used by opponents of the Russian Federation.”
Indeed, Dick Marty, the Swiss deputy whose report was the basis for the resolution, said, “terrorism must be defeated with the help of a law-based stated. Let us not forget that illegality is the basic ally of terror and therefore it is necessary to defeat illegality,” a position some in the North Caucasus and in Moscow have taken as well.
Consequently, Markedonov says, “there is room for dialogue,” even though there remain “serious differences” and problems on both sides. In Europe, he writes, some people remain overly sympathetic to the nationalist movements in the North Caucasus even though these groups have been largely displaced by Islamist radicalism.
For this camp, “it is easy to make the position of Moscow alarmist and defensive, but will this make things more peaceful in Europe?” Markedonov asks rhetorically. And would the weakening of Russian power in the North Caucasus represent the triumph of democracy, human rights and European values?”
But the position of the Russian side also has its weaknesses. Too often, Russian representatives have been uncritical advocates of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, “whose ‘pacification of Chechnya’ raises questions not only from the point of view of humanitarian issues but also with regards to their effectiveness and the strengthening of the state.”
Kadyrov’s “’systemic separatism’,” Markedonov writes, “scarcely has brought Russian and Chechen society closer together. And hardly will the concentration of republic power in one set of hands over the long term work to overcome those problems which exist in excess in Chechnya.”
“In any case,” Markedonov sums up, “Russia which is seeking modernization cannot avoid dialogue about the Caucasus either with Europe or the United States. [And] consequently, it must improve its own arguments and ability to carry out a discussion in the language of political symbols understood in the West.”