Monday, February 10, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Putin Seeks to Use Sochi to Legitimize His Caucasus Policies and Himself, New French Book Argues

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 10 – In addition to exploiting the Sochi Olympics to underscore that “Russia is back,” Vladimir Putin is using the games as part of his ongoing effort to achieve a narrower and more immediate goal: the legitimation of his approach in the North Caucasus and thus of his presidency, according to a distinguished French journalist.

            But as Régis Genté argues in an interview about his book, “Poutine et le Caucase” (Paris: Buchet Chastel), the Russian leader faces an uphill battle.  Despite the generally upbeat media treatment he has received in the West in recent weeks, Putin has not been as successful in that region as he seeks to claim (

            Instead, it remains a problem. but the region is central to Putin’s career. He has repeatedly said, the French journalist points out, that his “historic mission is to put an end” to the disintegration of the former Soviet space. And the Kremlin leader believes and seeks to convince others that he has done so in the Caucasus.

             From the beginning, Putin’s rise was “connected with the Caucasus, Genté says. Many in fact believe his rise to power was directly connected with the terrorist actions of 1991, actions that some evidence suggests the FSB was involved with, particularly in the case of the bombs that didn’t go off in Ryazan, as well as his subsequent launch of another Chechen war.

            The Kremlin leader’s moves against Georgia in August 2008 simply reflected an extension of that policy beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, actions that Genté insists, were never “about relations between Putin and Saakashvili but rather about relations between [his] Russia and the West.”

            Sochi again is a manifestation of both this policy and Putin’s pursuit of that policy’s legitimacy, Genté says. “By trying to attract to Sochi the political leaders of the entire world, Vladimir Putin has been attempting to make his policy in the Caucasus legitimate” – and thus to make himself legitimate in their eyes and in those of the Russian people as well. 

            Putin’s push for the Olympics in Sochi in 2014 was no accident either as to place or time.  Sochi is where Russian forces completed the occupation of the western North Caucasus, six years after they captured Imam Shamil in the eastern portion of that region, and 2014 is “the 150th anniversary” of that Russian victory.

            But if it was a victory for Russian forces, it was very much a defeat for those who were its victims.  As Genté points out on the basis of interviews, the Circassians suffered losses in the hundreds of thousands as a result and consider what happened to have been a genocide. In their eyes, the Olympiad is taking place on what was a Russian killing field of their ancestors.
            Not surprisingly, they are both angry and opposed to the games, the French journalist says. One Circassian pointedly asked him to imagine how he would feel in their place when at the Olympic opening ceremonies, “no one remembers us or our tragedy but instead [the Russian authorities invite] the choir of the Kuban Cossacks who were allies of the colonizers.”

            What makes Putin’s effort so passionate and ultimately so problematic, the French journalist says, is that “his policies [in the North Caucasus] have been unsuccessful.” The rise of Islamist militants has occurred since he took office. “Today’s Daghestan is practically in a state of civil war.” And in the past year alone, he points out, “500 people died” in conflicts there.

            Putin, Genté says, “while a very strong political leader is unbelievably weak in certain areas.”  He hasn’t figured out how to make Russia into a place where ethnic Russians and Caucasian peoples can live together in peace. And he doesn’t appear to be “in a position to resolve” this problem.

            Instead, the Kremlin leader is “somewhat schizophrenic,” now appearing to support the nationalists and then talking about how Russia is “a multi-national state.”  By shifting back and forth, he has given the impression that “he is not capable of making a choice” or of having a serious policy beyond emotionally responding to events.

             In this, the journalist says, the Kremlin leader is remarkably similar to “the entire Russian political class, including liberals from Yabloko,” who just like Putin get upset when Caucasians kill Russians but are not similarly outraged when Russians kill Caucasians. That sends a message to both Russians and Caucasians, and it is “a very dangerous one.”

            Pressed by his interviewer, Genté argues that one should not view the Caucasus as Russia’s Algeria, but he draws an even more damning conclusion. In many ways, he says, the regimes Putin has set up in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus are miniature versions of the regime he has in Moscow.

            Consequently, if there was more democracy in Moscow, “the Caucasus would be more democratic as well.” Whether that would suit Putin’s purposes in either place is doubtful and whether he could achieve either remains even more so.

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