Stavropol — frontline between Russia and the North Caucasus

THE CEELBAS DEBATE// Stavropol is the only one of seven North Caucasus territories with a majority Russian population. Andrew Foxall explores the implications of interethnic conflict on this increasingly fraught political frontline.

The annual nationalist ‘Russian March’, the much publicised ‘Stop Feeding the Caucasus’ campaign, and the 2010 riots in Manezh Square have one thing in common: they focus almost exclusively on either the North Caucasus republics or North Caucasian peoples. In the context of this popular feeling in Russia against the North Caucasus and its peoples, Stavropol krai occupies a special place: it is the only territory within the North Caucasus Federal District with a majority ethnic Russian population.

This is not the first time that Stavropol krai has been, in a sense, on the ‘frontline’ between Russia and the North Caucasus. Owing to its geographical position at the centre of the North Caucasus region, Stavropol krai has played a prominent role in regional and national politics in post-Soviet Russia. It was here that Chechen militants, led by Shamil Basaev, carried out the Budyonnovsk hospital siege in 1995, which led to a ceasefire bringing a halt to the First Chechen War. In 2007 a series of fierce interethnic riots between ethnic Russians and ethnic North Caucasians in Stavropol commanded national attention. And in 2010 President Medvedev chose Pyatigorsk in Stavropol krai as the headquarters of the North Caucasus Federal District when he created the new entity as part of his restructuring of the Russian federal system.

The North Caucasus has been a conflict-ridden area throughout Russian and Soviet history. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia/Peter Fitzgerald

Anti-North Caucasian campaigns have tended to present a clear division between Russia and the North Caucasus, particularly in demographic (in 2010 the ethnic Russian population was less than 4 percent in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, compared with over 80 percent in Stavropol krai) and economic (the North Caucasus republics receive significantly larger subsidies from Moscow than other regions in Russia) terms, and have criticised authorities’ migration policies regarding ethnic North Caucasians. While the situation is much more complicated than this simple polarisation suggests (and overlooks the fact that North Caucasians are Russian citizens and, like all Russian citizens, have the freedom to choose where they reside enshrined in the Constitution), these campaigns have had particular resonance for many Russians.

Post-Soviet Kavkazofobiya in Russia

As anyone familiar with Russia will be aware, anti-Chechen sentiments have long existed in the country as a result of the Caucasian Wars of the nineteenth century. These sentiments have been exacerbated by events since 1991, not least the two Chechen wars (1994-96 and 1999-2002), the 2004 Beslan school hostage siege, and numerous terrorist attacks in Moscow and elsewhere, and have turned into a more generalized kavkazofobiya (or ‘Caucasus-phobia’). Wider economic and social changes in Russia over the post-Soviet period have also contributed to this.

Experts suggest that one outcome of this has been an increase in levels of ethno-nationalism and xenophobia in Russia (see, for example, annual reports released by the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis). A poll conducted by the Levada Center in 2011 suggested that almost two-thirds of the Russian population agreed with the slogan ‘Rossiya dlya Russkikh’ (‘Russia for [ethnic] Russians’), while a January 2012 poll found that 55 percent of Russians support the slogan ‘Stop Feeding the Caucasus’. There is clearly an increasing tension between the Russian public and the North Caucasus and its peoples. These are rising trends.

But what of Stavropol krai? The krai is increasingly seen by some in the country as the last ‘bastion’ of Russia in the hostile North Caucasus, and media reports have recently drawn similarities between the situation the krai is facing in the North Caucasus and the situation faced by Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia.

Anti-North Caucasian Feelings in Stavropol krai

Anti-North Caucasian discrimination and violence has been increasing in Stavropol krai since 1991. In the early 1990s Stavropol krai received significant levels of in-migration of ethnic North Caucasians (and ethnic Russians) fleeing geopolitical instabilities in the North Caucasus republics, not least the first Chechen war (1994-1996). In response, in 1995 krai authorities adopted a tightly controlled migration code and undertook a number of initiatives to limit the in-migration of North Caucasians, including installing Cossack units on the krai’s borders with Chechnya and Dagestan.

During Chechnya’s de-facto independence from Russia between 1996 and 1999 Interior Ministry troops were stationed on the border between Stavropol krai and Chechnya. With the start of the Second Chechen War in 1999, Cossack units and Interior Ministry troops were joined by Russian nationalist groups, who found official support from authorities in Stavropol krai, in patrolling the border between Stavropol krai and Chechnya.

Given this institutional climate for supporting right-wing movements, there was a marked growth of Russian nationalist movements in Stavropol krai (particularly Russian National Unity), mirroring the growth in Russia as a whole. Nevertheless, ethnic North Caucasian in-migration has continued and tension over access to jobs, land and resources has led to clashes between the krai’s numerous ethnic groups periodically breaking out. Street fights and riots are regular occurrences, especially in the rural districts in the east of the krai.

While the first ‘Russian March’ did not take place in Stavropol krai until 2006 (a year after the first rally in Moscow), the strength of anti-North Caucasian feeling in Stavropol krai is visible in other respects. In May and June 2007 six weeks of intermittent interethnic rioting in Stavropol led to the deaths of three youths (two ethnic Russians and one ethnic Chechen). Reports suggested that during the riots special police forces and local police forces joined with Russian ethno-nationalists, includ­ing members of the now-banned Movement Against Illegal Immigration, in attacking ethnic Cau­casians. These riots occurred less than a year after similar events in Kondopoga, Karelia.

Ultranationalists protest against North Caucasians living in Stavropol (2007). Photo: http://oreaddaily.blogspot.co.uk

Since 2007 the ‘Union of Slavic Communities of Stavropol’ (which emerged from a split within Russian National Unity) has been active in coordinating Russian nationalist initiatives, supporting the actions of militant Cossacks, and violently opposing ethnic Cau­casian migration into the krai. The Union was linked to the bomb hoax at the Nevinnomyssk branch of the FSB in 2008, as part of a wider campaign by Russian nationalists to imitate Caucasian insurgency as a means of provoking xenophobia. While largely peripheral to mainstream politics in the krai, the existence of the Union is a powerful reminder of the strength of ethno-nationalist feeling.

While the number of racist and neo-Nazi attacks on ethnic Caucasians in Russia peaked in 2008 and 2009 (according to data released by the SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis), levels of anti-North Caucasian feelings in Stavropol krai have continued to grow since. In April 2010 seven people were killed and over 40 others injured after a bomb blast in central Stavropol. Reports at the time suggested the attack, which targeted visitors to a display of Chechen culture, had been carried out by Russian nationalists. Months later, in September 2010 a grass-roots campaign emerged in response to President Medvedev’s creation of the North Caucasus Federal District (NCFD) and Stavropol krai’s inclusion in the new entity. Days after the campaign began there were reports of a sharp escalation in tensions between ethnic Russians and ethnic North Caucasians in Stavropol. A series of interethnic riots subsequently took place over two weeks and order was only restored after authorities introduced restrictions on movement.

‘Stavropol is not the Caucasus’ is an increasingly prominent slogan for Russians protesting against the North Caucasus. Photo: http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru

A number of other events also reflect the tense situation in Stavropol krai. In summer 2011 a series of clashes took place in the krai between ethnic Russians (including Cossacks) and ethnic North Caucasians, including the murder of two ethnic Caucasians by a group of Cossacks in Kislovodsk in July. In December 2012, in response to the murder of an ethnic Russian by an ethnic Chechen in Nevinnomyssk, nationalists (including members of the ultra-right) throughout Russia gathered in Stavropol krai to demand the removal of North Caucasians from the region. A similar gathering was planned for late January 2013 in the same city. Led by the right-wing organisation Novaya Sila (New Power), the protesters’, whose main slogan was “Stavropol is not the Caucasus!”, demanded the separation of Stavropol krai from the NCFD and the limiting of North Caucasian migration to the krai.

Rejecting the North Caucasus and its Peoples

Since 1991 Stavropol krai has been characterised by changing demographic, economic and geopolitical circumstances, which have led to a marked increase in anti-North Caucasian feelings. While the overview presented above is necessarily simplified, it is recognisable and is crucial to understanding the situation in Russia today.

The strength of popular feeling in Russia against the North Caucasus and its peoples cannot be ignored. Increasingly Russians are questioning whether they want the North Caucasus republics to remain as part of the Federation. According to a 2011 poll, one-fifth of the Russian population support separating the North Caucasus republics from Russia and almost half of Russians believe life would improve in the country if the North Caucasus republics were to become independent. Recent events in Stavropol krai support this, suggesting the desire of ethnic Russians for separatism is growing and that the krai is on the frontline of this movement.