Staunton, August 17 – A few months before he became the leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev declared that competence rather than ethnicity should be the basis of all appointments, a principle that he applied in Kazakhstan in December 1986 when he replaced the ethnic Kazakh Dinmukhamed Kunayev with the ethnic Russian Gennady Kolbin.
Gorbachev’s “ethnically blind” approach was praised by some in Moscow and the West as an indication that he would modernize his country, but it had the effect of calling into question the understandings of non-Russians about who was to get what and thus sparked a wave of nationalism within the elites of the union republics.
That elite nationalism in many cases joined up with the nationalism of cultural elites and larger groups of the titular nationalities in those republics; and it contributed to the desire of many who had never thought about the exit of their republics from the USSR to focus on and pursue that goal.
Now, there are indications that Vladimir Putin is about to pursue something similar in the North Caucasus, elevating competence over ethnicity in the selection of cadres for key posts. If he does so, the response will be even more dramatic because if Gorbachev was seen as a Soviet official, Putin is clearly viewed as an ethnic Russian one.
Consequently, many among the elites in the North Caucasus will view what he does in that regard as the latest form of Russian nationalism and imperialism; and they will likely be even more willing to join forces with anti-Russian groups in the population, thus destabilizing Moscow’s position there.
That Putin may be about to repeat Gorbachev’s mistake is suggested by an article by Ayk Khalatyan in an article today on the transformation of “the power vertical” in the North Caucasus (kavkazoved.info/news/2015/08/17/vlastnaja-vertikal-na-severnom-kavkaze-v-processe-transformacii.html