Friday, January 7, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Range of Choices in North Caucasus ‘Extremely Narrow,’ Markedonov Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, January 7 – Moscow’s failure to understand the nature of the problems it confronts in the North Caucasus and the ways those are interconnected with the problems of the Russian Federation as a whole has reduced its range of choices about what to do next to an “extremely narrow” one, according to a leading Russian analyst.
Indeed, Sergey Markedonov argues in an essay posted on, the North Caucasus has been left “between an unstable past and an unclear future” and Moscow is now forced to try to navigate between “the Scylla of Gorbachevism” and the Charybdis of a new “pseudo-patriotic” authoritarianism (
Markedonov, who is currently a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that despite Vladimir Putin’s earlier willingness to talk about the North Caucasus and even exploit events there, conditions in that region “until the middle of last year, were outside the focus of the ruling elite of the country.”
In many respects, the shift from focusing on the North Caucasus as a problem caused by outsiders to one with domestic roots was signaled by President Dmitry Medvedev’s June 9, 2009 speech in Makhachkala during which he identified “social-political turbulence” as a major driver of militant violence.
The president spoke about “corruption, unemployment and poverty” and promised to address them. But Markedonov continues, Medvedev did not open the way for “an honest conversation” about either the role of Islam and national traditions, “about the shortcomings in the administration” there and about Moscow’s exacerbation of problems.
Those shortcomings have informed the activities of Aleksandr Khloponin who was named presidential plenipotentiary for the North Caucasus, a manager who talked not about force and extremists but about investments and innovations. But despite the hopes of many, the result “was not for the better but like always.”
Moscow was prepared to send force and money to develop the region even as it kept as “taboo” subjects “religious relations and inter-ethnic conflicts.” Indeed, Markedonov insists, these things were considered “only as ‘a superstructure’ that arose from the social-economic base,” an approach that severely restricted Moscow’s ability to make progress.
“Instead of developing a broad strategy for the development of the Caucasus, [Moscow] limited itself to the social-economic side,” Markedonov notes. “There is no argument that this sphere is important, but under current conditions of political instability, it does not play the defining role.”
In many respects, the Russian analyst continues, this perceptual and policy failure and the lack of “political levers” not only reduces the effectiveness of the presidential plenipotentiary but “gradually has become to recall the work of the pre-revolutionary zemstvos,” institutions that could have proved decisive if they had been used in “an optimal manner.”
None of this is Khloponin’s personal fault: he simply has not been given the tools and the authority he would need. But it does set him and Moscow up for more failures given that every one of the last 12 months has featured “a broadening of terrorist activity, especially a year after the end of the counter-terrorist operation regime in Chechnya.”
That trend has been the case despite “the liquidation of significant personages of the Jihadist underground,” something that all claims notwithstanding has “not brought peace to the region.” And “unfortunately,” Markedonov says, “neither the state nor society” will be able to do so until they engage in a serious discussion of “the character of the terrorist threat.”
That may change. “In 2010,” he points out, “the North Caucasus as never before became an all-Russian problem” with the flow of migrants from the region sparking movements “which use the slogans of ethnic Russian nationalism” and ultimately leading to the clashes in Moscow during the last month.
Tragically, these events are leading some politicians and officials to propose doing things that will be counterproductive. Moving away from free movement within the country and creating “internal borders” are trend that involve both “apartheid” and “the strengthening of extremist attitudes both in the Russian and the Caucasus ‘streets.’”
In looking forward, the analyst suggests, there are both positive and negative features on the horizon. Among the positive ones are “the lack of powerful ethno-separatist movements” and the fact that many of those going into the forests are doing so less because they are Islamists as such but because they are engaging in the only form of protest available to them.
This combination of circumstances both objective like “exhaustion from force and a striving for stability” and subjective like the consideration of political opinion and the organization of dialogue between the powers and society “can allow Moscow in the near term to minimize political risks in the region.”
But there are some very negative factors at work as well. First among these is “the growth of radical Islamism,” a development that in many ways in a response to “all-Russian social Darwinism that has acquired in the Caucasus hypertrophied forms” and to which “Islamic egalitarianism” provides an answer many like.
The actions Moscow and its regional rulers are taking, however, are pushing many things in the wrong direction, Markedonov suggests. Moscow’s failure to fully integrate the region into the rest of the country has raised questions in the minds of many there and elsewhere about the future of the North Caucasus.
And “as a result of the efforts of loyal republic elites, the secular opposition [in those republics] has been in a serious way broken and demoralized,” opening the way for the Islamists and, what may be more significant, for local elites to draw on Islamist themes as part of a populist strategy to win support.
“We could became witnesses of a repetition of the situation of the beginning of the 1990s when” Soviet officials “with various degrees of success” sought to solve their political problems by “borrowing and privatizing the slogans of ‘the informals.” But this time around, that will involve people far less sympathetic to Moscow.
“Thus,” Markedonov argues, “’the corridor of possibilities’ for Russian policy in the North Caucasus is extremely narrow.” Changes in specific policies without “a general transformation of the entire political system of the country” are clearly “insufficient” to bring peace to the region.
And that in turn raises the disturbing question: “Will the Russian Federation in contrast to the USSR be able to pass between the Scylla of Gorbachevism and the Charybdis of pseudo-patriotic ‘toughening?” The answer to that will determine far more than just what is going to occur in the North Caucasus.

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