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CFR Papers: Prisoners of the Caucasus (3)

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Russia’s Invisible Civil War / Part 3 from 4

By Charles King and Rajan Menon

The Internal Abroad

In seeking to confine terrorist violence to the North Caucasus, the Kremlin is calculating that failing to calm the region will be of minimal political consequence so long as most Russians are not touched by its havoc. Moscow’s current strategy, then, is defined by little more than turning over affairs to local satraps and hoping that Russian voters forget about the Caucasus.

Beginning with the second Chechen war and continuing to the present, this approach has involved what has come to be known as “Chechenization,” although it has analogous variants in other ethnic republics. In Chechnya, at the same time the Kremlin was pursuing  military operations against insurgents, it was ceding much of the responsibility for restoring order to local officials, who were entrusted with finishing off the insurgency. These local rulers were also told to reduce unemployment and quash corruption, which Medvedev, in particular, has identified as the chief sources of the instability.

This approach has several flaws. Devolution only works if those to whom Moscow delegates power use it in ways that increase public confidence. Kadyrov, the Chechen president, has overseen a massive reconstruction effort that has revived the local economy and restored a semblance of normalcy to his war-battered republic. But the Kadyrov regime’s record of arbitrary arrests, kidnappings, torture, extrajudicial killings, and destruction or confiscation of property belonging to suspected guerrillas or their relatives has created a climate of fear. Human rights workers and journalists in the republic also face constant threats and harassment. Although there is no proof directly tying Kadyrov to the crimes, three prominent critics of his methods — the celebrated journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, and Natalya Estemirova, who was the head of the Russian human rights organization Memorial in Chechnya — were assassinated between 2006 and 2009.

Since Kadyrov and his counterparts in the other republics are seen as Moscow’s handpicked leaders, the Kremlin cannot shield itself from the resentment created by their lawless conduct. When they turn out to have neither competence nor legitimacy — and are crooked to boot — the federal government has little choice but to fire them. This creates even more instability. Kadyrov has managed to hang on through a combination of brutal rule and massive economic blandishments provided by Moscow — both of which have reduced security threats and bought local support. But in other republics, the changing of the guard has invariably been accompanied by violence, as local cliques and networks seek to exploit the vacuum. In Kabardino-Balkaria, the harsh and corrupt administration of President Valery Kokov yielded to that of a more liberal successor, Arsen Kanokov. But within several months of Kanokov’s taking office, the republic experienced the greatest demonstration of violence it had ever seen: an October 2005 raid by armed insurgents on police and security posts in the capital, Nalchik. In Ingushetia, corruption and police brutality convinced Moscow to replace the republic’s previous president, Murat Zyazikov, with the younger and more popular Yunus-Bek Yevkurov in October 2008. But rather than paving the way for good government and peace, this leadership change saw Ingushetia descend into a maelstrom of riots, car bombings, and assassinations.

Another drawback to relying on tough local leaders is that they tend to monopolize power — Chechnya’s Kadyrov is an extreme example — and construct personalized polities that rest on their political or physical longevity. When Moscow, dissatisfied with their performance, moves to replace these leaders, their successors essentially have to start from scratch, cutting labyrinthine deals with powerful clans and political cliques. Given how strong and influential these opaque networks can be, it can be difficult for a newly installed leader to grasp how to govern. Ruslan Aushev, president of Ingushetia from 1993 to 2001, used his position in the republic to garner wide local support. But his public standing and independent power base made Moscow nervous; the Kremlin eased him out of office and installed the hard-line Zyazikov — resulting in a rotation of cadres that proved wildly unpopular among the Ingush.

Strongmen also inevitably end up as prized targets for assassins. In 2004, a bomb killed Ramzan Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad, a former warlord who had become Chechnya’s pro-Russian president and thus the insurgents’ sworn enemy. At least one attempt has been made on Ramzan’s life, too. Ingushetia’s new president, Yevkurov, barely survived a suicide bombing in June 2009, less than a year after taking office.

Chechenization — and its equivalents in Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and elsewhere — suffers from a problem common to all empires. The center seeks to entrust power to those who hail from the peripheries; after all, these people know the lay of the land, both literally and culturally. Yet their strong ties to localities give them the power to pursue their own priorities, which may not always comport with those of the center. The Kremlin has ceded considerable leeway to Kadyrov, largely tolerating — at times even encouraging — his habits of intimidation and violence because he has weakened the insurgency and presided over the partial rebuilding of Grozny. But there are persistent worries in Moscow that he has built his own state within a state — offering a model for how savvier Chechens, Circassians, and others might one day gain the kind of de facto autonomy, perhaps even independence, that previous generations failed to win. These suspicions have only heightened since March, when Kadyrov called on Moscow to stop sending police officers to Chechnya from elsewhere in Russia and instead leave local security to Chechen forces.

Moscow is understandably concerned about losing control over the local leaders it has empowered, which explains why it has oscillated between devolution and halfhearted attempts at recentralization. In early 2010, Medvedev focused special attention on the North Caucasus by creating a new North Caucasus Federal District with jurisdiction over the region. He installed Aleksandr Khloponin, a businessman and former governor who is considered an effective and tough administrator, as its head. Part of Khloponin’s daunting brief is to keep local leaders loyal. But his new assignment — part prefect, part proconsul, part chief enforcer — essentially re-creates an old imperial post that disappeared with the advent of the Bolsheviks: viceroy of the Caucasus.

The creation of the new federal district also underscores the tension between the core and the periphery and local leaders’ resentment of the Kremlin’s long reach. A case in point is Moscow’s decision to replace many local police officers in Ingushetia following a 2009 bombing in the republic’s largest city and former capital, Nazran; the Kremlin also extended supervisory power in the republic to the federal Interior Ministry. These moves exacerbated the animosity between federal and regional law enforcement officials and irritated Caucasian leaders, who want to show that they can manage their own affairs — even if they cannot.

Russia’s leaders in the North Caucasus have ample means and motives to conceal entrenched problems, especially those of their own making. One of these is corruption. Moscow recognizes that it must curb graft as part of any long-term solution to instability in the North Caucasus. Government employees on the take — from high-level republican officials to traffic cops — nourish organized crime and spark violent reprisals. Many Russian leaders claim that “Wahhabis” — the state’s catchall term for Islamist fighters and Muslim preachers from the Middle East — are behind the upheaval in the North Caucasus, a claim echoed by local elites. But Medvedev recognizes that corruption, unemployment, and poverty (the region leads Russia in the last  two categories) will continue to produce unrest. Attempts to root out “terrorists” or “fighters” — two labels Russian officials often use for those perpetrating violence in the region — will produce few long-term gains if the sources of social instability remain intact.

The central government already lavishes subsidies on the North Caucasus republics. Some 60 to 80 percent of their budgets depend on money from Moscow. The state has provided several billion dollars in additional funds to spur economic development. But central officials have long known that local leaders and their cronies systematically steal federal aid. The result is that the government in Moscow — no longer flush with cash after the fall in oil prices — is left with plenty of sunk costs but without any new ideas.

End of the Part 3

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Written by Theophyle

July 19, 2010 at 7:58 am

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