The North Caucasus is back in the news. This time, the region has emerged in connection with the arrests of those accused of shooting opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on 27 February. Social and mass media is awash with talk of a plan to undermine Kadyrov, whereby the accused are seen as an instrument to discredit the Chechen leader; they talk of a conspiracy of radical Islamists; and a banal domestic crime; and foreign plots designed to separate the Kremlin from its trustees in the Caucasus.
I’m no criminologist. I wouldn’t want to lay out my own amateur versions of what happened, even more so to contribute to the ever-expanding number of conspiracy theories. But no matter who says what about the ‘Caucasian trace’ in the Nemtsov murder, the facts suggest – more and more – that, when it comes to Russia's least stable region, the talking points have fundamentally changed.
If before events in the North Caucasus were viewed primarily in the context of inter-ethnic relations, regional politics, and the terrorist threat in the Russian borderlands, then today the topic has been transformed into a story with consequences for Russia in its entirety.
Now the front page is dominated neither by Chechnya, nor Dagestan, but rather the perception of them by the core Russian population, as well as the impact of the North Caucasus on the dynamics of Russia’s internal and external politics.
The facts suggest – more and more – that the talking points of the least stable Russian region have fundamentally changed.
Over the last year, North Caucasus topics have been side-lined by the Ukrainian crisis. At the times when the region did come to the fore, then it was spoken about in a contextual key. Whether it was the Winter Olympic Games at Sochi, reforming governance in the North Caucasus, the militant attack in Grozny before the annual presidential address in December, or the participation of Caucasus residents in the war in Donbas.
Sociological surveys of the past year will be studied by professionals again and again. But the data that we do have already gives us a lot to think about. After the outburst of xenophobia in 2013, the past year has seen a rollback of anti-Caucasus feeling. Here we see a drop in support for the slogan ‘Enough feeding the Caucasus!’, and alarmist judgments on Russia’s problem region. When it comes to supporting the Kremlin’s internal political initiatives, Ramzan Kadyrov has left the governors in ‘mainland’ Russia in the dust. Which, by the way, was reflected in comments on his activities even from Russian nationalists, who saw a ‘strong hand’ in him, and practically a ‘real leader’. Even in the Western press, the images of Caucasian people and followers of Kadyrov, have come to be seen more or less as joint guardians of the Kremlin.
So has the moment of unity finally come? Conflicts and separatist threats have become a part of history, and the North Caucasus has come not only to represent, but also to express state values in the Russian Federation. Seen in this light, the North Caucasus strengthens the country on the world stage, rather than weakens it; and Russians from other regions no longer see people from the Caucasus as foreigners.
However, no matter how tempting such conclusions may be, they are clearly premature. Every process has its price. And Chechen stability has one too. Shamil Beno, a Chechen official in the 1990s and now an opponent of the Kadyrov administration, characterised the style of government in Chechnya as ‘field management’, that is, ‘field’ in a military sense. Without any reference to Beno’s description, Kimberly Marten, a professor at Columbia University, described the model of power in Chechnya as ‘outsourced sovereignty’. Just like in business, in this model the centre transfers a range of its functions to a regional political ‘contractor’.
At first glance, the results of this model are obvious. Firstly, outsourcing allows one to shift delicate problems, which the centre cannot solve, onto someone else’s shoulders, and secondly, it allows you to gain perspective on the ‘excesses’, apportioned to zealous initiative-seekers in the regions. But, strategically speaking, following this model has hidden costs. And they are serious. Especially if ideology is outsourced, and the relationship between the outsourcer and the contractor is built on personal relationships rather than a contract.
Every process has its price.
As a result, a new form of loyalty emerges, one not oriented toward the state, rather one based on personal ideological priorities – clericalisation, selective xenophobia, isolation from the west, openness to the east – and the violation of national rules and institutions. Moreover, we also see the partial privatisation of executive power and a de-monopolisation of violence. And when people involved in ‘field management’ are kept in constant readiness, and their activities are seen as good regardless of cost or result, the ‘tail starts to wag the dog’. And Russia does not come to Chechnya (as it was thought in the 1990s), but Chechnya – to Russia. The political culture of Moscow adopts that of Grozny, and not the other way round.
Traditionally, rights activists view this scenario as a potential risk. But the risks here aren’t so much in the humanitarian sphere, as in the sphere of statehood and governance. When dealing with a whole state structure, it is very difficult to keep individual elements of the ‘field management’ in check, naively hoping that they won’t go after others.
Editor's note: This article originally appeared on profil.ru in Russian.