Thursday, January 16, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Will There Ever Be ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’ in the North Caucasus?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 16 –President Vladimir Putin’s problems in the North Caucasus are typically examined on a republic-by-republic basis, but according to two experts, the Russian leader in fact faces six crises, none of which can be solved by force and many of which will be made worse if he continues to apply even more force.

            This week, Irina Starodubrovskaya and Konstantin Kazenin of the Gaidar Institute of Economic Policy presented a report in Mosco entitled “The North Caucasus: Quo Vadis?” in which they laid out these crises, discussed the myths that surround them, and suggested what approaches might work and which ones certainly won’t (

            Their report described the six different crises Moscow faces in the region: the crisis of modernization from above, the land crisis, the crisis of politics and elites, the crisis of counter-terorrism, the crisis of policy on religion, and the crisis of the image of the North Caucasus beyond its borders.

            According to Starodubrovskaya, most Russian policy makers mistakenly think that the North Caucasus is a place with “a stagnating, depressed, and archaic society.” Not only is that untrue, she continued, but it leads to bad actions when policies are defined and to worse approaches when no policy is.

            She argued that public policies about the Caucasus are exacerbating the conflict in the region, but still worse, “in a very large number of sectors” such as land relations and counter-terrorism “we do not see a clearly defined strategic line.”  And that opens the way to still more contradictory and ineffective actions.

            In his remarks, Kazenin addressed the harm Moscow’s “mythology” about the North Caucasus has inflicted. One common myths Russians hold is that “the North Caucasus elites are made up of clans.” “Ethnic and family solidarity do play a role in the structure of elites, but the situation in the Caucasus is not radically different from other regions in that regard.
            Patron-client relations matter there just as they do elsewhere; assuming they are different leads Moscow to act in ways that undermine the situation in the region and its own interests as well, Kazenin said.

            Another myth in Moscow about the North Caucasus which gets in the way of good policy is the idea that “the current elite [in the region] is the only guarantee of a pro-Russian orientation of the regions.”  That flows from an assumption that the population is overwhelmingly interested in separatism. Perhaps it was in the 1990s, Kazenin says, but it isn’t now. 

Acting on the contrary assumption as Moscow is doing now could prove a self-fulfilling prophecy.

            The two scholars suggested that there are three general approaches to the North Caucasus. One is to carry on as now, a second is to use more force, and a third is to seek the integration of society into the political system.  The first two have proven to be failures; only the third, however, difficult, holds out any real hope for progress.

            The last involves a complex of policies including state support for economic modernization “from below,” an end to the moratorium on land transfers, elections for all key offices, the re-integration of militants into society, improved access to education for North Caucasus young people, and the subordination of the force structures to civilian control.

            All those policies would represent a clear departure from Putin’s approach. Moreover, Starodubrovskaya and Kazenin warn, the introduction of such policies would initially make the situation worse and more unstable.  But “one must go through thiss crisis and only then will there appear light at the end of the tunnel.”

            The report sparked a lively discussion.  Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya of the International Crisis Group praised the authors for their frank discussion of the problems. All too often, she said, such discussions are to be found only among human rights activists. This report pushes these issues “into Russia’s expert mainstream.”

            She added that the report was especially valuable because it demonstrated that Moscow’s “neo-colonial” rule in the North Caucasus, one apparently chosen to minimize costs, “has led to a low level of state administration” in the region and made many of the current problems there worse than they would otherwise be.

            But Sokiryanskaya disagreed with the report’s suggestion that “ethnicity had ceased to be an important factor in the North Caucasus.” Many conflicts there, however they are described and over what they are nominally about, in fact either have ethnic roots or take on ethnic coloration. Ignoring that is dangerous

            Suleyan Udaliyev, the co-chairman of the public organization, “Daghestan—a Territory of Peace and Accord,” agreed with her  “Until the problem of the clan organization of the authorities and society is resolved in Daghestan, it will be impossible to solve the problems which are correctly identified in the report.”

            The last speaker, Natalya Zubarevich, director of regional programs at Moscow’s Independent Institute for Social Policy, praised the authors for their work and especially for pointing out that addressing the problems of the North Caucasus is something that will decades if not generations.

            Even if Moscow does choose the right policies, she said, at first, the situation in the North Caucasus will deteriorate.  That will make it hard for policy makers to choose correctly and even more difficult for them to stay the course, given that the Kremlin and the Russian people both want quick solutions. Those aren’t on offer: anyone who thinks so is only fooling himself.

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