By Dr. Sergey Markedonov, Visiting Fellow, Center for Strategic & International Studies
Reviewed by John Handley, Vice President American Diplomacy
Sergey Markedonov, a visiting fellow in the Russia and Eurasian Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, describes the Russian North Caucasus as one of the “most unstable and unpredictable” regions within Russia. Most Americans have heard of Chechnya and many will associate Chechnya within some part of the North Caucasus, but few Americans realize the North Caucasus contains six additional republics plus Stavropol Kray.
Chechen separatism remains a potential problem, but the Russian government has poured sufficient funds into Chechnya to allow the rebuilding of the vast majority of buildings destroyed in two recent wars. The local leadership is pro-Russian and, specifically, pro-Putin. Chechnya remains the only area within the North Caucasus where unemployment is not a significant problem, and the average salaries of workers are greater there than elsewhere in the region.
Rather than looking to the Chechen example of trying to create a separate state, two other republics—Ingushetia and Dagestan—are trying to change their relationships with Russia while remaining within that state. The conflicts within both republics are complex. Dagestan, with the highest unemployment rate in the North Caucasus, estimated at 28%, is also the most densely populated of the North Caucasus republics and the most ethnically diverse. No single group forms a majority. Instability comes from ethnic and tribal competition for local power, control of businesses, and land usage. There is a religious component to the unrest as well as regional bureaucracies aligned with local clans. Disputes are often resolved by murder, and Dagestan has replaced Chechnya as the most violent republic within the North Caucasus.
Although the North Caucasus region has been greatly Islamized since the 1990s, the major problem seems to be within Islam in the form of competition between more moderate Sufi Muslims and the less moderate if not extreme Salafi Muslims. The author discusses in some depth the major factors that that have contributed to the rise of Islam in the region starting with the failure of nationalism to deliver a better future, the continuation of a low-grade war between independent republics, the decay of secular institutions, and the influence of foreign fighters.
Although finding the information covered in the article very interesting, I was completely surprised with the section entitled “The New Nationalism,” where Sergey discusses two vastly different examples of new nationalism within Russia—one by the pro-Russian leaders of Chechnya and one in (or involving) Sochi, the former home of the Circassians. Haven’t heard of them? Neither had I, although it seems their demise at the hands of the Russians came during America’s Civil War (1861-1865) with most of the survivors subsequently expelled to the Ottoman Empire. Since 2011, as many as 120,000 Circassians living in Syria have attempted to return to Russia.
With all the problems and issues in the North Caucasus, the author funds that the Russian government is doing little to integrate the region into the state. He cites two specific examples of Russian ineptness: failure of the military to conscript young men from the North Caucasus and failure of the government to set up and operate labor migration programs that would move unemployed North Caucasus residents to areas where labor is in demand. Sergey concludes his article with a specific policy recommendation for the Russian government, one that briefly addresses five individual areas requiring Russian attention. By failing to address these issues, Sergey foresees the entire North Caucasus region evolving into a state within a state.