Sunday, March 31, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Arbitrariness and Corruption vs. Terrorism and Extremism -- The Real Culture Clash in the North Caucasus

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 31 – There are “two worlds” in the North Caucasus with distinctive cultures, one consisting of “the people of the force structures” whose arbitrariness, corruption and criminality are promoting the rise of the other, one often characterized by terrorism and extremism, according to a longtime commentator on that region.

            And the only way out, Maksim Shevchenko, the chief editor of “Kavkazskaya politika,” argues, is for the federal center to reach out over the heads of the first world to members of the second who are acting as they are only because the force structures leave them with no other choice and who have, perhaps surprisingly, a reservoir of sympathy for Moscow.

            Shevchenko made that provocative argument in a March 14 speech to the Social Council of the North Caucasus Federal District, the text of which was posted on Friday evening, the logic of which deserves careful consideration even if both of the “worlds” he is talking about are likely to reject it at least on first reading (

            He argues that “in the Caucasus today, two societies exist in parallel – the so-called people of force, who mask themselves under the term ‘state,’ and all the rest who are resolving the social, economic, and confessional questions” on their own to the best of their ability and understanding, sometimes forming Cossack societies and at other times mountain jamaats.

            Such a situation, Shevchenko suggests, is of course true for “all of Russia.”  But “in the Caucasus, with its natural democratic traditions of popular governance” – traditions Russians had but largely lost in the 20th century – “this situation leads to the most serious and tragic consequences.”

            The “strong people” are those which form “the triad of the bureaucracy, the force structures, and the so-called financial institutions.” They are supplemented by the criminal world whose members have ties “with all three heads of the neo-imperial eagle” which for some reasons it is considered appropriate to call the authorities.”

            “The system of relations of the overwhelming majority of these people are based on personal ties which must not be called simply corruption” because they form a system of administration “which in principle excludes any forms of the democratic development of society” as a threat to itself and its members.

            To be sure, Shevchenko continues, not everyone who is a part of these institutions wants to behave in this way, “but they are forced to support the rules of the game” or face the most serious, even deadly consequences.

            All the rest of the population in the North Caucasus, he argues, consists of individuals and groups who are simply trying to arrange their own life “in part not thanks to but in spite of the so-called organs of state power (the triad and the criminal world).” These individuals do not oppose the state as such so much as those who rule in its name.

            The inability of these members of the second world to achieve their goals because of the actions of the people of force” leads “not simply to distrust in the effectiveness of the institutions of power but also to their direct denial” or “in the best case” to the ignoring of what the authorities are trying to do.

            North Caucasians, he writes, “are seeking an alternative to the social and political schemas which have been discredited by the corrupt power of the triad and the criminal world.” And in many cases, they are finding these alternative models of social organization in ethnic or religious traditions.

            If one considers the problem from this perspective, Shevchenko insists, “there is no difference between the attempts at self-organization of life in the Cossack stanitsas and that of the mountaineer jamaats” – except that the Cossack leadership is prepared to cooperate with the triad at the expense of the communities in whose name they profess to speak.

            The jamaats in contrast view the authorities as illegitimate in principle, but in both cases, “this situation offers great opportunities to radicals and terrorists of all masks and nationalities,” from jihadism among the Islamic groups and “radical nationalism” among the ethnic Russian ones.  And that is dangerous not only ideologically but practically.

            Each of the two worlds in the North Caucasus justifies its existence by pointing to the shortcomings of the other, Shevchenko says; but there is a way out.  It requires the intervention of the Russian president and his plenipotentiary representative in the region who must recognize that their “many ally” is not those who masquerade as the state “but the people who are attempting to establish their own parallel structures of administration.”

            That may not be easy for Putin and his aide because some of those seeking to establish these structures have ideologies entirely foreign to the two of them, but it is at least possible, Shevchenko says, because of the still high level of trust in the federal authorities among a population that has little good to say about local ones.

            Journalists are constantly reporting on this reality, Shevchenko says, but tragically, “they are being killed and will continue to be killed” because “the profession of journalist in the Caucasus is one of the most dangerous.” If Moscow is clever, it will provide protection to journalists there, even to those who criticize it.

            That is because these journalists and the people they are reporting on are “the allies of those who want the advancement of the norms of democracy, justice and freedom as written in the Constitution but neither heard nor seen in the Caucasus.” To the extent the Kremlin wants those values too, it should look beyond the triad to the people.

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