Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Medvedev Treats the North Caucasus as a Place Apart from the Rest of Russia, Markedonov Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 18 – In his message to the Russian parliament, President Dmitry Medvedev continued “a dangerous trend” by treating the North Caucasus “not as a constituent part of the Russian state and Russian society but rather as a imperial borderland which bothers the center with its problems,” according to a leading Moscow specialist on the region.
In a commentary published in “Gazeta” yesterday, Sergey Markedonov, one of Russia’s most thoughtful commentators on the North Caucasus, points out that both Medvedev’s rhetoric and his proposed solutions to what the president called “the most serious domestic problem” in Russia underscore this distinction (
That approach, the Moscow specialist continues, in part reflects the president’s lack of a “systematic strategy and understanding of the challenges standing before Russia” in this region, a lack that is all the more in evidence because of the Kremlin leader’s frequent calls for “an open and honest conversation” about both.
In his remarks to the August 2009 Stavropol conference on stabilizing the situation in the region, the Russian president, despite his training in law, did not have anything “better to propose,” Markedonov says, “than to eliminate jury trials for those charged with committing crimes as members of organized criminal groups.”
Both in that speech and in his presidential message, Markedonov argues, Medvedev committed “two fundamental mistakes.” On the one hand, he equated “terrorist activity with the operations of ordinary organized criminal groups,” thereby ignoring the “ideological” rather than “criminal” nature of terrorism.
And on the other, the Kremlin leader failed to underscore the difference between terrorist acts in 19th century Russia which was primarily directed at officials and terrorist activity in the North Caucasus now which has “a massive and not a selective character” both in terms of those who take part in it and those against whom it is directed.
But Medvedev’s failure in those regards, Markedonov suggests, pales in comparison with a unique “ideological paradox” in his speeches. On the one hand, in his speeches and in his essay “Russia, Forward!” Medvedev has stressed that “modernization in contemporary circumstances without a dialogue with society is impossible.”
On the other, all of his discussions of the North Caucasus indicates that his support for dialogue “in no way concerns the North Caucasus.” Indeed, Markedonov continues, “speaking in the popular ‘Petersburg’ language, the North Caucasus has flown by modernization” and is being treated by the chief of state outside of the all-Russian context.”
Medvedev’s discussion of the region instead fits within “the imperial discourse used for a definite administrative-bureaucratic simplification” of what is in fact an enormously diverse area and indeed reflects the kind of “Orientalism” that the late Edward Said pointed out frequently has informed the Western approach to the Islamic world.
Apparently, it did not occur to Medvedev and his advisors to ask themselves how “[Russian] citizens of Ossetian, Ingush, Chechen, Avar, Lezgin, and other nationalities should view themselves” if the president talks about them in this way, suggesting that they cannot be part of the general program for Russia he is pushing.
For the current Moscow leadership, it appears, “the Caucasus suffers from ‘traditionalism,’ and [Russia] must civilize it.” But how can that ever be possible, Markedonov asks, if criteria for success in one part of the country – the North Caucasus – are to be entirely different from the criteria for success in the country as a whole?
Indeed, this whole complex of attitudes, the Moscow expert says, reflects – and he says this is “the most important” thing -- “the absence of any assessment of the modernization potential in the North Caucasus. If the entire country must overcome its backwardness, then how should this be done in the most problem-filled region of the country?”
Moscow and Medvedev have clearly been too slow in coming to an adequate understanding of what is going on in the North Caucasus. Instead, he apparently is willing to rely on what he has learned elsewhere in the past and proposing to name a new pro-consul for the region, an idea that reflects the “’traditionalist’” view of the region as well.
That, along with the vocabulary the Russian president employed to discuss the region in his message, calls attention to “a dangerous tendency,” one in which it is “not the Islamists or ethnic separatists but the highest powers which are in fact separating the North Caucasus from the rest of Russia.”
For him and for Moscow, the North Caucasus does not have “a place in the modernized project” he has urged for the country as a whole. Its residents will not have any chance “for a serious conversation” with those who claim to govern them, and as a result, they will feel themselves “as an object of external influence” rather than as participants in a common process.
And “in this connection,” Markedonov says in conclusion, he would like to note something that Medvedev appears not to be aware of: “there can be no modernization of the country region by region.” Indeed, if such a project is undertaken, the Moscow commentator adds, then for better or worse, “that will already be another country.”

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