Vladimir Putin took Russia to war to keep the North Caucasus Russian. “The collapse of the Soviet Union ends in Grozny,” said the Kremlin. Moscow was torn. Liberals said let the rebellious regions go. Russian nationalists said not one centimeter more of Russian land would be let go after 1991.
Over a decade later Putin has won the war but not the argument. In 2011 the Russian flag flies in the North Caucasus. There is a Vladimir Putin Avenue in Grozny. Russian troops control all major towns and roads. Yet something has changed. More Russians than ever are beginning to ask themselves if they actual want the region in Russia – and if letting it go could make them stronger.
Russia has been badly hit by the financial crisis. Twenty years has gone by since the collapse of the Soviet Union and mentalities have started to shift. Russians are asking themselves if they should be paying for influence abroad or the North Caucasus with tax-payers' money that is desperately needed for modernisation.
The reason is that Putin’s victory is seen as superficial. Russians increasingly think of the North Caucasus as ‘internal abroad’ and an unwinnable war. Terror attacks continue in Moscow and scores of Russian servicemen continue to die on tour in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. In 2009 more representatives of the Russian state were killed in Chechnya than US soldiers in Iraq.
The public is fed up - in March 2011 an opinion poll suggested that 51% of Russians felt the government had just a small amount of control or none at all over the region, 80% felt the situation was tense or explosive and 79% expected it to get worse or remain unchanged next year (all according to the independent pollster Levada). The region may already be lost demographically: In Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia the Russian population has dropped below 5% - it is higher in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Russian nationalists used to be ‘imperialists,’ standing for expansion abroad. Almost unthinkable ten years ago – most Russian nationalists are no longer imperialists – they want a smaller, purer Russia.
“Stop Feeding the Caucasus,” is the new nationalist slogan. “Stop feeding the Chechen crocodile,” demanded small gathering regularly assembling in Moscow under the aegis of the ‘Russian Civil Union.’ In Moscow 80% of those asked by pollsters said they feel an increase of tension in society (56% specified inter-ethnic tension). Amongst those living in the capital 58% felt anger or hostility to North Caucasians living in Moscow whilst just 1% said that they liked them.
This is a rising trend. Extremists violently protested in Moscow last December under the Kremlin walls. Red square was closed and the Kremlin was reinforced by thousands of troops. Moscow has felt rising ethnic tension between Russians and North Caucasians. Street fights are regular features. Europe is experiencing a similar wave of populism, xenophobia and introspection – but in Russia this has important consequences for the fate of the North Caucasus.
Rejecting the Caucasus
The manifesto of the ‘Russian Civil Union’ – that has organised ‘Stop Feeding the Caucasus’ argues that:
“The price which Russia pays for the retention of these areas is very high. Despite huge subsidies the economy continues to deteriorate in the North Caucasus, driving out the remnants of the Russian population. The region remains a hot-bed of extremism, terrorism and ethnic tension. Therefore it is necessary to gradually minimise the subsidies that at the expense of other Russian regions and revise the boundaries of the North Caucasus to bring them into line with the areas of predominantly Russian population, evacuating remaining Russians on the other side, then creating a system of strengthened border control on the other side.”
The manifesto also calls for the end of Russia’s open door policy across the ex-USSR – a crucial source of influence for Moscow as a pole for the post-Soviet space.
“The influx of unskilled workers is creating social tension and destroying the labor market, lowering wages and efficiency and paving the way for corruption. It is now necessary to introduce a visa-regime with the countries of Central Asia and immigration quotas should strictly reflect the real needs of the state.”
Such a stand is popular in post-crisis Russia. Vladimir Zhirinovsky - the prominent leader of the Kremlin controlled far-right ‘Liberal Democratic Party’ (with forty seats in parliament) - has made similar calls to cut funding to the North Caucasus. The febrile mood does not just affect nationalists. The liberal opposition co-leader Vladimir Milov says the situation needs to be “reviewed” and the popular opposition blogger Alexander Navalny has called for the region to be turned into a “Gaza Strip.”
Pavel Salin, the mainstream Moscow-based political analyst told me by email:
“In Russian public opinion for both subjective and objective reasons there has gradually been the adoption of a view that Russia has more to profit by distancing itself from the Caucasus and its problems, though formally maintaining territorial integrity.”
Salin believes that this mood has been produced by the coming together of Russian liberal and nationalist currents. Russian liberals want to let the region go as it is blocking correct democratic development and nationalists want to let it go as it is sucking funds and exporting migrants.
The Kremlin has yet to react to the growing public mood, despite nodding in the nationalist direction. The mood will not immediately affect policy but a long-term shift in paradigm. Its full affects will only be seen after Putin – whenever that may be.
Russia’s new nationalism is a mixed blessing for Europe. The chances of an expansionary ‘Weimar Russia,’ feared during the Georgia War are minimised – but the danger of a Russia that is more racist and at risk of a bloody divorce in the North Caucasus should keep Europe awake at night.
1st July 2011 at 01:07pm
This is pure short-termism.
Look back at history. Tsarist Russia expanded southwards from a line roughly Kerch-Astrakhan over the period of the ‘Hundred Years War’ from 1748 to 1848. That was in part driven by Russia’s multi-century goal of an all-year warm-water port with free access to the world’s oceans. It reached a line Caucasus-North Persia-Hindu Kush-TienShan by about 1880. Provoking the ‘Great Game’ confrontation with Britain over the high passes to India the while.
The expansion was accompanied by widespread massacres and ethnic cleansing [see the fate of the Adygey, for example], by the settlement of Russian colonial populations and the movement of a Cossack horde from the Dnieper to form the Terek Horde.
The frontier shrunk back northwards during the Russian Revolution, but was soon after re-established by the communist regime. Where it stayed until 1989.
In 1991 Boris Yeltsin said to the ex-USSR regions ‘‘take as much independence as you need’‘. And the Caucasus did so: Georgia, Armenia, but also Chechnya, Ingushetia etc. Putin later reneged on that, and militarily re-occupied the north [and some of the south] Caucasus.
But now the Russian colonial population is shrinking away northwards again. Not just in the North Caucasus ‘‘republics’‘, but also in Krasnodar and Stavropol oblasts. Prodded along from time to time by events like Beslan.
So in 100 years’ time, the frontier between slavic Russia and turkic/muslim Caucasus will once again lie between Kerch and Astrakhan. Back where it started pre-1748.
The only questions are: how many more people will be killed, and how much more money wasted, before it gets back there?
And how much more radical will be the islamic regimes that take over. The pre-1748 islamic populations of the Caucasus were relatively moderately religious. Every year more of Russian occupation - and of Russian [therefore Christian] atrocities - is another year’s gift to the mullahs paid by Saudi Arabia to radicalise the peoples of the Caucasus.
You sow the wind; you reap the whirlwind.
1st July 2011 at 02:07pm
Well, in return, Nicholas, I agree with much of what you say.
Except the phrase ‘Russia’s Muslims’. I don’t believe there are any. After 75 years of [atheistic] communism, Russians that I have met are profoundly religious. Not profoundly Christian, but profoundly anti-Muslim. Everywhere I went Muslims [not just North Caucasus, but also from the -Stans] were referred to as ‘blacks’. And treated pretty much the way blacks were treated in the US 50 years ago. In return, they don’t perceive themselves as ‘Russian’, but as whatever tribe they stem from.
There is wider issue here - and a wider opportunity for Europe to make constructive input:
Stalin instituted a policy that there should nowhere be a stable, unified population on the frontiers of the Soviet Union, with a ‘free boundary’ to the outside world. Such a people might opt to escape.
So: boundaries were carefully changed, to cut across tribal lands; whole peoples were shifted and exiled; the status of stanitsas, rayons, republics, autonomous republics, constituent republics etc, altered back and forth, so no-one knew who was in control of whom; enclaves down to village or hamlet level created, to be surrounded by ‘alien’ territory. Then every community was in tension with its neighbours. Which gave the Soviet Army plenty of pretences to move in as required ‘‘to maintain stability and order’‘.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Fergana Valley [which I travelled through last month]. Too fertile, and too close to China, to be left on its own. So: a myriad patchwork of mutually alien villages, roads, streams and irrigation canals.
But you can see it everywhere - from Karelia in the far north-west, through Trans-Dniestria, the Caucasus, the -Stans and the Far East to the Kuriles.
And the Soviet systems which used mitigate the conflicts have gone. Then, the ‘upstream’ mountain republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were encouraged to let their water down in summer, for irrigation in the downstream lands of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. In return for which the downstream lands supplied cheap electricity and oil, to prevent the mountain people freezing in winter. All gone now, and the animosity is flaring.
So: Stalin sowed the wind; the world is now reaping the whirlwind.
What is needed is a respected, impartial body to work through all these territorial anomalies, consult the peoples on the ground, and re-arrange frontiers and administrations so that they correspond with what people want.
It won’t be easy. Stalin’s stirring of the pot has left vast areas where one family/clan/tribe can say ‘‘This is our ancestral land’’ and another can say ‘‘We have lived here for generations’‘.
But who better to attempt it than Europe: the world’s benchmark - despite various failings - in terms of human rights and civilisation.
And Europe has a model to use: the French system ‘‘les campagnes de remembrement agricole’‘.
Because catholicism enforces equigeniture on farmers, farms steadily get divided, and shrink. So the government sends inspectors out every few decades, to put the scattered holdings back into sensible farms. Every piece of land is assessed, and each landowner gets a proposed re-allocation, which in theory equals in value his original collection of plots. Because farmers are suspicious [and greedy] the government ‘lubricates’ the process with grants equal - I believe - to between 5% and 15% of the total land value.
Why could not Europe offer that - as a solution to the entire ‘Soviet Perimeter’?
That WOULD alter the world’s perception of Europe, as a force for good.
1st July 2011 at 02:07pm
I can only admire your optimism, Chris!
2nd July 2011 at 03:07pm
Thanks Chris for your interest.
There have recently been a few reactions from the pro-government camp in Moscow on how to deal with the North Caucasus that are worth mentioning.
The question of ethnic proportions in the region is worrying the Kremlin and there are two ideas going around - one is to distribute lands still owned by the Russian state to ‘cossack’ Russians to boost the Slavic population. Another is encouraging young North Caucasians to move to the rest of Russia to find work. Igor Yurgens, a think-tanker who has Medvedev as chair of his institute is proposing positive discrimination for North Caucasians.
Why are they not drifting in a nationalist or soft-nationalist direction?
Part of the answer is that they know that they would be outflanked to the right if they tried to play that card, partly because they have made a few ‘nods’ but no more but more importantly the age group 40-50 did not go through military service age in the 1990s. Therefore there is no ‘bad blood’ against North Caucasians for Putin’s generation for fallen brothers, friends and a lot of North Caucasians in leadership positions. Surkov - is half Chechen. The real dislike of Caucasians is men aged 20 - 35 who know friends killed in the region or were there themselves.
Finally, I think it is worth not totally buying into the idea ‘all Russians hate Chechens’ and vice-versa. The nationalist or soft-nationalist attitude is trend setting and vocal minority on both sides. Most Russians and Caucasians are not political people, after all.
3rd July 2011 at 11:07am
There is much in what you say. But it is Moscow-centric. My experience - apart from a few days in Moscow & St. Petersburg - has been around the ex-Soviet glacis, from Estonia to Kazakhstan; so inevitably, it’s different from yours.
The core problem is that Russian society is deep in cognitive dissonance. ‘‘Are these peoples ‘US’, or ‘NOT US’?” If ‘US’, then they should be kept within Russia, and treated as Russians, with equal rights to all other Russians. If ‘NOT US’, they should be given their independence in their homelands, and treated as foreign economic migrants within Russia. [Note that nobody is entertaining the radical idea of actually holding a plebiscite, to see what ‘‘they’’ want].
What I saw in Moscow/St. Pete was a mixture of the two: a widespread determination to keep their lands within Russia, but treating them as economic migrants within ‘core’ Russia.
From the fringe, the viewpoint is very different. I was in Bishkek, and talked to different groups about the April revolution that toppled Kurmanbek Bakiyev. A young Russian woman had been terrified ‘’…the crowd was aggressive; there was looting. I ran home to my flat in the Russian quarter and hid under the bed, until my boyfriend could come and take me out of Bishkek’‘. Two Kyrgyz schoolgirls [16-17] were overjoyed and excited “…we came home from school, and wanted to go out and join the protesters in the square. But our parents wouldn’t let us, because Bakiyev had assassins [snipers] on the roof of his palace, and they were killing people in the crowd.”
It all reminded me strongly of what I had seen in [white] South Africa and Rhodesia in the 1970s: a colonial remnant population, hanging on to their erstwhile privileges and ‘‘place in society’‘, but increasingly marginalised by an emergent native majority. The Russian woman [above], saw little future for herself in Kyrgyzstan, and was planning to move ‘‘back to Russia’’ – although her family had lived in Krygyzstan for over a century. And this, despite the surprisingly friendly relations between Russians and the Kyrgyz - who do not seem to resent the massacres of 1898 and the ‘Urkan’ repression of 1916, where 25% of the Kyrgyz population died.
I suspect the same phenomenon is taking place in Grozny – and in Makhashkala, Krasnodar and Stavropol. I don’t know; the Russians were less than enthusiastic about letting me go and look…
So no; I don’t buy totally into the idea ‘all Russians hate Chechens’. I agree that there is an emerging ‘moderate’ [dare I call it ‘sensible’] voice within Russian society. Though it is little heard. But I do buy into the idea ‘all Chechens hate Russians’.
Because, given the history of the last 250 years, they would be fools not to.
PS. A social vignette, as an afterthought. When in Bishkek, I asked people - both Kyrgyz and Russians - whether there was intermarriage between the two. The answer, from both sides, was the same: Kyrgyz men occasionally marry Russian girls. Kyrgyz girls hardly ever marry Russian men.
This is striking. The Russians have been the colonial masters, with more money, more land, better education, more opportunities than the Kyrgyz. All the advantages one might seek in a partner. Yet the Kyrgyz girls decline to marry Russians. And I saw exactly the same phenomenon in Tallinn. In our modern, anti-racist, multi-cultural world, that’s INTERESTING.
15th November 2012 at 08:11am
I could tell how great you are in your field of interest. You could relate in each detail very well
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