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North Caucasus: one war lost, another one begins

The region of the North Caucasus is on fire. Its young people — poorly educated and unemployed — believe radical Islam could be solution to their problems. In Mother Russia, meanwhile, a new generation of disenfranchised youngsters are smarting from their lot. The two groups may be soon on collision course, warns Andrei Piontkovsky

Events in the North Caucasus have been increasingly moving beyond a mere regional conflict, and are turning into the central existential problem of the Russian Federation.  All the mistakes, failures and crimes of Russia’s post-communist governments in the sphere of security, economics, nationalities policy and federal system have become entwined in the Caucasian knot.

North Caucasus map
 

The security situation in the North Caucasus is deteriorating. According to Russian authorities, the number of terrorist acts in the area has doubled in a year

What was the reason we fought two Chechen wars? Russia’s territorial integrity, supposedly. However, territorial integrity is not the same as scorched earth without people. We went to war to prove to the Chechens that they are Russian citizens. But we did it by destroying their cities by using airborne power and Grad missiles and by abducting peaceful civilians whose bodies were later found showing signs of torture. 

We have consistently proved to the Chechens the exact opposite of what we have proclaimed, demonstrating with our entire behaviour that they are not Russian citizens, that we have long ceased to regard them as Russian citizens and their cities and villages as Russian cities and villages. And we have conclusively proved this not just to the Chechens, but to all the natives of the Caucasus.

What was the reason we fought two Chechen wars? Russia’s territorial integrity, supposedly. However, territorial integrity is not the same as scorched earth without people.

Andrei Piontkovsky

This is what makes this war essentially and fundamentally absurd.

We have lost the war against the Chechen separatists. One of the most brutal field commanders, Ramzan Kadyrov, has emerged as the winner. He enjoys a degree of independence from the Kremlin that the Soviet officers Dudayev and Maskhadov could not have dreamt of.

Faced with a choice between the very bad and the appalling, which itself was a result of his policies in Chechnya, Putin – to give him credit – has opted for the very bad. Having admitted defeat, he has handed all power in Chechnya to Kadyrov and his army, and since has been paying him war indemnity. In response, Kadyrov has formally declared not so much his loyalty to the Kremlin as his personal union with Putin. The appalling option would have been a continuation of the war to the point of destruction, à la Shamanov or Budanov.

However, the war against Chechen separatism in the North Caucasus has been replaced by another war, one against Islamist fundamentalism.

Islamist terrorism has since spread throughout the North Caucasus and it no longer needs to rely on mentors from the Middle East. There is now a new generation of home-grown followers in the Caucasus with its indigenous structure of Jamaats. Just as during the Chechen war, our official state policy has resulted in an increase in the numbers of Islamists. This is exemplified by the conduct of the Commander-in-Chief [Dmitry Medvedev] following the recent terrorist attacks, which boils down to his increasingly brutal calls for “total destruction” and the punishment of everyone, including those “who wash the terrorists’ laundry and cook their soup.”

Chechnya war

The ferocious second Chechen war (beginning in 1999) is considered by many in Russia to be directly linked to the presidential election of 2000

Dmitry Medvedev and his pals are well aware of the morals of the Russian federal forces who dispatch themselves to the Caucasus for double salaries. As such, he must have realised that the only thing these kind of calls can achieve is an increase in the number of extrajudicial killings of civilians with no links to the insurgents, or in in retribution against families of suspects. A situation which will, in turn, swell the ranks of potential suicide bombers and result in fresh terrorist attacks on Russian soil. 

The only explanation for the use of such highly irresponsible rhetoric from a lawyer and state official is a desire to demonstrate a “cool” image. And one must assume it is being done in the hope of safeguarding the support of the siloviki, who have been given carte blanche, for a future settling of accounts.

Just as in Chechnya, we continue to delude ourselves by making payouts to corrupt “elites” in the republics, who simply steal the cash and thus force the unfortunate population onto a path of Islamist revolution.

Editor-in-chief of Moscow Echo Radio Alexei Venediktov, an exceedingly well-informed man with contacts at the top, provided the following invaluable insight:

"Sometimes when I talk to people who are in really high positions, decision-makers, and I tell them: listen, those Caucasian presidents have started behaving like khans, they tell me: that is the price we pay for the absence of war. What absence of war? Of course, tanks are no longer roaming the country, Grad missiles are not being fired. But absence of war? What, if not war, is going on there? I totally disagree on this point. And that’s what I say to you and to the people I meet. This is a fundamental mistake. We are a country at war.”

The psychology of the “people in really high positions, decision-makers” that Venediktov sometimes talks to is very interesting. Yes, there is peace at their securely guarded mansions around Moscow and on the Black Sea coast in Gelendzhik. And the price of this peace is a war against ordinary people’s shacks and the transport system they use.

Paradoxically, while recent events have shown that Islamists have been losing ground in the Middle East, their influence in the North Caucasus has only grown.

Mentally and emotionally Caucasus and Russia have already separated from each other. 

Andrei Piontkovsky

Mr. Putin, apart from his macho braggadocio – rather incongruous, given the current situation – that he will not negotiate with anyone (the Islamists are not intending to negotiate with anyone anyway), has also made a point of emphasising that there was no connection between Chechnya and the Domodedovo Airport explosion. He is probably absolutely right. The most active centres of Islamic radicalism are now concentrated in other republics. And they include people of various nationalities, including Slavs.

But then again, even by official accounts, there was no connection between Chechnya and the bomb attacks on apartment houses in 1999either, let alone the Ryazan “training exercise”. Yet it was in revenge for these attacks that tanks and aircraft as well as Grad missiles were unleashed on Chechnya. Mr. Putin’s delicate approach to Chechnya would have been invaluable back then.

Putin Kadyrov

Chechnya’s strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Not so much loyal to, as united with Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s current, more considerate attitude to the matter of Chechen reputation tells us an awful lot. He is rightly wary of arousing Kadyrov’s wrath, since these days Putin depends on Kadyrov much more than Kadyrov does on Putin. Without Kadyrov’s demonstrative personal loyalty the entire Putin myth would implode in an instant. 

The Kremlin has been waging a war in the Caucasus for twelve years without realising the scale of the tragedy it has unleashed – the fact that the country is sliding into an intra-national civil war and that the full responsibility rests on the government policy that has fuelled both sides for a long time now. 

By launching and then losing the war in the Caucasus, the Kremlin now pays an indemnity for a show of subservience, not only to Kadyrov but also to the criminal elites in all the other republics. This pays for the purchases of mansions and for the gilded guns slung across their buttocks, while the destitute, déclassé, unemployed young mountain-dwellers are joining the soldiers of Allah or are being displaced onto the streets of Russian cities.

Over the past two decades an entire generation of children has grown up on Russian streets, forever robbed of everything by the privatisation reforms. Those in charge of TV and politics have made it clear to them who is to blame for their misery and who is intent on dismembering them: it is the “gentlemen in pith helmets” and the “criminal factions of the non-indigenous nationalities”.

Since gangs of adolescents from working-class suburbs deprived of their future don’t have ready access to “gentlemen in pith helmets” or to the celestial inhabitants of [Moscow’s luxury suburb of] Rublyovka, they vent their pent-up fury by beating to death “persons of non-indigenous skin colour”.   

Now two armies of desperadoes, equally guilty and equally innocent, both victims and executioners, who have been cheated and robbed by basically the same people, have turned on each other.

There is a growing mental abyss between the Russian youth and their Caucasian counterparts who have grown up in conditions of a brutal war, initially in Chechnya but later engulfing the entire region.

Young nationalist radicals

On 9 December, young Muscovites marched through the city shouting nationalistic slogans (Photo: Ilya Varlamov)

Young Muscovites march through the city shouting, in English “Fuck Caucasus! Fuck!” [sic], while the young mountain-dwellers’ behaviour in the streets of Russian cities is demonstratively provocative and aggressive. Their psychology is that of the victors. In their view, Moscow has lost the war in the Caucasus.

Mentally and emotionally Caucasus and Russia have already separated from each other.  Yet neither the Kremlin nor the elites in the North Caucasus are ready for a formal separation. The Kremlin continues to nurse phantom illusions of its empire, with its far-reaching zones of privileged interests beyond Russia’s frontiers, while the local little tsars, starting with Kadyrov, do not want to give up the budget transfers from Russia. The Islamists are not keen on separation either. Their dream is of a Khalifate that would include much more of the Russian Federation than just the North Caucasus.

Now two armies of desperadoes, equally guilty and equally innocent, both victims and executioners, who have been cheated and robbed by basically the same people, have turned on each other.

Andrei Piontkovsky

President Medvedev recently called a large meeting in Vladikavkaz.

There he repeated his charge that anonymous enemies (i.e. the West) are trying to destroy Russia and he cheered on his siloviki, essentially goading them to carry out extrajudicial killings and calling for the North Caucasus to be turned into… a zone of international Alpine tourism.

The next day after his departure the insurgents blew up ski-lifts in the famous ski resort of Nalchik.

 

About the author

Andrei Piontkovsky is an eminent Russian academic and political analyst, specialising in Russian foreign and domestic politics and military strategic issues. A mathematician by training, he lives and works in Moscow.

Read On

War on Terror: North Caucasus Federal District, by Ivan Sukhov, Agentura.ru web site, 03.09.2010

The Post-Soviet Wars: Rebellion, Ethnic Conflict, and Nationhood in the Caucasus, by Christoph Zurcher, NYU Press, 2009, 304 pages

Chechnya: From Past to Future (Anthem Series on Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies) Richard Sakwa (Editor), 2005, 302 pages

Chechnya: From Nationalism to Jihad (National and Ethnic Conflict in the 21st Century), James Hughes, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008, 296 pages

Russia's Islamic Threat, by prof. Gordon M. Hahn, Yale University Press, 2007, 368 pages.

Russia Between East and West: Scholarly Debates on Eurasianism (International Studies in Sociology and Social Anthropology), Dmitry Shlapentokh (Editor), Brill Academic Publishers, 2006, 198 pages

Military Jama’ats in the North Caucasus: A Continuing Threat, by Dr. Andrew McGregor

Aberfoyle International Security, Jamestwon Foundation

The Caucasus: An Introduction, by Tom de Waal, Oxford University Press, 2010, 272 pages

State Building and Conflict Resolution in the Caucasus (Eurasian Studies Library), Charlotte Mathilde Louise Hille, BRILL, 2010, 344 pages

Chechnya: tombstone of Russian Power, by Anatol Lieven, Yale University Press, 1999, 436 pages

War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled Frontier, by Vicken Cheterian, Columbia University Press, 2009, 288 pages

Caucasian Knot, web site

Military Jama’ats in the North Caucasus: A Continuing Threat, by Dr. Andrew McGregor

Aberfoyle International Security, Jamestwon Foundation

More On

Deaths among Russian military and security personnel in the Caucasus have fallen, but there is a growing number of question-marks over ordinary Russians' willingness to back the government's efforts to subdue the region. Ongoing terrorist attacks could further sap their will. Opinion polls show that Russians are increasingly depressed about the prospects for improving the situation in the Caucasus, with 40% saying that it was a mistake to invade Chechnya in 1999. There also seems to be an upsurge in Russian nationalism and animosity towards the Caucasian population, and in interracial tensions. In December there was a series of nationalist demonstrations in Moscow and St Petersburg, with cries of "Russia for the Russians" and attacks on people who looked Caucasian (January 2010, The political scene). In the Caucasus, general anti-Russian sentiment among the locals has perhaps never been stronger.

Economist, Feb. 4, 2011


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