Sunday, July 31, 2016

North Caucasus isn’t Crimea and Putin’s New Man There Appears Unlikely to Make Things Better, Shevchenko Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 31 – Vladimir Putin’s appointment of an admiral in place of a general as his plenipotentiary representative in the North Caucasus may make things in that region still worse but reflects Moscow’s concerns less about the situation there than the one in the three countries to the South,  according to Maksim Shevchenko.

            Shevchenko, an expert on the Caucasus who is a member of the Presidential Commission on Human Rights, says that what the Kremlin has done reflects its awareness that the situation in the southern Caucasus is deteriorating and that Moscow must strength “the immediate rear of the army” (

            Putin’s decision to install Vice Admiral Oleg Belaventsev in place of MVD Lt. Gen. Sergey Melikov as his man in the North Caucasus is “symbolic” of Putin’s latest cadre decisions, which reflect that it is traditionally easier for the Kremlin to establish relations with military personnel rather than non-military officials, including those of the police.

            Given Belaventsev’s success in organizing the seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea, Shevchenko continues, it is clear that he will be able to strengthen command and control in Russian forces in the North Caucasus to deal with any challenges in the south.  What is less clear from his past career is whether he can make a positive difference in the North Caucasus itself.

            In Crimea, he has shown himself “unable to deal with local elites” or manage to jointly rule the peninsula with the civilian authorities. Instead, his conflicts with them over the treatment of the Crimean Tatars have become legendary as a mark of Moscow’s failure to integrate the population there.

            Of course, it is true, Shevchenko says, that “the positions of presidential plenipotentiaries are quite weak.” They do not have any real power, “not in terms of force structures, finances or cadres. Instead, they are PR managers who present this or that region to the rest of the country” as they assume Moscow wants it presented.

            Under Melikhov, the required image was of the North Caucasus as a tourist destination, one that was incompletely achieved by the plenipotentiary and his staff seeking to “block any information they deemed negative about what has really been going on in the Caucasus,” including about ethnic conflicts, human rights violations, attacks on journalists, and so on.

            Journalists and editors were told to write “only about the beauties of nature, the interesting traditions and customs.” That not only obscured what in fact is occurring but ensured that Moscow, by becoming a prisoner of its own propaganda, would not be aware of just how bad things are, Shevchenko continues.

            If this struggle with independent journalists, experts and rights activists continues, he says, the situation will only worsen as the gap between what is true on the ground and what is said in the media and in government reports continues to grow. That is sustainable for only so long.

            Everyone knows how successful “the special operation in the Crimea” was, Shevchenko says, but “here in the North Caucasus are entirely different realities.” Unless the new plenipotentiary is prepared to look them in the face and work with journalists and experts, he will not know what is going on or what to do.

            Worse perhaps, he will not know what to tell Moscow which is now being misled by security people who want more money for counterterrorism, by local oligarchs with their own agendas, and by his own representative who is telling him that everything is wonderful and that tourists should come to the unstable region.

            Shevchenko is a frequent critic of Moscow’s policies in the North Caucasus, but other experts see the situation and the impact of Putin’s latest appointment in almost exactly the same way.  For examples, see  and

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