Thursday, January 19, 2006

North Caucasus in 2006 – Trouble behind and trouble ahead

The trend from 2004 of violence spreading from Chechnya to the greater North Caucasus region continues. Dagestan has now even passed Chechnya in number of attacks and the most significant event of the year was clearly the multiple strikes by insurgents in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria on the 13th of October. It is thus too late to speak of the conflict in Chechnya threatening to spread; in fact the Chechen conflict has already destabilized the surrounding region. The Kremlin will likely use the destabilization in the autonomous republics as a justification for strengthening vertical control over the region and weakening local self-government. The only example of actually increasing a minority’s role in local-self government was the creation of the Abazin municipality in Karachayevo-Cherkessia(1). An old strategy from Muscovy’s armory, that of co-opting a local clan and supporting their hold on power is what has been done in Chechnya with the Kadyrovs. However, Moscow does not wish the local leadership to be too strong, as the removal of Ruslan Aushev, former President of Ingushetia proved already in 2001(2), as well as the recent use of a “representative” for the south of Russia, Dmitri Kozak. A significant question for the Northwest Caucasus are the calls for splitting the artificially twinned republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachai-Cherkessia and conversely, the proposal of unifying Adygeya with Krasnodarski Krai. Separatist and irredentist tendencies may interact with other factors such as religious extremism, competition for local power as well as tension between centre and periphery in the continued spiral of destabilization.

Chechnya calmer, but conflict spilling over
The killing of Chechnya’s separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov in March has been described both as a visible success for Russian hawks, and as an obstacle for any negotiated solution, as Maskhadov was the main moderate(3). While Russia’s security forces continue to strengthen their hold on Chechnya and at least some reconstruction funds end up with the needy(4), the situation is deteriorating in Dagestan which surpassed Chechnya in number of terrorist attacks in 2005. Moreover, the news agency ANN claims the Interior Ministry does not control up to 15 per cent of Dagestan’s territory and in the same article speculates on how interwoven ethnic- clan- and political affiliations may break up the republic and cause civil war(5). Kavkazski Uzel goes further already calling the current situation in Dagestan a “low-intensity civil war”(6).

Brutality of authorities adding fuel to the fire
There are no indicators that earlier reported torture, extorting money from relatives of detainees and unjustified use of force have diminished. On the contrary, media in June exposed a brutal raid by the armed forces’ “Vostok” battalion, involving torching of houses and extrajudicial killings in the village of Borozdinovskaya, close to Chechnya’s border with Dagestan(7). One analysis concludes that the Chechenization of the conflict has led to further abuses and created a class of men dependent on the conflict to continue for their livelihood(8). Outside Chechnya last year’s tragedy in Beslan and this October’s insurgent attacks in the city of Nalchik have triggered a brutal clamp down on all devout Muslims. Police target those who go to the mosques and are said to be encouraged to make arrests in a manner much reminiscent of the Vietnam War’s infamous focus on the “body count”, according to IWPR’s correspondent in Karachai-Cherkessia. Consequences are easy to fathom, mosque goers will be pushed towards underground prayer sessions and to extremism after being humiliated by the police(9). Demonstrations in Nalchik by parents of the fighters indicate that the resistance movement is not run by outsiders such as Al-Qaeda, but relies on local support in Kabardino-Balkaria(10).

The artificial twin-nationality republics
Gordon Hahn, an independent scholar cited by Russia claims gerrymandering in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) generates Balkar nationalism, which is linked both to Karachai nationalism as well as to Islamic extremism:

"… there is the danger that pressure on the Kabard-dominated elite to clean up government and crime would drive some into the arms of the terrorists, thereby assisting the latter in building a multiethnic pan-Muslim, pan-Caucasus, Islamist movement/network. The Balkar minority, with only 10 percent of the KBR population, as a political outsider is being driven into the terrorists’ arms by the KBR elite’s clumsy efforts to incorporate Balkar districts into Kabard-dominated ones, prompting a revival of Balkar ethno-nationalism and calls for setting up a separate Balkar Republic. The Balkar-Karachai nationalist organization Jamagat, which may be tied to a combat jamaat of the same name in Karachevo-Cherkessiya, has verbally supported terrorist attacks in the KBR on its on-again, off-again, website"(11)

Thus, as extremists are gaining ground in the area, the highly sensitive issue of dividing the Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachai-Cherkessia Republics could if not handled carefully ignite more violence.

Uniting Adygeya with Krasnodarski Krai
The issue has been raised to hold a referendum on unifying the Republic of Adygyea with her surrounding larger neighbour Krasnodarski Krai. On Ekho Moskvy Yuliya Latynina warned against this initiative, arguing that status quo was working well, security is not a problem in Adygeya, but swallowing the entity of the ethnic Adygeans into the Russian dominated Krasnodarski Krai would generate a nationalist back-lash and could even lead to violence. Also, she pointed out that the main propagators of the move, so-called Cossacks were more like “fascists”(12).

Above mentioned events and trends paint a bleak picture for the North Caucasus in 2006. Continued unrest is to expect. Much of this can be attributed to the forceful and despotic policy of the Putin administration. Central is the failure to establish rule of law, which is undermined by the Kremlin’s tendency to give local favourites free reign and laissez-faire to human rights abuses. Also, paramount to establishing good governance with checks and balances is a functioning civil society. Grass roots initiatives could do a lot of good in this region where people have long lost their trust in central authorities. However, Putin’s course this year has been specifically to hamper the work of non-governmental organizations(13). Fearing to lose some control only increases Putin’s risks of losing all control in the North Caucasus.


1. ”V Karachevo-Cherkesi obrazovan novy rayon”, 29 December, 2005; and “Abazinski rayon poyavitsya na karte Karachayevo-Cherkessii” IA REGNUM, 29 December, 2005;

2. Ware, Robert Bruce. ”In the North Caucasus All Sides Are Losing” Russia; and “An empire’s fraying edge” Economist, 12 February, 2005, p 23.

3. Mstislavskaya, Mariya. “Basayev, Maskhadov i spor o beslanskom teraktye”, 30 December, 2005;

4. “An empire’s fraying edge” Economist, 12 February, 2005, p 22.

5. ”Eksperty: Dagestan ustroyen gorazdo slozjnyeye Chechni” ANN, 28 December, 2005;

6. “Dagestan: Khronika terrora (1996-2005gg)” Kavkazski Uzel, 30 December, 2005;

7. ”Pravozashitniki schitayut, shto bezjentsy iz Borozdinovskoi zjivut v kriticheskikh usloviyakh” IA REGNUM, 17 November, 2005; and Mariya Mstislavskaya. “Basayev, Maskhadov i spor o beslanskom teraktye”, 30 December, 2005;

8. “V atmosferye strakha” MiK, 6 December 2005;

9. Gukemukhov, Murat. “Fears and Arrests in Karachai-Cherkessia” IWPR, 17 December, 2005;
10. ”V Nalchike demonstranty khoteli szjet chuchela glavy MVD i muftiya” IA REGNUM, 30 December, 2005; and Lyudmila Maratova. ”V Kabardino-Balkarii militsiya razognala piket roditeley pogibshikh boyevikov” Kavkazski Uzel, 30 December, 2005;

11. Hahn, Gordon. “On the Nalchik Raid and Russia's Islamist Revolution” Russia;

12. Latynina, Yuliya. “Kod Dostupa” Ekho Moskvy, 24 December, 2005; The initiative has also been criticized in Azeri press, see: RIA Novosti, 30 December, 2005;

13. Feraposhkin, Vyacheslav. ”Lidery grazjdanskikh organizatsi nadyeyutsya shto prezident ne podpishet zakonoproyekt, uzjestochayuschi kontrol za NKO” Kavkazski Uzel, 23 December, 2005;