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CFR Papers: Prisoners of the Caucasus (2)

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Russia’s Invisible Civil War / Part 2 from 4

By Charles King and Rajan Menon

Mountains Beyond Mountains

Although the North Caucasus is but a sliver of land in Russia’s vast landmass, it is becoming the principal security problem of a state that knows how to rule but has little experience governing. Wedged between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, the region extends some 700 miles west to east and covers an area about the size of the U.S. state of Washington. The region’s republics are unfamiliar to outsiders (and, indeed, to average Russians): Adygea, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. Its population of six to nine million — estimates vary — is divided among a variety of ethnic and linguistic groups, including ethnic Russians, who account for a significant percentage of the population in some areas. The region’s indigenous nationalities profess Islam as a cultural identity, if not a religious one (with the exception of the Ossetians, who are mostly Christian). Other than Dagestan, which boasts a dozen separate nationalities and over 30 languages, the republics are named for one or more “titular nationalities” and were created in the Soviet era as the homelands of distinct peoples: the Circassians (who encompass the Adyga, the Cherkess, and the Kabardians) and the Turkic-speaking Karachays and Balkars inhabit the three westernmost republics; the Ossetians inhabit North Ossetia; and the Ingush and the Chechens, Ingushetia and Chechnya, respectively.

Russia’s complicated relationship with this multiethnic mosaic has involved a long history of border wars and imperial expansion. The indigenous peoples of the southern plains and the Caucasian foothills were in sustained contact with the grand princes of Muscovy — the predecessors of the Russian tsars — from at least as far back as the sixteenth century. Ivan the Terrible married a princess of Kabardia, a native of the hills and flatlands along the Terek River, in order to cement trade relations with the region and an alliance against nomadic raiders.

In the nineteenth century, Russia’s relations with the Caucasus were defined by the explicit aim of empire building. The goal was to control the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains at the expense of the rival Ottoman and Persian empires. From 1801 to 1829, Russia replaced local monarchs and notables with a system of protectorates and provinces in the southern Caucasus, in modern-day Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. This phase of imperial conquest was relatively straightforward: with well-established political elites already in place (an ancient royal house in Georgia, for example, and a network of Muslim khans in Azerbaijan), Russia’s strategy did not require the wholesale remaking of political structures but rather involved simply flipping the allegiances of individual powerbrokers. 

The story was different, however, north of the mountains, where the tsars faced two core problems. First, rugged geography and extreme cultural diversity made it impossible to create overarching political institutions. Native princes or chieftains could make exaggerated claims about their hereditary lands, but in practice their rule extended over little more than whatever valley or village they could credibly secure. Second, the absence of broadly legitimate political leaders meant that there was always space for local upstarts to seek their own advantage. As a result, slave-taking, livestock raids, long-running clan feuds, and assassinations were all common.

Moscow’s response to these twin problems was initially a strategy of unite and rule — pick a set of native elites, empower them with political authority, and hope that they could deliver a quiescent countryside. This approach proved difficult in practice — as challengers moved against these appointed rulers, the tsarist military was inevitably drawn into a series of civil wars. In the most famous case, the highland leader Shamil emerged from obscurity in the 1830s and, until his surrender in 1859, attacked pro-Russian rulers in Chechnya and Dagestan. With thousands of armed Muslim supporters, Shamil led the longest anti-imperial uprising in Russian history and inspired grudging respect among generations of Russian field commanders, becoming a Eurasian version of Geronimo or Sitting Bull. But Russia was a secondary enemy. Shamil’s true concern was defeating the corrupt and impious Caucasian leaders whom he believed had betrayed both Islam and the interests of highland villagers by siding with the tsar. In fact, when Shamil ultimately surrendered, it was easier for him to make peace with the Russian imperialists than with his old Muslim neighbors. He took up a gilded captivity in central Russia as something of an exotic celebrity, carted around to mark the openings of sugar refineries and public buildings.

Although the North Caucasus was nominally pacified in the mid-1860s, when the last resistance among the Circassians was suppressed, the prospect remained of trouble rising from the mountains and spreading throughout Russia. In the 1920s, Bolshevik security forces launched campaigns of arrests and ethnic cleansing to eradicate “bandits” in Chechnya and other parts of the upland Caucasus who were said to resist Soviet authority. In 1943 and 1944, Stalin deported nearly half a million people from the North Caucasus — Balkars, Chechens, Ingush, and Karachays — to Central Asia, for allegedly assisting the Nazis during World War II. There is little evidence that these ethnic groups collaborated with the Germans any more than did others in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the accusations fit the timeless narrative of the disloyalty of Caucasian highlanders. The forced expulsions also produced what would become one of the region’s epic stories of oppression under Russian rule, with generations of Chechens and others eulogizing their exile as a national tragedy.

After Stalin’s death, in 1953, many of the deportees were allowed to return to their homelands, but the Soviet government’s past misdeeds proved to have unanticipated consequences. Jokhar Dudayev, who led the rebels in the first Chechen war, in the mid-1990s, was born just as his parents and neighbors were being crammed into cattle cars for their exile to Kazakhstan. His political motivations were largely shaped by this experience of deportation and return, as were those of other leaders from the Caucasus in his generation. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Dudayev emerged as the head of a group calling for Chechnya’s independence from Russia. The result was similar to the political movements that had taken hold in the Baltic states and Ukraine prior to their independence: a secessionist cause infused with the narrative of historical oppression.

The first Chechen war was not about the Chechens suddenly deciding to rise up and slaughter their Russian neighbors because of ancient grievances. Instead, violence erupted in 1994 because then Russian President Boris Yeltsin, however justifiably, moved to prevent Chechen secession with military force. The results were ghastly. Indiscriminate Russian bombing exacted a heavy human toll, and ill-prepared Russian conscripts were mowed down as they tried to take Grozny, the Chechen capital. After nearly two years, Yeltsin negotiated a cease-fire, which gave Chechnya nominal autonomy but deferred a decision on its final status.

Three years of chaos followed. Dudayev was killed by a Russian missile, and local profiteers sought to steal whatever state resources remained. Islamist fighters, some indigenous to the Caucasus and others from the Arab world, looked to a religious revival — and not to the nationalism of the Dudayev era — as a way of attracting recruits and redefining the struggle. In 1999, Basayev, the Beslan mastermind and at the time one of these younger, more Islamist-inspired field commanders, launched a raid into neighboring Dagestan. His aim was to foment a rebellion against local authorities loyal to Moscow.

In response, Putin, who was then prime minister, launched a second war in Chechnya — this time, however, with a larger and better-trained force. Just as the motives of the Chechen fighters had changed, so, too, had the Kremlin’s. Putin was concerned not with preventing secession but with stamping out terrorism, much of which was directed against local politicians and security personnel who were allied with Moscow. By 2009, when the conflict was winding to a close, it was the Chechens who were doing most of the killing and dying. Some were dressed in the green headbands of Islamist rebels, whereas others wore the uniforms of Russian security services. Still more served in the personal militia of Ramzan Kadyrov, the local strongman picked by Moscow to be Chechnya’s president.

In the end, Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus has been the story of a modern state being pulled into a succession of local struggles as much as it has been an epic tale of an empire driven by notions of manifest destiny. The age-old imperial bargain — with the center buying off the periphery in exchange for loyalty and calm — could hold only until a new group, intent on breaking that bargain, arrived on the scene. In turn, the fragility of this gambit made for deep Russian apprehension about the North Caucasus. Today, when Russian news reports carry stories of crimes committed by litsa kavkazskoi natsional’nosti — the standard Russian phrase for “persons of Caucasian nationality” — the subtext is clear. The North Caucasus may be part of Russia by dint of history, but the peoples of the highlands are seen as inherently unreliable, congenitally fanatical in their religious beliefs, and culturally predisposed to discord.

End of the Part 2

Written by Theophyle

July 18, 2010 at 10:33 am

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  1. […] Postarea a doua din ciclul  FA “Razboielor invizibile ale Rusiei” poate fi citita pe Politeía […]

  2. […] Postarea a doua din ciclul FA “Razboielor invizibile ale Rusiei” poate fi citita pe Politeía […]

  3. […] the original post here: CFR Papers: Prisoners of the Caucasus (2) « Politeía Digest Post a […]

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