Staunton, September 8 – Content with declarations of unquestioned loyalty by North Caucasian leaders, the Kremlin has failed to address developments in that restive region over the last 15 years that have led to its rapid re-Islamization and increasing integration into the Muslim world as a whole, Sergey Markedonov says.
Thus, many were surprised by the outspoken reaction of Ramzan Kadyrov and other North Caucasians to the events in Myanmar, the Moscow specialist on the region says; but they should not have been and should not simply explain this development away by pointing to Kadyrov’s special status in the Putin system (carnegie.ru/commentary/72983).
Instead, and despite both the improved security situation in the region over the last decade and Moscow’s focus on the Crimea, the Donbass and Syria, they should have recognized that this was going to happen and that Moscow, by failing to address several critical developments, was unintentionally contributing to this outcome.
Indeed, since the end of the Soviet Union, the North Caucasus has been involved in foreign policy and over time, “despite not having its own representation in the United Nations, nonetheless has acquired a definite status as a foreign policy actor,” speaking out against anti-Muslim developments elsewhere and even helping Moscow to do so.
But there are other factors at work as well, Markedonov says. On the one hand, Ramzan Kadyrov has gained experience in public policy and is quite prepared to articulate positions that not only reflect his own interests as a republic leader but “also the position of that part of Russian society which insists on a consistent anti-Western position.”
That is something that many in Moscow may be quite pleased by and it is certainly one of the reasons Grozny has a far more independent status than any other non-Russian republic in Russia today. But on the other, the North Caucasus as a whole is changing, becoming more Islamic and more integrated into the Muslim world.
Those developments, the Moscow analyst says, were highlighted by the fact that it wasn’t just Kadyrov and the Chechens who spoke out against the developments in Myanmar. Representatives from nations across the North Caucasus did as well, an indication of the growing sense there of being Muslim and part of the Islamic world.
The importance of the religious identity of the peoples of the region is dramatically greater than it was two decades ago. There were various national movements at that time, “but almost nowhere did the religious factor play a significant role. The situation changed closer to the beginning of the 2000s,” and Moscow had a role by omission in that shift.
Markedonov cites with approval the words of another Moscow specialist on the region, Akhmet Yarlykapov, who says that what has been taking place is “the ‘re-Islamization’” of the region, including parts of it – Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkesia, Adygeya, and Stavropol kray – in which the role of religion “traditionally was less.”
“Islam,” Yarlypakov continues, “which is the most politicized world religion rapidly began to penetrate into the power structures” of the North Caucasus. “The most effective means of spreading influence on government structures became the establishment of informal contacts with the local elite.” This was most noticeable in Daghestan but it happened elsewhere as well.
According to Markedonov, the rooting of religious identities “beginning with loyalty to the authorities and ending in extremist forms, took place not by itself but in the context of the decline of secular institutions – law enforcement organs and the court system – and the crisis of the state ideology.”
As he notes, “having proclaimed many times the idea of ‘a non-ethnic political nation,’ in practice Moscow has done little for its realization. On the contrary, the center has placed its bets above all on loyalty and not devoted itself to the working out of a sensible relationship of secular and religious principles.”
“As a result of such an approach,” he says, “there began a rapid reduction in the amount of secular discourse in the social-political, information and educational spheres. And this occurred at a time of a reduction of horizontal ties among those working in the humanities, the regionalization of historiography and the absence of a clear vision by the center of all-Russian historical-political priorities.”
As a result, Markedonov says, “we have a new generation, integrated to a much greater degree in the Islamic world than its fathers and grandfathers were and reacting to events in it as its own.” This process takes many forms and contains contradictory elements, but it nonetheless sets the weather.
The growing Islamic influence in the North Caucasus was reflected in the recent demonstrations that started out about Myanmar but quickly focused on other things. At the protest in front of the Myanmar embassy in Moscow, some participants shouted that “Buddhists are terrorists.”
More worrisome, however, the Russian analyst suggests, is that some protesters in the North Caucasus put out messages on social networks suggesting that the Muslims of the region should take revenge on the Buddhists in Kalmykia, a republic that borders Daghestan and in which many Muslims live as well.
Thus, he continues, “the situation in Myanmar and its reflection in the North Caucasus is not a problem confined to a single region of Russia. The North Caucasus republics are not a ghetto and not an ethnographic museum: they are a territory where problems which the entire country is experiencing are especially manifest.”
“The awakening of Russia’s Muslims is a serious signal for Moscow,” Markedonov says. Unless the center becomes “an effective arbiter and mediator among various peoples and regions and clearly defines the rules of the game and the limits of the permissible,” it will not be in a position “to build a strong state.”