Monday, August 26, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Sochi Olympiad has Kept Moscow from Addressing North Caucasus Problems, Analyst Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 26 – The run up to the Sochi Olympics, scheduled for next February, has kept Moscow from addressing the problems of the North Caucasus in a new way and thus contribute to a degradation of the political and security situation in the region, according to a Moscow analyst.

            Indeed, to a Russian parliamentarian, terrorist violence in the North Caucasus means that only Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan currently suffer more victims from it than do Russians, even though most of the Russian Federation is stable or at least more stable than it was a decade or more ago.

            But the drumbeat of violence in the North Caucasus and the apparent inability of President Vladimir Putin and his regime to deal with it in an effective way, other Russian writers say, is increasingly calling into question not only this broader stability but also the Putin regime as such.

            Citing Duma deputy Yuri Nagernyak’s observation that Russia now ranks just behind Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the number of victims of terrorist actions, Aleksey Polubota of “Svobodnaya pressa” then interviews four Moscow commentators on the meaning of this situation in terms of Putin’s much-vaunted “stability” (

            Pavel Svyatenkov, an MGIMO professor and political activist, says that “the overwhelming majority of terrorist incidents in Russia take place in the North Caucasus,” an “extremely unstable region” comparable to what is taking place in the Middle East but “somewhat different from what is taking place in the rest of Russia.”

            Indeed, he points out, that “if you take the statistics of victims of terrorist actions in Russia outside of the Caucasus, then the situation is much more stable on the remaining territory,” although there is evidence that terrorism is “being exported” to other regions, such as the Middle Volga.

            “The thesis about Putin’s stability is propaganda,” Svyatenkov says, but everything depends on comparisons. Putin’s era has been “more stable” in Russia than was Yeltsin’s, but “no ‘Putin stability’ can be compared with the level of security in the United States or Great Britain.”

            Lidiya Sychyova, chief editor of the Red Line television channel, takes a somewhat different view.  According to her, stability in Russia exists “only for Putin and his closest entourage.”  Everyone else lacks real stability and has lacked it since the end of communist times.

            Andrey Epifantsev, head of the Alte et Certe Analysis Bureau, says there is more stability now than in the 1990s but that such stability is not equivalent to well-being. Moreover, he argues, the terrorist actions that are occurring in the North Caucasus now are very different than those that took place in the earlier decade.

            In the 1990s, he says, terrorists advanced political demands like Chechen independence, but now they represent struggles among clans and other groups, struggles that Moscow finds it useful to describe as being the work of “radical Islamists.” That is just one of the reasons why the Russian government has lost authority and cannot impose order without changing itself.

            “Up to now,” Epifantsev continues, the federal center has used “two methods” in the North Caucasus: war and buying off the North Caucasus elites. The first failed, and the second is failing because it is allowing those elites to undermine Russian statehood and importantly to be seen to be doing so.

                If Moscow continues in this way, Russia “will sooner or later lose the Caucasus,” he says. To avoid that outcome, he calls for “the establishment of real democracy” there, something that both the Putin regime and the local elites currently in power fear.

            The current Russian president initially did act to get the country out of “the chaos” it found itself, Epifantsev says, but his failure to see that the situation has changed and that he needs to act differently now is undermining his accomplishment. “If you try simply to preserve what is, you will inevitably begin to deteriorate.”

            A major reason that Putin has not addressed these problems as he should is his decision to hold the Sochi  Olympics.  Epifantsev says that there is unlikely to be a terrorist incident at Sochi but if there are real battles “a hundred kilometers away, this will have a very negative impact on the image of Russia.”

            More seriously, the Sochi Olympiad has become an excuse for putting off any serious attempt to address the problems of the North Caucasus “already for two years.” No one wants to change course so rapidly that the situation might get worse, and the Kremlin is confident that the Games themselves will show that Russia is “recognized” as a great power by others

In this regard, Epifantsev concludes, the average Russian, “who does not understand anything in politics” will conclude that we are a world-class country” and thus will “vote for this [regime] even if he doesn’t himself have the money to attend the Sochi Games.”

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