Will the war in Russia’s North Caucasus ever end?

Over the past 200 years, war and colonisation has defined Russia’s North Caucasus. But in a period of relative calm, significant changes are still underway. RU

Denis Sokolov
28 August 2018
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Grandparents and grandchildren in a mountain village, Dagestan. Photo by CC-by-NC-2.0: Dagestan Mountains and People Partnership / Flickr. Some rights reserved.On 4 August 2018, tens of thousands of mourners gathered in the Chechen village of Geldagen to bury Yusup Temerkhanov. Thousands more sent their condolences via WhatsApp. Temerkhanov died in a Siberian prison hospital during a 15-year sentence for the murder of Yuri Budanov. A Russian army colonel, Budanov had been convicted in 2003 for the kidnapping and murder of Elza Kungayeva, a Chechen woman, during the Second Chechen War. He was released on parole in 2009 – and shot dead in Moscow two years later.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who was present at the funeral, said in his eulogy that Temerkhanov’s guilt hadn’t been proven and that he had been unjustly convicted. But the crowd of people in Geldagen had gathered to honour the memory of the man who had become the embodiment of a nation’s revenge for the rape and murder of a young Chechen woman by a Russian war criminal.

For one part of the Russian Federation, General Alexey Yermolov, the man who conquered the Caucasus in the 19th century, and Colonel Yuri Budanov are the heroes. For the other, it’s Imam Shamil, the man who led the resistance to Russia’s designs on the Caucasus, and Yusup Temerkhanov who are the good guys. In 200 years of Russian conquest in the Caucasus, let alone the 25 years of post-Soviet history, this frontier has always been there.

This is the first part of a series of articles on the unfinished war in the North Caucasus today.

Two centuries of co-existence

Administratively, the North Caucasus (officially, the Northern-Caucasus Federal Okrug – SKFO) consists of six national republics of the Russian Federation, each named after its majority ethnic group, along with Stavropol Krai. It has a combined population of nearly 10 million people representing several dozen ethnicities. The largest of these, according to the 2010 census, are Chechens (1,335,857), Avars (865,348), Circassians (Kabardians and Circassians – 564,226), Dargins (541,552), Ossetins (481,492), Kumyks (466,769), Ingush (418,996) and Lezgins (396,408). Of these, only Chechnya, where ethnic Chechens make up 93.5% of the population and Ingushetia (with 94.1% Ingush) can be considered mono-ethnic. The most mixed region is Dagestan, with members of more than 30 peoples and ethnic groups represented in the population.


The village of Tindi, in Daghestan, in the late 1890s. Photo: Moriz von Déchy (1851-1917). Source: Wiki Commons.The North Caucasus is also home to a quarter of Russia’s Muslims, with a high proportion of Muslims concentrated in the eastern part of the region – in the republics of Dagestan (96% Muslim), Chechnya (97% Muslim) and Ingushetia (99% Muslim). In the western part of the region, thanks to a considerable ethnic Russian minority, as well as Ossetians, many of whom have adopted Christianity, and Christian Armenians and Greeks, there is a lower proportion of ethnic Muslims. In Kabardino-Balkaria they make up 71.5% of the population; in Karachay-Cherkessia 64%; in North Ossetia just 15% and in the Stavropol Krai a mere 4.5% – and the proportion of practising Muslims is correspondingly smaller.

When people talk about the North Caucasus, they also often refer to Krasnodar Krai and Adygea, which are outside the SKFO. In the 19th-20th centuries, these areas were, like Stavropol Krai, almost completely colonised by settlers from other parts of what was first the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. Out of the original indigenous North Caucasus ethnic groups, only Circassians (officially divided into Adygeans, Circassians, Kabardinians and Shapsugs), Abazins and Nogai remain in those parts of the Russian Federation.

The conquest of the North Caucasus by Russia has been going on for over two centuries, beginning in the 19th century with the Caucasian War of 1817-1864. This period saw the practical disappearance of the Adygean (Circassian) military aristocracy, with hundreds of thousands of Circassians deported to the Ottoman Empire.

In Chechnya and Dagestan, resistance to Russian colonisation was organised by members of the Murid Islamic religious order, the Naqshbandi Tariqa, whose Sheikh, and spiritual leader of the famous Imam Shamil, was the no less famous and respected Muhammad Yaragsky. After the end of the Caucasus War, Russia put down several bloody uprisings.

After the Civil War (1917 -1923), in which Caucasus people fought for both the Reds and the Whites, the Soviets began a systematic extermination of the regional intelligentsia, Islamic clergy and wealthy families as part of the repressions and collectivisation of the 1920s and 1930s. These actions by the Soviet authorities were accompanied by firstly, organised uprisings and later, sporadic action by small partisan groups whose resistance continued right up to the Second World War and was gradually replaced by robbing the local population and state establishments.


Chechens deported from the village of Aukh-Yurt, Dagestan (now Kalinin-Aul) at a railway station in Soviet Central Asia in 1957, after being permitted to make the long journey back to their homeland. CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved. The Second World War carried off half the male population of some mountain villages, most of whom were called up and dispatched to the front. In 1944, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars and Karachay, most of them women, children and the elderly, were deported to Central Asia; they were only able to return in 1957. In the second half of the 1940s and the 1950s, it was generally women who restored life to village communities which had almost disappeared. After a preliminary annihilation of the military, intellectual and economic elite and the clergy, the industrialisation of agriculture and an invasion of Russian school teachers was supposed to finally turn traditional mountain villages into collective farms and their residents into ordinary Soviet farm workers.

It seemed as though after two post-war Soviet generations, the plan had worked. But by the end of the 1980s, national movements of the indigenous peoples of the North Caucasian republics started making their presence felt. Local activists, inspired by the end of the ban on free discussion, the partial acknowledgement of Russian and Soviet repressive rule in the region and the exit of some Union Republics from the USSR held meetings and rallies at which they expressed their lack of trust in the Soviet party-economic nomenclature and started discussing self-determination and independence within the USSR, RSFSR or a new mountain republic.

The internal decolonisation of the North Caucasus

The 1970s saw the beginnings of ethnic Russian emigration from Cossack villages in Stavropol Krai, Rostov region, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Checheno-Ingushetia and Ossetia and from Russian villages in the Kizlyar and Tarumovsky districts of Dagestan: young people went off to university in the cities and didn’t return. The settler population of the North Caucasus was rapidly growing old.

The first contested elections brought members of local ethnic elites to power almost everywhere. Without the support of the government, Russians, Ukrainians and members of other groups whose forefathers had either been resettled in the Caucasus five or six generations earlier or who had moved there quite recently at the time of Soviet manufacturing and agricultural industrialisation quickly lost their means of upward social mobility and political status. The more aggressively-minded members of local communities plastered the fences and walls of Grozny and Nalchik with messages such as “Russians go home!”

It was not just Russians, of course, who were leaving north Caucasian cities. Local members of the scientific and technical intelligentsia, Soviet white collar and skilled blue collar workers were also abandoning the region, either to increase their earning power or to permanently settle in Russia’s “inner” regions – Moscow, St Petersburg, Rostov-on-Don or north-west Siberia. But the settler population of the North Caucasus had an almost zero birth-rate (Armenian, Meskhetian Turk and Greek populations were another story, but one I will touch on here).


Buses leaving for Moscow from Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. CC BY 2.0 Un Bolshakov / Flickr. Some rights reserved. In the 1990s, the population balance of the eastern North Caucasus republics changed by several dozen percent, and the population drain in the western part is still continuing, even in Stavropol Krai, where of the peoples living in the region before the Russian conquest only 22,000 members of the Nogai people and two Kabardian villages remain. The central point of ethnic Russian occupation moves 10 kilometres to the north west every year, and settlers from Dagestan, Chechnya, Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria are moving in to replace them.

Soviet and now Russian census figures show that the highest rate of Russification in the North Caucasus took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before a gradual outflow of settler population groups that turned into a veritable exodus of Russians, Ukrainians and Jews (and in some areas Armenians) in the 1990s and 2000s.

In 1926, 12.5% of the population of Dagestan was Russian and 17.6% was Avar (the largest indigenous population group). By 1959, 20% was Russian and 22.5% Avar, but then the trend changed: in 1979 only 11% of the population was Russian and 25% Avar; in 1989 the figures were respectively 9% and 27.5%; in 2002 they were 4.7% and 29.4% and in 2010, 3.57% Russian and 29.2% Avar.

In Stavropol Krai in 1959, 91.3% of the population was Russian and only 0.05% Dargin (members of this ethnic group had just begun to migrate). In 2010 Russians still made up 80% of the population, and Dargins 1.77% according to official figures (experts put the figure at twice that). In 1979, 20 years after the Chechens returned from deportation, 30% of their republic’s population was Russian and 60% Chechen: the figures for 1989 were respectively 24.8% and 66% and in 2010, according to the last census, 95.8% of the population was Chechen and only 1.92% Russian. Finally, the population of Kabardino-Balkaria in 1959 was 45.3% Kabardian, 8.11% Balkar and 38.7% Russian, whilst in 2010, 57% was Kabardian, 22.5% Russian and 12.6% Balkar.

Russia's southern Caucasus frontier is nevertheless not only not dissolving due to urbanisation, the global market and the power vertical, but is, on the contrary, becoming ever more substantial and profound

At the start of the 1990s, the North Caucasus republics were governed by two types of leader. The first included Djokhar Dudayev in Chechnya and Ruslan Aushev in Ingushetia, both Soviet Army generals who turned to politics on the wave of national movements, a repudiation of the Soviet nomenklatura system and a tendency among participants of national movements towards militarisation.

The second type comprised representatives of ethnic nomenklatura groups who managed to hang on to power. They included Magomedali Magomedov, head of the Presidium of Dagestan’s Supreme Soviet; Valery Kokov, who fulfilled the same function in Kabardino-Balkaria; Aleksandr Galazov, First Secretary of the regional committee of the North Ossetian Communist Party and Vladimir Khubiyev, President of the Karachayev-Cherkessian Republic. Former Soviet officials had to take account of local ethnocentric movements and learn, in the end, how to control them.

In Moscow, meanwhile, a cut-throat battle for power was raging, and in October 1993 it descended into armed conflict in the centre of the capital. And the North Caucasus would have remained on the periphery of the political agenda had it not been for the outbreak of war in Chechnya in 1994. The years that followed saw the North Caucasus become the epicentre of politically motivated armed conflict in Russia: as well as the Chechen Wars of 1994-1996 and 1999-2009, there was the Ossetian-Ingush conflict in North Ossetia’s Prigorod district in 1992 and the attack on Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, in October 2005. In addition, there were almost 20 years of underground armed Islamic activity and a spate of terrorist attacks both inside then region and elsewhere – in Moscow, Volgodonsk, Volgograd and St Petersburg.

The Caucasus frontier: the calm before the storm?

Today, the North Caucasus is relatively quiet. The Caucasus Emirate, a militant Jihadist organisation active between 2007 and 2015, has been defeated; thousands of Islamic dissidents have been killed in special operations or are behind bars and tens of thousands of jihadis have left the country. Several thousand Caucasus residents fought for ISIS at its peak of activity, but it is now moribund, and only concerned with returning the wives and children of dead mujahedeen to their homes.

Chechnya is headed by Ramzan Kadyrov, who calls himself “Putin’s Infantryman”; Dagestan is under external management by Russian Internal Ministry General Vladimir Vasiliyev, who has now turned to politics; and Yuri Kokov, another general and the former head of the Internal Ministry’s anti-extremism directorate, is in charge of Kabardino-Balkaria. Other republics are in the hands of experienced Moscow bureaucrats. The regional FSB, meanwhile looks after the financial side of things, elections and the appointment of heads of areas of financial or political importance.

Objectively speaking, no North Caucasus republic has any human, organisational, intellectual or financial resources that would allow it to successfully implement any national sovereignty project. Russia's southern Caucasus frontier is nevertheless not only not dissolving due to urbanisation, the global market and the power vertical, but is, on the contrary, becoming ever more substantial and profound.

No North Caucasus republic has any human, organisational, intellectual or financial resources that would allow it to successfully implement any national sovereignty project

The Caucasus has a long memory: it doesn’t just remember the Chechen wars of 15 years ago. Every year, on 21 May, thousands of Circassians gather in Nalchik, Cherkessk, Istanbul, Berlin and New York to commemorate the 19th century Caucasian War, and the Kabardino-Balkarian regional authorities don’t openly obstruct this action.

More than 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the North Caucasus has not only not dissolved in Russia’s post-Soviet urban environment, but has, with unexpected help from today’s means of communication, revitalised its religious and ethnic identity. Young Circassians in Moscow or Turkey may not be able to speak their mother tongue, but they can write in Circassian because they “meet up” in Circassian social network groups. Caucasians travel all over the world, but modern means of communication allow them to create and maintain trans-ethnic networks in the form of village societies, religious communities and ethnic groups.
People from the North Caucasus are much less trusting of the Russian judicial system than most other Russians and so often attempt to resolve conflicts among themselves, de facto refusing to recognise the Russian legal system’s monopoly on violence.

The hermetic nature of Caucasus communities leads to the legal side of life in village society being governed by common or Shariat law and implemented collectively. This can mean factional fights using knives or guns. In city, migrant or business networks “professionals” – guerrilla leaders, private army warlords or criminal bosses – are brought in to act as muscle. 


July 2013: the house of the third wife of underground leader Magomed Suleimanov is destroyed by Russian security forces. CС Varvara Pakhomenko/International Crisis Group/Flickr. Some rights reserved. This way of doing things has serious consequences. Russian law enforcement agencies, employers, bureaucrats and even ordinary citizens renting out accommodation in the big cities mistrust and fear people from the North Caucasus, regarding them as alien outsiders. And this mistrust, mutual dislike and fear, stoked from time to time by the Russian media as they both report the real presence of Muslims in the war in Syria and terrorist attacks around the world and at the same time take advantage of the collective reputation of Muslims and Caucasians to inflate any minor offence, is not only not on the wane, but is growing in strength.

This only too perceptible frontier between Russia and the North Caucasus works like a fully-fledged institution that accumulates mutual claims on social, political, religious, legal, economic and quasi-criminal levels on a daily basis. Every time the Russian authorities lose control of the regional elites or FSB, a new armed conflict breaks out from nowhere. The threat of armed violence and terrorist attacks will only disappear when the frontier is either abandoned completely or turned into an official administrative or state border.

And this is all under the control of the “unseen hand of the political market”, where the law enforcement bodies can take on the function of a protection racket (and warlords like Makhachkala’s former mayor Said Amirov maintain security service officers as their private army), or, on the other hand, turn back into a protection racket (when, for example, officers of the Kabardino-Balkaria anti-extremism department try to provide “protection” for a construction company or an illegal distillery).

Acquiring sovereignty is a two-stage process. You first have to create and consolidate sub-elites, on both sides of the frontier, who are looking for political independence and so aspire to a monopoly on protection income. As the experience of the Chechen conflict and the Caucasian Emirate has shown, this income needn’t necessarily come from your own territory: what is important is that governmental or quasi-governmental institutions will allow you to receive it. For the thing to work, your sovereign elites will need their own legal system and means of withdrawing income (money, a tariff policy and fiscal services) in large enough quantities to maintain independence and public safety. There are already societies in the North Caucasus with their own judicial system and social infrastructure, but there are no elites interested in sovereignty: the Russian exchequer pays more and hands out cash more freely.

The second stage is armed conflict. An external conflict turns a protection racket into an army, an internal one into a police force and a terrorist war into a hit squad. The quarter century of post-Soviet Caucasus history is the history of a fight for income aided by internal and external conflicts. An absence of social mobility for the young, radical ethnic and religious ideologies, a conflict of generations, urbanisation – these are all well-known factors that, like dry sticks, burn well in the flames of political struggle.

While rents from land and infrastructure bring in less income than corruption and funding from the state, Russia’s Caucasus frontier will remain a subject for anthropological research. When this relationship changes, it will turn into either a frontline of battle or a state border.


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