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Yeltsin’s complicated legacy in the Caucasus

Boris Yeltsin inherited many problems which he had to try and address while at the same time establishing the new Russian state. Many of these problems were, and continue to be, in the North Caucasus. Yeltsin’s presidency should be judged in the round, asserts Sergei Markedonov, rather than from the vantage point of Putin’s ‘vertical’ Russia.

On 1 February, Boris Yeltsin would have turned 80. Coming so soon after the tragic events at Domodedovo, the anniversary invited a fresh look at his legacy in the North Caucasus.

The Russian nineties over which Yeltsin presided were, to use the standard phrase, a period of chaos and disaster. A new state had emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union, yet it had no managerial class (the Soviet Communist Party had already ceased to be an effective tool of government), no legislative framework (if only to withstand the nationalist extremists in Chechen-Ingushetia), and no army. At the beginning of the 1990s, the Russian government was an eclectic mix of institutions, a combination of Soviets [councils] at all levels (from Moscow into the deepest countryside) and the new presidential power, which was operating according to new, non-Soviet, principles.

North caucasus map

Northern Caucasus. With the beginning of political liberalisation in the region, calls for freedom were more about the dominance of the indigenous people and their collective rights, than a defence of human rights.

Boris Yeltsin became leader of Russia in unkind circumstances. To quote the words of political analyst Fyodor Lyukanov: “Yeltsin got the most difficult innings, after the spring of history had straightened out and released enormous political forces. That Russia managed to withstand the onslaught is to Yeltsin’s credit, however many mistakes he may have made on the way. Clearly, Russia lost her status as a great power, gave up policy independence and humiliated herself before the West all on his watch. But the Kremlin's behaviour must also be evaluated in relative, rather than absolute, terms. People should not forget the level of existing reserves or investment successes. Perceptions change in such a light.”

Lukyanov makes an extremely important point here. In comparing the “Putin stability” with “Yeltsin instability”, researchers and journalists are prone to cliche and stereotype. Many fail to mention Yeltsin’s limited window of opportunity. They also evaluate his rule from the vantage point of today, which is fundamentally mistaken. Yeltsin did not have the advantage of a strong market — i.e. favourable oil prices — that Putin enjoys. The Russian army, cobbled together in 1992, only ceased resembling a mobile gypsy encampment in the middle of the decade. And the “power vertical” was hardly delivered to Yeltsin on a plate. One final point: who was it who set up this vertical and passed it on to Putin?

Yeltsin’s government had to be ready to react to endless challenges, find compromises where it could, and be ready to use force where necessary.

Sergei Markedonov

To my mind, Yeltsin's historical role will only be properly evaluated when his presidency is analysed point by point, rather than in generalities. What, for example, were his achievements in individual areas of internal and foreign policy? Here, the North Caucasus serves as an excellent illustration of the special features of Yeltsin's domestic policies. In many ways the unity of Russia, the soundness of her political identity and the effectiveness of Russian Federation state and public institutions are dependent on this region.

Russia had only just dealt with the “shaky hands putsch” when she was faced with a challenge of another order: ethno-nationalism and regional particularism. To a some degree, Russia was structured in the image and likeness of the Soviet Union:  36 constituent members of the Federation built on the principles of national territories, each one with historical scores to settle with Moscow – in whatever form, Soviet or democratic.

Karachayevo Cherkessiya riots, 1999 (1)

Cherkessk, Karachaevo Cherkessia, 1999. Yeltsin’s government had to be ready to react to endless challenges, find compromises where it could, and be ready to use force where necessary.

Six of the seven current constituent republics of the Caucasus region still have problems like the memory of deportations and demands for the restitution of historical justice.  With the beginning of political liberalisation in the region, calls for freedom were more about the dominance of the indigenous people and their collective rights, than a defence of human rights. In 1990-91 the region was the record holder for the number of self-styled states. Karachaevo-Cherkessia alone hosted the republics of Karachai, Cherkessia, two Cossack republics (Batalpashinskaya and Urup-Zelenchuk) and Abaza. In Dagestan, there was a push for the republic to be divided along ethnic lines. In Kabardino-Balkaria there was a struggle to draw the line between the representatives of the two ethnic groups.   In 1992, fighting broke out between Ossetians and Ingush in the Prigorodny region of North Ossetia. Four hundred and seventy eight people perished in five days. Given the number of deaths each day this translates to, one can only imagine how many victims there would have been had the conflict not been halted. And then there was Chechnya, which in the years 1991-94 was effectively a quasi-state with its own domestic and foreign policy.

Here too is the place to mention the influential role that ethno-political conflicts in the South Caucasus (Ossetia-Georgia and Georgia-Abkhazia) played on North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Adygea and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. In 1996 attempts were made to establish an independent Republic of Balkaria, with the retired General Sufian Beppaev as its leader. There were intense discussions in the mid-90s about establishing a Cherkessian Republic outside the framework of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. In December 1998 the so-called Majlis “Congress of the Peoples of Ichkeria and Dagestan” called for a jihad against non-believers and even set up a “Foreign Legion”. And four years earlier, the organisation calling itself the Parliament of the Congress of the Caucasian Nations took the decision that “in the event of a Russian invasion, the people of North Caucasus should render collective assistance to Chechnya”.

Yeltsin’s government had to be ready to react to endless challenges, find compromises where it could, and be ready to use force where necessary. In the autumn of 1992 for instance, federal and republican regimes joined forces in Kabardino-Balkaria to disperse the rally of the Confederation of Caucasus Mountain Peoples in Nalchik, with Moscow choosing to demonstrate a degree of preference for the then president of the republic, Valerii Kokov. Kabardino-Balkaria was the next republic after Tatarstan to enter into an agreement on the Separation of Jurisdictions (1 July 1994). Two years later, Moscow cancelled presidential elections due to be held there; and the first election after that was in 1999. This intervention allowed the situation to be kept under control and also for a number of the early radicals to be brought into the system.

Yeltsin’s policy of making complicated arrangements to accommodate disparate interests also played a part in averting a fully-fledged conflict between the Karachays and Cherkes in 1999. The same may be said of the system of ethnic quotas that was, in 1994, set up in Dagestan. And even the much-derided “parity system” in Adygea, which guaranteed the minority Adygei community 50% of places in the regional parliament, helped to prevent out and out conflict between the Russians and Adygei.

Karachayevo Cherkessiya demo (1999)

Yeltsin’s policy of making complicated arrangements to accommodate disparate interests also played a part in averting a fully-fledged conflict between the Karachays and Cherkes in 1999.

In the 1990s, the Russian government generally avoided exacerbating the situation in the Caucasus. It set up a system of state institutions and settled the most important issue of any revolution, the question of government. In other words, far from being a time of “chaos and failure”, Yeltsin’s Russia managed to avert a number of conflicts (between Kabardin and Balkar, Karachays and Cherkes, Russian and Adygei; the conflicts in Dagestan between Chechen-Akkin and Avar, Lak and Kumyk, Neocossack and Nogai on the one hand, and Avar on the other). Unlike conflicts in Tadjikistan or Georgia, the “hot phase” of the conflict between the Ossetians and the Ingush in Russia lasted only 5 days. While little comfort for the victims or the refugees, the Russian government should be given credit for managing to move from armed conflict to negotiation (even without the 'vertical').

Chechnya, of course, occupies a very special place in Yeltsin's Caucasus policy. He is often accused — usually by ill-informed people with no grasp of empiricism — of dragging his feet over a dialogue with Dzhokhar Dudayev. The facts amount to the contrary. As early as December 1991, a group of experts was dispatched to Chechnya by the Supreme Soviet of Russia, but the separatist leader refused to discuss the problems. In Dagomys in March 1992, Russian and Chechen experts met to discuss the basis for settling Russian-Chechen relations. At the same time Chechnya refused to sign the Federal Treaty (31 March), and the leaders of unrecognised Chechnya made it clear they considered their republic outside the Russian legal framework. The negotiation process between the federal centre and the rebellious Caucasus periphery began in November 1992, and was a result of Moscow being drawn into settling the Ossetia-Ingushetia conflict. Yeltsin’s government agreed to deploy Russian forces alongside Dudayev’s formations at the all-important administrative border between Chechnya and Ingushetia.

At the end of 1992 the separatist Chechen leadership formulated basic principles for relations between Russia and Chechnya. According to these, Russia had to recognise Chechnya as an independent state and a party to international law; in return, Chechnya would preserve its economic union with Russia and delegate the power to deal with security.  Separatist Chechnya was thus demonstrating its own “consumer” understanding of national security.

Dzhokar Dudayev's made his main political demand a personal meeting with President Yeltsin.  He made gestures of support for Yeltsin, for example by describing victory for presidential power over the Supreme Soviet as the “lesser of two evils”. But setting up a meeting with Dudayev would have been extremely risky move for Yeltsin. As the ethno-political scientists Emil Pain and Arkadii Popov have correctly pointed out: “Dudayev's extremely tenacious insistence on trying to set up a meeting with Boris Yeltsin was an indication of how dangerous it would be to trust him. If the meeting had taken place, it would only have strengthened Dudayev, giving him the legitimacy he lacked, and finally demoralising the Chechen opposition loyal to Russia, which was relying on Russian help”.

Chechnya helicopter shot

Yeltsin’s decision to resolve the Chechen problem by force was by no means typical of his presidency; yet today it is the Chechen question that overshadows all his other much more positive achievements.

After the events of October 1993, Yeltsin's attempts to meet Chechnya half way were blocked, in the main by the Chechen opposition itself. The leaders of the unrecognised state were, it appeared, unprepared to accept the so-called “Tatar option” (referring to the treaty Russia signed with Tatarstan, which saw the republic receive considerable powers and, most importantly, recognition of its sovereignty as a republic. On 14 April 1994 the Russian president ordered his government to prepare a draft treaty on the “Separation of Competences and the Reciprocal Delegation of Powers between Russia and Chechnya”.  Seven days later, the head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Filatov, announced that negotiations had broken down: “the Chechen side has unfortunately refused two key points: acceptance of a status of constituent member of the Russian Federation and a bilateral agreement analogous to the agreement with Tatarstan”.

On 29 November 1994, Yeltsin launched an appeal “to the participants of the armed conflict in the Chechen Republic”. The position of the Russian authorities on the status of Chechnya was clear from the very first lines: “Blood is flowing in the ancient lands of the Caucasus, which are an essential part of our homeland”. The Russian President issued a political ultimatum: within 48 hours of the Appeal arms were to be laid down, there was to be a ceasefire and all those illegally held citizens were to be freed and illegal armed formations disbanded. By this point, the Russian leadership had repeatedly declared its determination to adhere to political means to resolve the Chechen crisis. Over 1991-93, Dudayev received 11 proposals on the separation of powers; and he refused them all. A day after Yeltsin's ultimatum, Presidential Decree 2137s was published, “on measures to re-establish constitutional legitimacy and law and order within the Republic of Chechnya”.

Yeltsin’s decision to resolve the Chechen problem by force was by no means typical of his presidency; yet today it is the Chechen question that overshadows all his other much more positive achievements. And not only in the North Caucasus.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the problems in the North Caucasus were predominantly limited to deferred payment on Soviet debts. The first stirrings in the regions were provoked not by Russian federal power, but the regional political communities. These were mainly represented by nationalist-communists who had somehow risen from the dead to transform “friendship of nations” into out and out ethnocentrism. But they didn't manage to hold on to their power everywhere: in Chechnya, for instance, the local nationalist communists disturbed the beast of ethnic nationalism, which then devoured them.  But on the whole the “freedom parade” was a matter for the higher echelons: the populace was given the role of the cavalry at the demonstrations. It was these elites that forced the Russian authorities to pacify the Caucasus using the method of trial and error – treaties and concessions, police operations and military campaigns, Khasavyurts [the Khasavyurt Accords at the end of the 1st Chechen War, 1996], treaties on the separation of powers and buying the favours of the regional elites. The result was the considerable reduction of the wave of interethnic conflicts (with the exception of Chechnya).

Yeltsin, who had no functioning state institutions but created them as he went along, succeeded in not allowing the division of republics with two constituent ethnic elements along ethnic lines. He managed to “freeze”, or at least not permit, the Ossetian-Ingush conflict and to prevent the Russians getting their own back in the Kuban and Stavropol.

Dancing Karachayevo Cherkessiya

The majority of people in the region put ethnic, religious, tribal matters before their common Russian identity. 

The key questions of the development of the Caucasus region were not only not solved at that time; they were never properly formulated. Among them:

  • the overpopulation of the republics, leading to high levels of unemployment and acute problems of land use;
  • town planning mountain style i.e. people moving from the mountains to the valleys;
  • the archaic nature of social and political life;
  • the insularity of ethnic and religious groups;
  • legal pluralism, the strong influence of traditional law.

Many of the Russian authorities' problems in the region derive from the mistakes and failures of those same authorities and their unwillingness to address existing problems. The current crisis in the Caucasus can hardly be said to be Yeltsin's fault: it stems from the actions of that same 'vertical'. Putin would seem to have everything Yeltsin didn't have: a working state, loyal parliament and the support of the people. But in Putin's Russia government policies in the Caucasus have been reduced to a scenario of the Brezhnev period of stagnation. The authorities have adopted a reactive approach, deploying more Interior Ministry forces and carrying out unsystematic raids and purges without doing anything to address the reasons for terrorism and extremism in the Caucasus. The strengthening of the vertical started in 2000 and has meant a new pact between the federal centre and the regional elites. Publicly the elites take no part in nationalist discourse, but on a day to day level they are less principled. They demonstrate their loyalty and devotion to the Kremlin;  in return the Kremlin turns a blind eye to some of the regional regimes' little weaknesses.

Putin would seem to have everything Yeltsin didn't have: a working state, loyal parliament and the support of the people. But in Putin's Russia government policies in the Caucasus have been reduced to a scenario of the Brezhnev period of stagnation.

Sergei Markedonov

Thus the Russian authorities of the 00s have taken all the worst from the Yeltsin legacy.  The difference is that Yeltsin did what he did while laying the foundations for the Russian state.

Federal Government should today consider its most important task in the North Caucasus to be the continuation of Yeltsin’s strategic course. The Russianisation of people with only a vague concept of themselves as citizens of one country can be delayed no longer. The majority of people in the region put ethnic, religious, tribal matters before their common Russian identity.  To overcome this, internal apartheid in the region has to be vanquished and internal migration optimised. The Russian government has to change its recruitment policy. Dedicated bureaucrats and corrupt officials will not be able to promote the Russian Idea in the Caucasus.  What is needed are politically motivated people – representatives of Moscow and a layer of so-called “Eurocaucasians”or people with roots in the republics of the Caucasus who are determined to get away from tribalism and traditionalism and to modernise.  Bringing this project to fruition would be the best memorial to the founding father of today's Russian Federation.

About the author

Sergei Markedonov is Associate Professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities

Read On

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

Post soviet wars book

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

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

More On

“Yeltsin got the most difficult innings, after the spring of history had straightened out and released enormous political forces. That Russia managed to withstand the onslaught is to Yeltsin’s credit, however many mistakes he may have made on the way. Clearly, Russia lost her status as a great power, gave up policy independence and humiliated herself before the West all on his watch. But the Kremlin's behaviour must also be evaluated in relative, rather than absolute, terms. People should not forget the level of existing reserves or investment successes. Perceptions change in such a light.”

Fyodor Lukyanov


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