Government — the main source of instability in the northern Caucasus


As violence in the north Caucasus hits the headlines again, Alexander Cherkasov sees the roots of the problem in the Russian government’s wilful misunderstanding of local issues and lack of strategy for dealing with them.

Alexander Cherkasov
22 August 2012

 ‘The problem is not that the universe is more complex than we think. It is possibly more complex than we are capable of understanding.’ (Albert Einstein)

In the course of the armed conflict that has been alternately flaring up and smouldering in the north Caucasus over the last two decades, the two sides have not only infringed human rights, but denied their existence as a basic human value. The methods used by the Russian government in its war with an armed underground – ‘terror against terror’ – are not only unlawful and criminal by definition: they are also counterproductive, since they simply encourage a constant renewal of these guerrilla  forces. The use of ‘death squadrons’, who abduct people, hold them in secret prisons, torture and execute them without trial, certainly produces an effect, but is ultimately useless.

'The methods used by the Russian government in its war with the armed underground – ‘terror against terror’ – are not only unlawful and criminal by definition: they are also counterproductive.'

To break the deadlock it is essential to understand that the concepts of human rights and rule of law are not necessarily in conflict with the interests of security, but on the contrary provide the basis for them in the long term. It is essential not only to change the methods used by the counterterrorist agencies, but to remove their automatic immunity from prosecution (a key condition of their carrying out their bosses’ illegal orders). It is this immunity that demonstrates to the local population that they cannot hope to win justice by legal means, and so vindicates the actions of those who have turned to violence. The government must also decide who exactly its enemies are – in other words, the terrorists, and not political and religious groups and movements. This kind of slippage of concepts leads to mass abuse of human rights, and inevitably forces these groups and movements underground and so increases armed insurgency.

This assessment of the situation is much as you would expect from someone who works for the ‘Memorial’ Human Rights Centre, which has been active in the Caucasus since 1990. In the thirty years since the beginning of the Second Chechen War, we have often written more or less the same words, applying them to Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria…and repeating them over and over again for each region, with minor variations.


Russian soldiers conduct a special operation near the Dagestani vilage of Tsvetkovo, Kyzlyar District. Since the collapse of the USSR, the abuse of human rights in Dagestan as in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria has reached massive proportions  (Photo: Abdula Magomedov , RIA Novosti Agency, all rights reserved) 

One could adopt the role of a prophet, who has the answer to every question: ‘Don’t say we didn’t warn you!’ It is, however, more interesting to ask oneself: ‘Why do the Russian government, public and mass media not learn from their own experience?’ There is also the experience of other countries to draw on; if one takes only the last half century, there is France in Algeria, The USA in Vietnam, the USSR in Afghanistan – all of them discovering that brute force got them nowhere.

Paradoxical though it may seem, the main source of instability in the north Caucasus is the Federal Russian government itself – or rather, the ‘facts’ on which it bases its decisions, the methods it uses and the aims it pursues. This problem of its relationship with reality is in fact a general one – the Caucasus is merely one of its most obvious examples.

Ignorance of the situation

The Caucasus, like any mountainous region divided by peaks and ranges into numerous valleys and basins, is home to a variety of communities (different peoples, different languages, different religions) and very difficult to categorise. So our first problem is a simplistic view of a complex subject.

'One gets the impression that the Russian military, blundering into the First Chechen War in 1994, got its knowledge of Chechnya and the Chechens from the memoirs of officers who had fought in the Caucasian Wars of the 19th century'

We are not just talking here about not knowing the details, but of not wanting to know. Opinions and conclusions come before, and in addition to, facts – and this is true not only of the populist politicians and the public who listen to them, but also of the decision makers, the experts.

One gets the impression that the Russian military, blundering into the First Chechen War in 1994, got its knowledge of Chechnya and the Chechens from the memoirs of officers who had fought in the Caucasian Wars of the 19th century, although the last 150 years had brought many changes to the region. An abundance of myths filled the gap left by an absence of hard facts – about Russian genocide, about legions of Arab mercenaries and Baltic snipers in white breeches, about rivers of Chechen oil (of which there is in fact very little), or, in 1999, about the threat of a ‘domino effect’, the secession of the entire north Caucasus (although there was no real separatist movement anywhere other than Chechnya).  However, as Marx wrote, ‘An idea, once it is accepted by the masses, becomes a material force’, and even incorrect predictions can come to pass if you try hard enough.

Decisions based on mythical notions about the Muslims of the Caucasus can have unexpected consequences. The thinking behind the law passed by the Russian parliament, forbidding its forces from returning ‘terrorists’ bodies’ to their relatives, was based on the fear that terrorists’ graves would become shrines for their followers. The MPs were probably unaware that the Salafists, the dominant religious group in the underground (whom Russians usually call Wahhabites) forbid turning graves into shrines. However, the ideologues of the extremist underground turned the law to good use, announcing that if the ashes of a ‘Shakhid’ (martyr) are buried in Russia, the whole of Russia becomes ‘a holy land, a legitimate territory for a jihad’. This is just one example of PC Plod thinking – but at parliamentary, not local police station, level.

Moreover, this desire of politicians, public and journalists not to know (whether genuine or induced by censorship or political expediency) extends to anything happening anywhere in Russia, and began to emerge long before Putin came to power. The media’s horizons gradually narrowed to Moscow’s corridors of power, and commentary replaced reporting. But it was in the ‘mean spirited noughties’ that the regime was able to complete the process, meeting very little resistance on the way.  Meanwhile, the differences between Moscow, northern Russia, the Volga region, Siberia and the Far East were and are just as great as those between the republics of the north Caucasus, and the consequences of this wilful naivety (which, as the proverb says, is worse than robbery) may on closer examination turn out to be just as spectacular.

A simplistic approach to a complex problem

The second problem – and not just of the ‘counterterrorist operations’ or the Caucasus situation in general – is a simplistic approach to solving complex problems. Simplistic and ‘one-size-fits-all’ methods (particularly those used by the police – in other words, the most idiotic) are applied indiscriminately to any problem.   

Hundreds of years ago curfews and other similar measures were used to combat epidemics. Then, thanks to the spread of knowledge based on an understanding of the issue, new, more effective, approaches, both organisational (medicine, hygiene) and technical (sewerage, piped water), were introduced.

'Simplistic and ‘one-size-fits-all’ methods (particularly those used by the police – in other words, the most idiotic) are applied indiscriminately to any problem.'

It is obvious that terrorism should be countered in the same way, on the basis of acquired knowledge, whereas police bans based on ignorance of the issues can have unexpectedly counterproductive results. For example, the Koran lists the circumstances under which Muslims should declare a jihad. One such is if they are being prevented from praying. So what did the local government of Kabardino-Balkaria expect when in 2003 they closed the mosques and handed over the keys to the local police, who once a week, on Fridays, would open them for worship for one hour?  The outcome of this ‘war on Islamic extremism’ was the armed attack by insurgents on security forces in the capital, Nalchik, on 13-14th October 2005, which left more than 100 dead and many more wounded.  

A similar approach can be seen in Russia to any issue in any region. The regime has a very limited range of reactions to anything that happens: ‘tighten the screws’, ‘punish’, ‘introduce tougher laws’, etc.

A lack of strategy

And here we come to the third problem – the lack of a strategy, and its replacement by a succession of tactical moves, an ‘ad-hoc’ approach to issues and events.

There is no such thing as an ideal solution. Any short term solution brings problems in the medium term, and medium term solutions – in the long term. A strategic approach inevitably produces ‘neither one thing nor the other’ – and short term consequences that need to be dealt with immediately. And that does not appeal to people whose event horizons are under their noses, and who are incapable of even thinking about the future.


The Russian army on patrol in the village of Bamut, Achkhoi-Martan District of Chechnya. Even though large parts of Chechnya have been rebuilt under Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime, the tactics of ‘terror against terror’ have not been abandoned (photo Igor Mihalev, RIA Novosti Agency, all rights reserved)

A striking example of this lack of strategy is the replacement of a real political settlement in Chechnya by an imitation. Ramsan Kadyrov, a member of Russia’s Academy of Sciences, knows what he wants. In 2005 he was one of the many local   ‘strongmen’ to whom the Federal government devolved responsibility ‘on the ground’. Year after year he demanded that the regime liquidate or curb his ‘competitors’, in 2006 it was the Security Services, in 2007 the Interior Ministry, in 2008 Military Intelligence. He got his way each time, and each time it seemed like the correct tactic. But as a result Moscow was left without any means of carrying out intelligence work on Chechen territory, or any national security agency staffed by ethnic Chechens other than those controlled by Kadyrov.  He did have a strategy, a very simple one – to be the sole authority – and it worked, although in the long term the power structure in Chechnya is fundamentally unstable: an inverted pyramid resting on its apex, on one person.

'The real problem is that a generation of young people has grown up in the north Caucasus and the Far East that looks at Moscow (and the rest of Russia) and feels no connection with it.'

‘Instability’ remains the operative word here, while the source of destabilisation is still in charge - of the perception of reality (not only Caucasian, but Russian in general), of the means of influencing that reality and setting goals for deciding its future.

It is not just a question of how the Caucasus (or Sakhalin) looks from Moscow, whether from a ministry or a newsroom. The real problem is that a generation of young people has grown up in the north Caucasus and the Far East that looks at Moscow (and the rest of Russia) and feels no connection with it. They have no common vision of their country as a single entity, with a shared past and shared prospects for the future.  That’s why you get slogans like ‘Stop Feeding the Caucasus!’ or ‘Stop Feeding Moscow!’.

What hope for the future 

I’m not trying to say that the situation is completely hopeless. The last few years have seen the emergence of a new generation of journalists working in the Caucasus and writing about important social issues. And public interest in these issues has also grown considerably, as became clear in the winter of 2011-2012. There are experts with experience of working in the area who are coming to very interesting conclusions about the new social reality in the Caucasus region. Within the regime – both in some of the Caucasian republics and Russia’s National Antiterrorist Committee – there are people who are willing to listen to the recommendations of these experts and of human rights activists. Such cooperation has even on occasion brought results: both Dagestan and Ingushetia now have so-called ‘adaptation commissions’, working to promote a return to peace among the insurgents and their supporters. In Ingushetia a consistent ‘soft line’ approach made considerable inroads in the level of violence on the part of the armed underground between 2009 and 2011.

However at present all this only represents a necessary background for the beginnings of public discussion and the development of a common vision, a shared perspective on solving a crisis born out of the aggressive ignorance that dominates public discourse in Russia to this day.     

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