Staunton, January 26 – Given how widespread the demonstrations in support of Aleksey Navalny were across Russia and how many took part in them for issues other than demanding his release, it is striking that so few people in the North Caucasus republics took part, Ivan Klyshch, a graduate student at the University of Tartu, says.
Few or none of the people in the North Caucasus took to the streets last Saturday; and in some places, none did at all, even though they suffer from many of the same problems – corruption and poverty as well as official arbitrariness – that Russian citizens elsewhere experience, he notes. (ridl.io/ru/23-janvarja-na-severnom-kavkaze/).
Even where protests did occur, they were small – often a single individual – and there were few arrests, except in the Daghestani capital of Makhachkala were about 100 people were detained. In Ingushetia and North Ossetia, officials succeeded in convincing people not to take part, and no one did.
On the one hand, Klyshch says, this is surprising because in many of these republics, Ingushetia in the first instance, there is a small but lively civil society and a small but active independent media that have been able to get people to take part in protests in these republics in the recent past.
But on the other hand, there are “two main factors” which worked against involvement of North Caucasians in Navalny protests. The opposition leader remains unpopular among residents of this region and they exist under distinctive political arrangements which discourage them from becoming involved in all-Russian affairs.
Navalny became notorious for many North Caucasians by his nationalist and even “racist” comments several years ago. He has moderated those remarks recently, “but residents of the North Caucasus probably have not forgotten his past views” and aren’t inclined to support him because of them.
But other non-Russian republics, including Tatarstan, Komi, Kalmykia, did have large pro-Navalny demonstrations. And so Navalny’s nationalist positions are not a sufficient explanation for why North Caucasus nationalities did not come out to show their support for him against the authorities.
The Tartu scholar suggests that the primary reason for this difference lies in the general unwillingness of people in the North Caucasus republics to take part in what they view as broad political protests as opposed to demonstrations focused more narrowly on their specific concerns, a pattern that has been in place since at least the 1990s.
In this regard, Klyshch draws on the work of Julie Wilhelmsen who argues that the willingness of officials in the North Caucasus to use force while promoting ethno-national identities rather than all-Russian ones has played a key role in limiting the region’s involvement in all-Russian concerns (taylorfrancis.com/chapters/russian-governance-north-caucasus-julie-wilhelmsen/e/10.4324/9781351134835-3).
“Such a systematic exclusion from discussions of political decisions has importance consequences as far as participation of the North Caucasus in political life and especially in protests is concerned,” the Tartu researcher argues. People fear repression to be sure, but they also have learned to focus on their own republics rather than on Russia as a whole.
Some Russian activists may be inclined to write off the North Caucasus as far as becoming a potential ally, Klyshch says. But that may be a mistake. That is because “all recent transformations of the Russian state have passed through the North Caucasus,” first under Yeltsin leading to a devolution of power and then under Putin, Moscow’s taking it back.
“In the post-Putin era,” the Tartu research suggests, “it will undoubtedly be the case that the region will occupy an important place in the transformations which await Russia.”