Staunton, December 6 – Public declarations to the contrary, the personal views of Russian officials and experts about the North Caucasus are rapidly changing, with ever more of them concluding that the North Caucasus may not long remain a part of the Russian Federation, according to a senior specialist at the Academy of Sciences Institute of Oriental Studies.
An increasing share of these people, Ruslan Kurbanov says in the current tissue of “Novoye delo” have concluded the region may go its own way, thus invalidating the late Daghestani poet Rasul Gamzatov’s oft-quoted remark that the region didn’t become part of Russia voluntarily but will not leave it voluntarily either (www.ndelo.ru/one_stat.php?id=3856).
And that shift in Moscow opinion in turn is having an impact in the North Caucasus itself, undermining “the certainty of the local residents that the fates of the North Caucasus and Russia are inseparable,” either because of their own desires or the willingness of Moscow to do what it takes to ensure that remains true.
But Kurbanov adds, the recognition by at least some in Moscow and even more in the North Caucasus that the likely outcome of independence for the North Caucasus would be the formation of a Taliban-style Islamist state that would ultimately require outside intervention continues to restrain even those who think Russia may not be able to hold that region forever.
“Practically all Russian analysts,” Kurbanov says, are describing “the latest events in the North Caucasus” as evidence that peace there is “is still very far off.” They are especially concerned, Kurbanov continues, by the increasingly frequent use of suicide bombers and by the growing number of terrorist attacks on Russian targets far from the North Caucasus itself.
Many of these same analysts, he continues, now say bluntly that “the state is dealing in the region with a well-organized, armed, and ideologized underground which enjoys the sympathy and support of no small part of the local population.” And they are asking “what is the sense of keeping particular republics of the North Caucasus within Russia.”
Even advocates of a greater Russian role in that region like Aleksandr Khloponin, the Presidential plenipotentiary for the North Caucasus Federal District, have raised this question “as if he wanted to convince himself and his entourage” of the need to do what it takes to retain the entire region within the Russian Federation.
The Kremlin’s man in the region identified four reasons for doing so, Kurbanov says. First, Khloponin insisted that “the development of the intellectual potential of Russia will pass through the Caucasus.” Second, he said that “the Caucasus is a powerful buffer which willrestrain the penetration into Russia … of terrorism, extremism, and pseudo-Islam.”
Third, the Presidential plenipotentiary argued that the Caucasus is “a unique bridge to the Middle East which is also a strategic territory for Russia.” And fourth, Khloponin stated that “at the present time, [the Caucasus] represents our demographic potential [because] it is the only territory which is contributing to the growth of the population of the Russian Federation.”
But “the declarations of Khloponin and the rest,” Kurbanov continues, “are only the official picture. In fact, in Moscow circles close to the powers that be, the conception of the region and its role in Russian politics has been significantly transformed.” As a result, while many in the region look to Moscow for stability, Moscow is looking for a way out.
Kurbanov sites several of these. On Gleb Pavlovsky’s “Russky zhurnal” portal, several writers have discussed what might take the place of the Caucasus Emirate, discussions that have considered what would happen if this region separated from Russia and how Moscow might ensure friendly regimes there,
Sergey Kurginyan who has ties to Igor , who sometimes has served as a Kremlin advisor, has talked about “the forcible separation of the North Caucasus from Russia” as part of a larger effort in which Russia itself would be reduced in size as the price of “full-scale integration” of what would be left in “the global community.”
He has even declared in a discussion on the pages of “Zavtra” that “anti-Caucasian attitudes in the elite and the advancement in the public space of the idea about the lack of prospects of attempts at integrating the Caucasus in the common Russian space is the hidden ideology of a certain part of the Russian special services.”
In informal conversations, Moscow analysts say that under Vladimir Putin until about 2005, “Russia thought of itself as a certain mini-empire” which had to be defended. But since then, “both in society and in the consciousness of the political elite, the view of the Caucasus has begun to change. Its problems aren’t being resolved, and its threats are multiplying.”
Ever more Russian politicians have asked in public questions concerning the possibility of “integrating Caucasians into the fabric of the social-political space of Russia,” typically with regard to migrant workers from that region in historically Russian citizens but sometimes with the broader meaning of that query explored as well.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPR leader who now serves as vice speaker of the Duma, has suggested that the Caucasus is threat to Russia, an idea that he may simply be expressing more forcefully and earlier than others but that they accept, although are not yet to use the language of that outspoken politician,.
And as these questions have circulated, Kurbanov continues, they increasingly involve not just the problems of terrorism and instability but the enormous subsidies Moscow is paying to loyalists in the region and the costs of continuing and seemingly endless military actions in the region.
Some analysts in fact are convinced that the Kremlin’s restoration of the North Caucasus Federal District was intended to provide the borders for territory that Moscow would be prepared to see go its own way, and they suggested that some in the leadership hoped to build relations with this state like the ones it has with South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
But even if that is not the Kremlin’s intention, the absence of a program to integrate the region into the rest of Russia is telling, an indication of among other things the lack of prospects for such a program given that “now in the country has become a powerful process of the nationalization of Russian consciousness.”
As Russian ethnic nationalism has intensified, Kurbanov argues, the willingness to struggle for “the integration of the Caucasus has died among the Russian elite. And [death of a willingness to struggle there] has died alongside the death of all super-national ideology and super-national projects.”
Russians today including their leaders, the scholar says, having experienced all “the experiments and catastrophes of the 20th century,” no longer want to do or be something so out of the ordinary. Instead, they want to be “simply a people” and focus on their own needs and desires rather than implementing those of others.
And this shift has been intensified by the falling away of the former threats from abroad that had kept Russians convinced that they had no choice but to hold on to everything. That change in turn makes it possible for today’s Russians to consider options in dealing with the imperial periphery that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
According to Kurbanov, there are three “alternative models of the future of the Caucasus” under consideration by experts in Moscow: the unification of the region into a single kray, something he says would lead to an explosion of ethnic conflicts; second, the unification of the Caucasus under a secular regime, something he argues could not possibly happen.
And third, he says, the most likely but least palatable, “the separation of the Caucasus and the establishment [there] of an Islamic state.” If the region gains its independence by being cut off from Russia, Kurbanov argues, “the strengthening jamaats of the militans will take power in the majority of Caucasus regions and establish” a Taliban-style regime.”
In many respects, he continues, Moscow has only itself to blame because it has worked to “destroy all manifestations of the moderate Islamic opposition” via its “law enforcement organs,” leaving the field clear to the extremists. And that in turn points to an even more frightening long-term prospect.
If such a Caucasus emirate emerges, “one can be certain” that with the rise of a Taliban-like state, there will “follow foreign intervention on the model of that in Afghanistan,” something that will “guarantee a bloodbath on the southern borders of Russia for several more decades into the future.”
In short, the analyst suggests, Moscow has no good options, at least in the short term, and the shift in opinion he describes appears more likely to lead to bitterness and recriminations than to a decision to let the North Caucasus go its own way. The outcome of that for Russia, he suggests, would simply be too frightening.