Europe’s deadliest conflicts are in Russia’s North Caucasus region, and the killing is unlikely to end soon. The state has fought back against attacks, first claimed by Chechen separatists, now the work of jihad-inspired insurgents, that have hit Moscow, other major cities and many Caucasus communities. But its security-focused counter-insurgency strategy is insufficient to address the multiple causes of a conflict fed by ethnic, religious, political and economic grievances that need comprehensive, flexible policy responses. Moscow is increasingly aware of the challenge and is testing new approaches to better integrate a region finally brought into the Russian Empire only in the nineteenth century and that has historically been a problem for the Russian state. Diversity in religion, ethnicity, historical experience and political allegiances and aspirations complicate efforts to alleviate local tensions and integrate it more with the rest of the country. Understanding this pluralism is essential for designing and implementing policies and laws that advance conflict resolution rather than make differences more irreconcilable.
The challenge of ethnic nationalism has been most evident in Chechnya where two bloody wars caused tens of thousands of deaths. During the early 1990s, separatists sought full independence for their republic, but the failure of their state-building project and the ruthless manner in which Moscow fought transformed the nationalist cause into an Islamist one, with a jihadi component. Chechen fighters began to use terrorism widely, and the state responded with massive, indiscriminate force. After 2003, it adopted a policy of Chechenisation, transferring significant political, administrative and security functions to ethnic Chechens. Today the republic has gone through a major reconstruction, and its head, Ramzan Kadyrov, wields virtually unlimited power. Governance and rule of law remain major concerns, but human loss is significantly reduced. The effects of the ongoing insurgency continue to be felt across the North Caucasus, where it has spurred mobilisation around fundamentalist Islam.
Several inter-ethnic conflicts that developed at the end of the Soviet Union remain unresolved, continuing to fuel tensions. The Ingush-Ossetian conflict led to full-fledged war in 1992, as both groups asserted claims over the Prigorodny district. Though Russia invested large sums to return displaced persons and rehabilitate their communities, the Ingush in Prigorodny remain unintegrated in the rest of North Ossetia. Exclusionary historical narratives and competition over land and decision-making, fuel conflicts in other multi-ethnic republics, especially Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Stavropol Krai. Some of the groups maintain maximalist aspirations, including the change of internal borders and establishment of new ethnically-identified entities.
Inter-ethnic tensions do not presently threaten major violence, but they may grow with the recent revival of national movements that were particularly strong in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though political parties based on national or religious identity are prohibited, a new law simplifying registration is likely to make it easier for politicians with nationalist agendas to infiltrate small parties. Large investments and a return to regional elections are likely to facilitate ethnic competition and mobilisation if local communities feel their rights and interests are not adequately protected by the state. Already groups such as the Nogays, Kumyks, and Lezgins in Dagestan and the Circassians and Cossacks are sharpening their organisational capacity and political demands that tend to focus on rehabilitation and justice, state support for native language and culture, development, greater autonomy and access to land. Tensions are beginning to appear where the legal framework is not sufficient to address these, existing laws are not implemented, and police and local administrative capacity are perceived as ethnically biased and corrupt.
Many of these disputes and tensions feed into the Islamist insurgency that causes most of today’s violence. Parts of the younger generation that twenty years ago would have joined nationalist movements to address their grievances have become disenchanted with those movements and choose to join the Islamist insurgency instead. It increasingly operates across the entire region, attracting youth of all ethnicities, and attacking not only federal forces and local police, but also civil servants and elites who disagree with its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
A day rarely goes by without an attack on a Russian security official or the killing of an alleged insurgent in a counter-terrorist operation. Some 750 people were killed in 2011, and with over 500 hundred deaths in the first eight months of 2012, there appears to be little chance of a let-up in violence that has spread to parts of the North Caucasus that were peaceful only a few years ago. The threat of jihadi groups is not unique to Russia or the North Caucasus, of course, and many governments are looking for effective means to cope with it. Russia’s counter-terrorism policies have primarily focused on eradicating insurgents through heavy-handed law enforcement measures, but the need for a more comprehensive approach is becoming evident in Moscow and among local leaders.
The North Caucasus is also wracked by corrupt institutions, ineffective governance, poor rule of law and uneven economic development in a combination that leaves a vacuum some dissatisfied youth seek to fill by joining groups that appear to have resolute aims. The weakness of the institutional and economic system further undermines Moscow’s efforts to implement policies to better integrate the region and combat extremism. These systemic problems will also need to be addressed for any conflict resolution effort to succeed.
This first report of Crisis Group’s North Caucasus project outlines the region’s ethnic and national groups, their grievances and conflicts. The simultaneously published second report analyses the Islamic factor in detail: the growth of fundamentalist Islam (mainly Salafism); radicalisation of parts of the community; the insurgency; and the state’s counter-insurgency effort, which mainly aims to eradicate extremism via hard-security methods but is beginning to also use softer means, including dialogue with and rehabilitation of ex-fighters. A subsequent report will elaborate on the quality of regional governance, the rule of law, the economy and Moscow’s regional policies and offer policy recommendations for all three parts of the series.
Moscow/Istanbul/Brussels, 19 October 2012
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