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CFR Papers: Prisoners of the Caucasus (4)

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Russia’s Invisible Civil War / Part 4 from 4

By Charles King and Rajan Menon

 Single-Factor Fallacy

Explanations for the upheaval and violence in the North Caucasus tend to seize on a single root cause. The rise of radical Islam is often cited first. Islam has certainly reemerged as a powerful source of identity in the North Caucasus over the last 20 years, with the continuum of devotion running from young people studying the Koran and participating in a peaceful religious revival to armed rebels who have “gone to the forest” — the local euphemism for joining an antigovernment militant group. The North Caucasus has been opened to the Muslim world through travel, ties to diaspora communities in the Middle East and the West, and the Internet. These connections have reshaped the worldviews of younger Chechens, Circassians, Dagestanis, and Ingush by reducing their sense of isolation and increasing their ambitions and their awareness of their government’s failings. Preachers and fighters from abroad have helped further the growth of Islamic religiosity and the radicalization of some parts of the population; in some cases, foreign proselytizers have encouraged suicide attacks as a measure of piety. The Riyad-us Saliheen (Gardens of the Righteous) Martyrs Brigade — formerly commanded by Basayev — claimed responsibility for the derailing of the Nevsky Express, as it had for another operation two years earlier. Similarly, the jamaats, or Islamic cells, that operate across the region see themselves as part of a movement aimed at creating an ill-defined and utopian “emirate.”

But Moscow’s rhetoric of simply reducing the turbulence of the North Caucasus to the actions of “Wahhabis,” “terrorists,” and their foreign collaborators is wrong-headed. For centuries, the Islam of the North Caucasus has been syncretic, mixing elements of Christianity and folk religion based on various mystical Sufi traditions, which means that many hard-line Muslim clerics condemn it as apostasy. A mosque in the North Caucasus is less likely to be filled with militants seething with hatred than with young men dressed in knock-off Dolce and Gabbana clothing looking for a measure of spiritual relief from their unhappy personal lives and bleak job prospects. Yet when some of these men travel to Turkey for work or to Egypt for education and then return home, they are frequently targeted by ruthless local police and heavy-handed Federal Security Service bureaucrats who assume that they have imbibed Wahhabism while abroad. More than a few such men have joined Islamist groups as a consequence; still others are drawn into the insurgency by the desire to avenge family members tortured or killed by individuals wearing the badges and uniforms of the Russian state. Some women have followed similar paths: one of the suicide bombers who attacked the Moscow subway in March was a 17-year-old woman from Dagestan who reportedly joined a terrorist cell to avenge the killing of her husband by Russian security forces.

Reducing the problems of the North Caucasus to that other common villain, nationalism, is just as simple-minded. Highland cultures are almost universally prideful, clannish, and hospitable — as well as suspicious. National identity was overlaid on these traits during the Soviet era. Nationalism among the Chechens and the Circassians, in particular, is more a product of Soviet social engineering — particularly the formation of national republics staffed by local cadres — than it is a reflection of immutable ancient ways and martial traditions. Of course, both groups have a long history of accumulated grievances against Russia. In the 1860s, the tsarist government — in a deliberate policy of depopulating a rebellious enclave — exiled as many as 400,000 Circassians, mainly to the Ottoman Empire, in overcrowded vessels, causing thousands to die en route.

But ultimately, nationalism, much like Islam, is a weak predictor of mobilization and violence in the North Caucasus. The Ingush have long been considered the pious, scholarly cousins of the more rambunctious Chechens, thought of as lacking ideological and nationalist fervor. But today, Ingushetia is the region’s most dangerous republic. Even ethnic groups that have similar narratives of national grievance reacted differently to the collapse of the Soviet state: the Circassians remained largely quiescent, whereas the Chechens took up arms and sought independence. And although Circassian nationalism has grown in recent years, its objective is not secession, nor does it rely on violence. Instead, it is nourished by the legacy of alleged genocide stemming from Russian conquest that local Circassians and a much larger diaspora believe has been intentionally forgotten. Circassian nationalists hope to attract wide attention during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, a port city on the Black Sea that was the scene of one of the final battles during the tsarist conquest of Circassian territory.

The idea that resistance to military occupation is the sole explanation for the suicide attacks is equally problematic. There were virtually no suicide attacks at the time when Chechnya was most clearly occupied by Russian forces — during the 1994-96 war — whereas suicide terrorism spiked just as the Russian state moved to devolve responsibility for counterinsurgency operations to local Chechens themselves. And when suicide bombers do strike, they tend to target local authorities who share their ethnic background and not Russian officials dispatched by Moscow. Moreover, suicide attacks have also been carried out by non-Chechens in other republics in the North Caucasus that have not seen an influx of Russian soldiers — indeed, two suicide bombings occurred in Dagestan two days after the March subway attacks.

Reattachment Surgery

The pivotal question for the North Caucasus is its place within the Russian Federation. So long as the Russian state relies on proxies, proconsuls, and raw power to ensure order, the region will revert to what it was in the tsarist era — a troublesome, exotic appendage. Today, for anyone traveling across the region, it is possible to forget that one is inside Russia — at least until one encounters the ubiquitous security checkpoints that make even driving from one republic to another something like crossing into another country. But it matters little if outsiders see the North Caucasus as a place apart from Russia; what matters is that Russians do, as well. As Aleksey Malashenko, a leading Russian specialist on the region, has observed, a common Moscow moniker for the North Caucasus is “the internal abroad.”

This perception cuts both ways. Although many of the political elites whom Moscow has empowered in the North Caucasus have made their fortunes within Russia, many ordinary citizens in the region increasingly look abroad — from Amman to Cairo, from Istanbul to New Jersey — for models of success. The future of the North Caucasus hinges on whether it can gain an equal place within the Russian polity — which itself, of course, remains a work in progress. If Moscow continues to focus its energies on insulating the rest of Russia from the ills of the North Caucasus, then an increasing number of the region’s inhabitants will wonder whether Russians can be anything other than distant, irrelevant overlords.



Written by Theophyle

July 20, 2010 at 8:11 am

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