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A strategy for North Caucasus: don’t mention politics or religion!

The recently published Russian government strategy paper for the North Caucasus chooses to focus solely on the socio-economic development of the region. The refusal to address key political or religious issues undermines the whole rationale for the document, laments Sergei Markedonov
Sergei Markedonov
1 November 2010

On 4 October 2010 the Russian Federation government website published the full text, complete with tables and appendices, of a development strategy for the North Caucasus, Russia’s most troubled and unstable region.

Publication of the Strategy for the Socio-economic Development of the North Caucasus Federal District until 2025 has provoked a good deal of comment. Such documents are rare in Russian politics, domestic or foreign. You can try and describe, and even define, many of the philosophies of the Kremlin or the White House [seat of the Russian government, ed]. But really understanding people in power is hard, as they do not on the whole put their philosophy into words. Strategy-2025 is 118 pages long (including 8 pages of appendices) in 14-pt text.  What is it?

Map North Caucasus

North Caucasus map,  source: wikitravel

Blaming outsiders

In the early 2000s, the Russian authorities were all too ready to speak about the North Caucasus. Discussion centered on several topics. The first was the Caucasus as a platform for international terrorism, where Russia was being put to the test. The image of the  “inter-national terrorist” changed according to the political situation of the time. Sometimes the face had Georgian features, at other times Afghan and sometimes even the “treacherous West” seemed to be involved. The role of the West in affairs in the North Caucasus was actually interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, it was seen as a “natural ally” at risk from “third world” intrigues, and on the other hand, an unimaginative and bothersome partner trying to impose its incorrect ideas (or “double standards”) on us.

The second topic was the swiftly stabilizing Caucasus, an image that effectively came to mean Chechnya under the wise leadership of Kadyrov father and son. There were attempts to diversify the North Caucasus issue: the most outstanding example were the speeches by the President’s representative in the south Dmitry Kozak (in this position from September 2004 to September 2007). He tried to focus the attention of his immediate superiors and society on the problems of the clan system and the inefficiency of the regional administrations (particularly in conditions of budget dependency on the federal centre). However, Russia’s ruling elite was not concerned with the region’s domestic situation, at least until the middle of last year.

The decision to end counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya in the summer of 2009, dictated as it was by PR considerations, did not have the effect of reducing the number of terrorist acts in that republic. Diversionary terrorist activity actually spread to the neighbouring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia. That summer saw a brazen attempt to assassinate Ingushetia’s president Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, which temporarily put him out of action. Aldigirei Magomedtagirov, Interior Minister of Dagestan, the largest North Caucasus republic was murdered. All this required some coherent explanation. It was impossible just to keep saying that the region would soon be stabilized, although “some people are working against this”.

We all know that unfortunately, the living standard in the Southern Federal District and the republics of the North Caucasus is generally below Russia’s average, despite our continuous efforts and certain achievements of the recent years. The improvements should not be negated, but the per capita GDP in the area is nevertheless just a fraction of what is the national average. Industrial output is also significantly lower, although positive changes are taking place in many sectors.

Dmitry Medvedev, Machachkala Speech

Focus on the domestic

Dmitry Medvedev’s Makhachkala speech of 9 June 2009 marked the moment when the focus changed from external to internal. The president talked of “systemic problems” in the North Caucasus region. For the first time since the 1990s the head of state was officially admitting that socio-political turbulence in the Russian Caucasus was not the result of foreign interference, but of internal problems like corruption, unemployment and poverty. 

However, both the president and prime minister still kept talking about the battle with “bandits” and “organized crime groups”, as if the current problems of the Caucasus could be compared to the situation in Harlem or the Bronx in the 1980s. The failures of government in the North Caucasus were not honestly discussed. Blame was laid on the regional and local authorities, while the federal authorities escaped criticism. This was the origin of exotic ideas like the introduction of special jurisdiction for matters involving terrorism. But be that as it may, in his address last year Medvedev called the North Caucasus the main problem of Russian domestic politics. And that was when another idea emerged: a new bureaucratic structure, backed by Medvedev and Putin, charged with “establishing order” in the North Caucasus.

As a result Alexander Khloponin arrived in the Caucasus on 10 January 2010. This looked like an innovation. The man responsible for Russia’s most unstable region was not one of the siloviki, but a manager who had worked for Norilsk Nickel and served as governor of the Taymyr Peninsula and Krasnoyarsk. The media adopted a different language when discussing the North Caucasus. Apart from the usual reference to “terrorists” and “extremists”, they began talking of “clusters”, “investments” and “innovations”.

But Khloponin’s appointment had nothing to do with modernization. It was a typical behind-the-scenes advancement of a person lacking the appropriate experience, motivated by internal bureaucratic logic, rather than pressing national interest. In addition the functions of this new head of the Caucasus were very limited. Khloponin was thrown in at the deep end, without being given the necessary political powers. And how can there be any real investment or innovation in a region so close to a state of war? In the end, things didn’t turn out for the better, but as usual, as Viktor Chernomyrdin so memorably put it in 1993.

The economy and the social sphere were recognized as important. The Kremlin and the White House put all their efforts into developing these sectors, but political themes (ethnic conflicts and the relations between the different religions) remained taboo. They are seen as merely superficial, a function of the socio-economic situation. This has made it impossible to produce a large-scale strategy for the development of the Caucasus. When the politics of the region are as unstable as they are, socio-economic matters, while unquestionably important, do not play a determining role.

Still, on 6 July 2010 Vladimir Putin asked for this strategy document to be delivered “within a period of two months”, a reasonable amount of time for a good academic article or the chapter of a book, but not for a document with a 15-year perspective. As with the appointment of Khloponin, the draft was prepared behind the scenes, without serious socio-political discussion, because in this country politics is regarded as unnecessary, a distraction of the masses from the job of economic modernization. By 6 September 2010, the draft of the Strategy was ready. In less than a month, it went through the entire cycle from being signed to publication on the site of the federal government.

What of the political situation?

The aims and objectives of Strategy-2025, as set out in the initial “General Provisions”, are skewed from the very beginning. We read that: “The Strategy takes account of:

  • the current state of the economy of Russian Federation administrative entities which are part of the North Caucasus Federal District;
  • the Russian economy;
  • the global economy;
  • their potential for development;
  • regional and inter-regional projects and their outcomes”.

But what about the political development of the Caucasus? Don’t the facts of terrorism, subversive actions and an ethnocratic leadership automatically make any business plan a “risky undertaking”? And shouldn’t future investors be taking this into account (unless the money comes from the federal budget, which is not dependent on public opinion)? “The North Caucasus district offers favourable conditions for developing the agro-industrial complex, the spheres of tourism and health tourism, electricity, mining and manufacturing.  It also affords developed transit facilities. However, economic and socio-political instability mean that natural advantages remain unrealized and make the North Caucasus Federal District an unattractive environment for investment”.

Nazran police station

August 2009: at least 20 people have been killed by a bomb at a police station in Russia's southern republic of Ingushetia. The attack injured 138 people.

The political element is mentioned in passing, after the economy, and is not elaborated on in any way. What does socio-political instability mean? Is it the separatist threat or the “religious revival” which is incompatible with the constitutional and legal regulations and laws of the Russian Federation? Again, let us imagine that this text is being read by an entrepreneur with a positive attitude towards Russia, a potential investor from abroad. What will he get out of this “introduction” to the topic? Nothing except the style, redolent of the era of party congresses, when “objective and certain subjective factors” were always getting in our way, in spite of our considerable natural wealth.  

According to Strategy-2025, “The main goal of the Strategy is to provide conditions conducive to the rapid growth of the real sector of the economy in Russian Federation administrative units that make up the North Caucasus Federal District. Also to create new jobs, and improve the standard of life”. What a wonderful goal! But is this possible in a situation that is practically on a war footing (the felicitous description of the present situation given by the head of the Prosecutor General's Office Investigative Committee Alexander Bastrykin in an interview with the radio Ekho Moskvy). It’s not the grey economy, which makes its living from illegal or semi-legal deals, that is being discussed in this document. Incidentally, Strategy-2025 does not set itself to deal with institutional change, i.e. creating a new generation of managers who could give the economy the chance to breathe, without killing it with their kickbacks and pay-offs.

The abuse of power and illegal methods of carrying out anti-terrorist operations give rise to a lack of trust in the authorities, and even a situation where people start regarding law enforcers as enemies. Young people who are constantly victimized become particularly vulnerable to recruitment by the rebels. There is plenty of evidence that the activity of the armed underground has been growing recently. The crisis will only get worse if the state keeps fighting the insurgents using methods like kidnapping and executions without trial.

Tanya Lokshina, openDemocracy Russia

Faulty diagnosis

Any doctor (and anti-crisis manager) knows that treatment is only possible on the basis of a competent and sound diagnosis, not by suppressing the history of the illness. What diagnosis is there in Strategy-2025? The main diagnostic assessments are given in section 2, An analysis of the socio-economic situation in the North Caucasus Federal District. Strategy-2025 does not have a special section dedicated to the socio-political situation in the region, even just in relation to the economic prospects. “Since the early 90s most of the constituent members of the North Caucasus Federal District have for a number of objective socio-economic reasons been the most susceptible to crisis,” the document states. Why were these reasons not examined in more detail? Were they as objective as they were in Siberia, the Far East or the Central Black Earth region? In the early 90s all these regions made the transition from a central planned economy to a market economy. Or did the Caucasus have its own special features? We need some clarification. Strategy-2025 provides a comparative history of the situation to date. Falling production figures for the Caucasus and Russia as a whole are compared. But there is no analysis of the reasons for this decline in the Caucasus. On their own, the figures do not say much. They need fleshing out.

According to Strategy-2025, “the last decade has seen a drastic reduction in the Russian population in the North Caucasus Federal District. This has been caused by the falling birth rate and an increase in the flow of migrants to other regions of the Russian Federation. At the same time, the indigenous ethnic groups in the republics of the North Caucasus Federal District are growing steadily because their birth rate is rising and the Russian nationals are leaving”.  These conclusions are incontrovertible. But the changes were not only caused by the market transformations of the 1990s. Ethnic conflict played its part, particularly in Chechnya, as did the increasing importance accorded to ethnic affiliation by the local authorities and the lack of an overall coherent concept of nation building.

Tourism North Caucasus

Strategy for the Socio-economic Development of the North Caucasus:  the district offers favourable conditions for developing the agro-industrial complex, the spheres of tourism and health tourism

Two incomplete subsections of Strategy-2025 are devoted to ethnic relations, but they are limited to generalities. There is no real information and no analysis. “The current socio-political and ethno-political situation in the North Caucasus Federal District is characterized by several pronounced negative social tendencies, manifestations of ethno-political and religious extremism, and a high risk of conflict”.

Any specialist could probably find a great many negative tendencies in any part of the Russian Federation, if he or she so desired. They exist in Moscow and St. Petersburg (isn’t xenophobia a “negative social tendency”?), and in the Volga area (where there is both ethnic and religious extremism). But the difference between the Caucasus and the Volga area, the two capitals or the Urals, is that only in the North Caucasus is there a situation akin to war.

This document of considerable strategic importance offers no explanation for why events developed as they did. The reader is left to guess. The Strategy’s analytical section does not even have a subsection dealing with the religious revival, although radical Islam is the main vehicle for protests in the Caucasus. Anything to do with relations between the religions is relegated to the subsection Ethnic Relationships.

The reasons for the growth of radical Islam are set out with alarming simplicity: “Radical forms of Islam (have been) imported into the said Federal District.” The text offers no explanation as to what these “imported forms” are. In the interests of objectivity, one can of course say that other reasons for the dissemination of extremist views (the Strategy makes no special distinction between nationalists and Islamists) include “widespread corruption” or “questions relating to the owning and disposing of land, which are unregulated and the cause of most of the ethnic conflicts, including at the level of the man in the street”, and also “ethnic tension as a result of ill-defined civic identity”. But again, none of this can be linked to the need for institutional change in the Caucasus.

According to Strategy-2025, “Today, staunching the flow of Russians leaving the North Caucasus Federal District and encouraging them to return there is a strategic objective. They are important for the District because they represent ethno-political stability, as well as being a source of the highly qualified work force needed to enable the District to achieve steady growth and investment attractiveness”. The departure of Russian manpower from the Caucasus has undoubtedly created many problems, and this is recognised by many representatives of the Caucasian, Turkic and other peoples of the region. But it would be a huge mistake to reduce the whole picture to black and white (competent/highly qualified Russians vs. semi-literate and savage hill people). The problem is that those who are economically active and professionally well off are leaving the region, irrespective of what ethnic group they belong to. The author of this article is personally acquainted with well-educated Karbadin, Ingush, Chechens, Laks, Nogais and Ossetians, who left the region to pursue their careers outside the Caucasus. In many ways, this is because it is simply impossible to do business, have a career as a scholar or simply live as a free person in this region. The Russian state needs to take equal care of all its citizens who suffer from the abuse of power, ethnocracy and terrorism, and not just one ethnic group.

There seems little point in detailing the descriptions of “natural”, “industrial” and other “potentials” set forth in the Strategy, or commenting on the prognosis that the gross regional product will grow by 7.7% per year, along with a general increase in salaries and a drop in unemployment. This is all very remotely related to the economy. The best “natural climatic potential” will never be realized without investments and guarantees for them. An example of this is the many countries in Africa, Latin America and Oceania with natural opportunities that an investor could only dream of. However, the weak institutional base, incompetent management, corruption and political instability make these assumptions unrealizable.

In short, the objectives of Strategy-2025 are clearly unachievable. It focuses on economic growth without addressing the socio-political preconditions that make the North Caucasus explosive and instable. This document seems to isolate the economy and the social sphere from the rest of the not uncomplicated whole. It is not the first time that the Russian government has tried to do this. In 2001 they wanted to become part of the West by cooperating on security issues. They overlooked the fact that this would not be enough for the US and EU and that irreversible changes would be required. Then we began to talk about modernising the economy, without touching the foundations of the political system. And finally we have tried to bring the Caucasus to its feet without changing the institutions of governance, or the people in charge who embody the current “main domestic political problem of the country” and without trying to integrate citizens of different ethnic groups into a united political nation.

The result will be the same as the “Anti-terrorist Entente-2001”, and probably the same as “Silicon Valley-2”, as scientific knowledge cannot triumph without free creativity. Without a complete overhaul of the political and institutional situation in the Caucasus, dynamic development is impossible.

The author is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, USA

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