In the Russian republic of Ingushetia people celebrated by dancing and shooting in the air when they heard that their president Murat Zyazikov had been dismissed. The news reached me in Ankara, where I was attending a roundtable on the Caucasus, together with experts from Turkey, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were recognized by Russia in August this year.
How to make South Caucasus stable?
The subject under discussion was how to make the South Caucasus region stable after the conflict that broke out there on 8th August. Could Russia, which was at least partially responsible for the regional crisis that followed, become the main peace-broker manager there? It was a unique occasion. It is no easy matter to gather Georgians, Abkhazians and Ossetians round the same table, not to mention Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The only live subject of South Caucasian politics which was not represented was that of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh was little discussed because everyone was interested in Georgia and the regions seceding from it. As chance would have it, a day after the experts left for their capitals, the Meiendorf declaration on Karabakh was signed in Moscow. With this declaration, which actually changed little, Russia made it very clear to Turkey, the European Union, and other players outside the region, that it intends to continue playing a major role in the politics of the South Caucasian. Indeed, it would like to return with the status of master of the situation, as the sovereign whom the squabbling vassals see as the only possible arbiter for their quarrels.
However desirable this may be for politicians in Moscow, even after the August conflict and the Meiendorf handshake between Armenia and Azerbaijan, it needs hardly be said that this is a deeply unrealistic prospect. Some indicators suggest that recent events have even widened the gap between desire and reality.
For example, it was clear that Azerbaijan was alarmed at Russia's encroachment into Georgia. For it has Karabakh, and other territories in the north which could go the way of South Ossetia, given a certain concentration of forces and support from the Russian side. The situation in Georgia has also complicated the transit of Azerbaijani raw materials through Georgian territory. There is no alternative route, because the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline could not cope with the amount of oil Azerbaijan exports daily.
Armenia also values Georgia as its only means of access to the outside world apart from Iran. The Armenian president was not happy that Russian bombers took off from the Russian base in the Armenian city of Gyumri. But after Russia's ambitious behaviour in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were eager to hear what proposals the Turkish government had on stability and co-operation in the Caucasus.
For the first time in many years, there has been progress in the contacts between these three countries. It is not the Minsk group we have to thank for this, but the unvoiced fear of all three governments in the face of Russia's military reawakening. This is the larger picture, while the achievement of the Minsk Group is so far no more than an episode. Russia's own systemic constraints will make it very difficult for the country to build on its success in the South Caucasus significantly. The most obvious of these is the state of its own territory in North Caucasus. When your own house is not in order, it is at the very least strange to want to bring order in the houses of not one, or two, but three of your neighbours.
Caucasus: North vs. South
However, the North Caucasus factor escapes the attention of Russian analysts studying the problems of the Caucasus as a whole. So blind are they to it that at the Ankara conference they were inviting me to events organized by Zyazikov's team for the day after his dismissal as president of Ingushetia. So certain are they that the situation in the North Caucasus has been stabilised that it does not even occur to them to ask whether the president of the country agrees with them. The blindness of the expert community is not as dangerous as the blindness of politicians who make the decisions. But only one step divides the one group from the other. The act that Moscow ignores the problems of the North Caucasus is symptomatic.
The North Caucasus is also intimately connected with the South Caucasus both ethnically and territorially. For instance, the Abkhazians are related to the Cherkess, Kabardins and Abazins of the Northern Slope. The majority of Ossetians live in Russia. Chechens have a strong and very specific diaspora in Georgia, and a number of peoples of Dagestan are divided by the Russian-Georgian and Russian-Azerbaijan border. In the 1990s, there was a whole range of ethno-separatist movements all along these borders. The leaders of those movements are still alive and kicking. What they are asking themselves right now is this: why does the principle of free self-determination apply to Ossetians and Abkhazians, but not to the highland peoples of the South of Russia?
This question is not often heard only because ethno-separatist ideas have lost much of their popularity. In the early 1990s, the nomenklaturas of autonomies that were formed in the Soviet period strengthened their power, raising the banner of national populism. It is not popular to mention this, but many state officials who are still working in government institutions of the North Caucasus raised toasts to the freedom of Chechnya in 1996-1998 at feasts where Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov were present. Now these officials are widely hated by the population, with the exception of Chechnya itself, as they are justly seen as thieves, bribe-takers, embezzlers, and sometimes even murderers. There is hatred of the regional authorities, which are seen as a branch of Moscow.
There is no civil opposition. But there is a slowly but surely growing movement of political Islam, which exists in all seven of the Russian Caucasian regions, including Ossetia with its Christian majority. Islamists have proclaimed the abolition of ethnic borders and a war to establish Shariat law all over the Caucasus. In the end, they don't need guns and explosives: they are waging a war for the minds of young people. They have a strong chance of winning this war. When one looks at the South Caucasus, one can say with certainly that if the Islamic movement flourishes in the Caucasian provinces of Russia, then Russia will have far more serious things to worry about than Georgia or Azerbaijan. The probability that this will happen is not inconsiderable: Moscow does not offer young people in the Caucasus any alternative program of development. For those who have stayed at home, there is unemployment and a drop in the quality and availability of even basic education, and for those who go to find happiness and prosperity in the Russian regions, there is growing xenophobia - and a financial crisis.
Ingushetia is a place where the fire virtually started before our eyes. The problem initially lay in the proximity to Chechnya. When the war began in Chechnya in 1999, Ingushetia was ruled by president Aushev, who did not allow Russian law-enforcement structures to fight rebels in Ingushetia in the way they did in Chechnya. The Russians saw this as a sign of separatism and tried to remove Aushev, who was very popular among the people, could act as a negotiator with Maskhadov, and at least provided stability on the territory of Ingushetia. The new president Zyazikov, who was elected in 2002 with the active practical assistance of the Kremlin in the vote tallying, and was re-appointed in 2006, as elections of regional leaders were abolished, agreed to let the law-enforcement structures into Ingushetia.
The result became clear very quickly: in 2004 there was an attempt to blow up Zyazikov's cortege, Basaev occupied Nazran with a large band of fighters in several hours and took control of half of the republic, and rebels entered Beslan from the territory of Ingushetia. Perhaps Zyazikov could have been forgiven for the mistakes of the federal forces in special operations where peaceful citizens died and disappeared, and the ones who survived joined the rebels out of hatred - if he had made any improvements whatsoever to the problem of poverty and unemployment. This did not happen, despite all his efforts, and certainly despite all the reports that he made to the Kremlin. Since the end of last year, demands for Zyazikov's dismissal began to be heard constantly. At the same time, political processes began which were not pleasant for the Kremlin: the assembly of Ingush Teips, for example, delegated representatives to an alternative regional parliament. As soon as Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia, this parliament immediately promised to pose the question of Ingushetia seceding from Russia, unless the problem of Zyazikov was solved.
Three quite distinct groups formed in Ingushetia: Zyazikov's group, which could not have been removed without Moscow losing face, but which it was becoming dangerous to keep in power; the civil opposition which demanded his dismissal; and radical Islamists, who increased in number the longer Zyazikov stayed in power, and with weapons in their hands sought not only the replacement of Zyazikov, but the establishment of Shariat law.
The situation was exacerbated by the fact that, since 1992 (and strictly speaking, for much longer than that) Ingushetia and North Ossetia have been in a state of conflict over the border lands. Ossetians to the south of the Greater Caucasus Mountain Range are in conflict with Georgia, and to the north with Ingushetia. It is obvious that if Russia positions itself as the defender and guarantor of the Ossetians, anti-Ossetian feeling (and indeed anti-Russian too) in Ingushetia will increase, as will sympathy towards Georgia. There is no need for any Georgian-Ingush conspiracies,with Pankisi-Chechen involvements, as some people think. It is the logic of several billiard balls lying next to each other: you hit one and another one moves; if you strike at random it is unclear which direction they will go in.
By finally removing Zyazikov, Moscow has chosen the right and most suitable course of action from the few possibilities available. There were in fact three options. The first was to return Aushev to Ingushetia, as the Ingush opposition demanded. The second was to unite Ingushetia with Chechnya and hand them both to Ramzan Kadyrov, so that he could solve the problems there in the way he solved them at home. The third was to replace the President of Ingushetia with someone other than Aushev.
The first option was impossible because of Aushev's relations with the federal politicians who take the decisions. He may not have a relationship with Medvedev, but he had more than enough rwith Putin. His involvement alone in attempts to find a bloodless solution to the crisis in Beslan in 2004 was already sufficient for strong mutual dislike.
The second option would firstly have given too much strength to Kadyrov, whom Medvedev does not see as his man in the Caucasus, evidently understanding that this young and independent leader can only be considered to be Putin's man by a considerable stretch of the imaginagtion. Secondly, if Kadyrov has managed to achieve a general reduction in the level of violence in Chechnya, this happened because he forced out the federal troops and transferred the law-enforcement functions to local structures, mainly comprised of former separatists, who had fought against Russia in one or two wars, but have now declared their loyalty. This Chechenization of Ingushetia would have angered federal generals, who generally see Moscow's Chechen policy as a capitulation. Quarrelling with generals is also not part of President Medvedev's plans. Furthermore, Kadyrov's police in Ingushetia, for all the ethnic kinship of Chechens and Ingush, would not be very different from the federal troops: Kadyrov's men in Ingushetia are also foreigners, even if they speak a comprehensible language. And finally, if Ingushetia and Chechnya were to unite, this would deprive Ingushetia of the formal basis for its territorial claims on North Ossetia. When Chechnya and Ingushetia were one autonomous region in the USSR, the lands of South Stavropol that were handed over to Chechno-Ingushetia in 1957, were considered to be compensation for the territories being disputed with the Ossetians If they became part of Chechno-Ingushetia, the Ingush would be deprived of the formal right to demand territorial rehabilitation (the border lands were taken away from them during the Stalinist deportation in 1944). This unity with Chechnya might solve the Ossetian-Ingush problem from Moscow's point of view. But it would detonate the bomb of Ingush nationalism and inevitably turn the Ossetian-Ingush border into a front line again.
Sensibly postponing the project for uniting Chechnya and Ingushetia - and Grozny clearly tried to breathe life into this project in October - President Medvedev chose the third option. The first steps by the man he appointed, colonel of the Intelligence Division Yunusbek Yevkurov, have already significantly reduced tension in Ingushetia. The civil opposition is satisfied with the appointment. The hated government has been dismissed. Yevkurov has promised an objective investigation of the most high-profile crimes involving security forces, and also to reduce their numbers in the region.
New president Yevkurov, can he succeed?
But this is not even half the problem. These are the steps which any other person replacing Zyazikov would have taken. Future success depends on whether Yevkurov will really be able to influence the quality of work of the federal security structures, or whether everything will remain unchanged, and Yevkurov himself will turn into a copy of Zyazikov, only with a moustache. Zyazikov's experience in the intelligence division bodes well. The leadership of the intelligence division is loyal towards Medvedev and has its own ideas about the need to reform administration in the North Caucasus. But there are security officers who are unhappy with the Zyazikov's departure, as he was a convenient figure for them. They appear to be prepared to go to considerable lengths to stop Yevkurov from strengthening his position. Which faction of the security forces wins depends in many ways on whose position in Moscow is strengthened in the medium-term perspective - Putin's circle, which understood the need for Zyazikov's dismissal, but is still unhappy about it, or Medvedev's circle.
Yevkurov's survival in this battle between Moscow groups (the ‘bulldogs under the carpet') will also be complicated by the fact that from the few reserves on the bench in Ingushetia, he will inevitably choose people from Aushev's group for his staff - if only to distance himself from his predecessor. And he has already been accused of lobbying for Aushev's group interests. To be fair, it should be said that one of the first people to mention Yevkurov as a probable replacement for Zyazikov was the Ingush businessman Musa Keligov, who was close to Aushev at one time. Keligov and the Gutseriev brothers (one of whom, Mikhail, fled Russia after the Kremlin tax police attacked his oil company, whose output ranks it 10th in Russia, are thought to be a source of finance for the anti-Zyazikov opposition. For his own political survival, Yevkurov should refrain from even mentioning these ties. At the end of the day, Aushev's group in Ingushetia from 1992-2002 was mainly valuable because of Aushev himself, and without Aushev it has just as many bribe-takers and opportunists as every other group.
Yevkurov cannot become the Ingush Kadyrov: he is not a field commander, and Ingushetia lacks the unique class of combatants who joined the side of the law. There was no fighting in Ingushetia before, but when it started it was young Islamists that were the backbone of its army. These are not weary veterans of two wars with federal troops, and it is practically impossible to lure them out of the forest. They don't care whether Yevkurov or Zyazikov is in power. And if Yevkurov becomes another Zyazikov, the war will only escalate.
The only alternative path for Yevkurov is to acquire a certain political independence based on the ideological platform of Ingush traditions, and, ultimately, moderate Ingush nationalism. Within Ingushetia, this path is still not closed for him: he belongs to the large and influential Orstkhoi sub-ethnic group, and his first steps received the consensual approval of the main teips. The problem is that this path goes directly against Moscow's preferred way of functioning in the regions: regional leaders are not supposed to be too independent. The Ingush dilemma looks bad for Moscow: a governor who is a pawn means a probable escalation of war, and an independent governor is a serious compromise, a rejection of Putin's concept of administration in the Caucasus and the federal system as a whole.