Counter-Terrorism: Russians Give Up On The Caucasus

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November 8, 2013: Russians are losing patience with the ethnic and separatist violence in the Caucasus. Opinion surveys show declining support for spending any more money, or lives, to keep the peace and support the population there. A growing (almost half) percentage of Russians no longer consider the Caucasus part of Russia. Worse, while 44 percent would consider other Slavs (like Ukrainians or Byelorussians) capable of becoming “Russians” if they lived in Russia for a few years and switched their loyalty to Russia, only 8 percent thought peoples from the Caucasus were capable of that.

This xenophobia (fear of outsiders) is nothing new for Russia. For 70 years the communists sought to eliminate this trait but only managed to suppress it. This is a common pattern in communist countries and throughout East Europe. Xenophobia returned in the 1990s with the collapse of the communist governments there after 1989. It was worst in the Balkans, where civil war erupted as the communist police state collapsed and optimists hoped for a democratic Yugoslavia. While that that had long been a cherished goal in the region, it was not to be. Several years of vicious fighting between Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and Albanians followed and was not halted until 1999. The Caucasus also erupted and unlike Yugoslavia, a NATO peacekeeping force is not going to fix things there. Nor is the usual Russian application of carrot (bribes) and stick (violent suppression).

Meanwhile, there has been a major ethnic shift in the Caucasus. Russians, and other people not native to the Caucasus, are being driven out of the region by terrorism, corruption, and a bad attitude towards outsiders. It’s been worst in Chechnya, where Russians comprised 25 percent of the population in 1989, but only 2 percent today. The decline has not been as great in the rest of the Caucasus but it has been massive, with more than half the Russians who were living in the Caucasus having left in the last twenty years. Actually, this trend began in the 1950s, right after tyrant Josef Stalin died in 1953 and Russia began to trim the power of the secret police. The departure of ethnic Russians from the Caucasus simply accelerated after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Russia has been able to suppress Islamic and nationalist terrorists in Chechnya, and their half of the Caucasus in general (the rest is occupied by newly independent, since 1991, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan). What Russia has not been able to suppress is the hostile attitudes towards outsiders. This is a problem with peacekeepers everywhere. In effect, Russia has been peacekeeping in the unruly Caucasus for several centuries. Until the Soviet Union (and the ancient Russian empire) collapsed in 1991, the Caucasus was more peaceful than it had ever been. This, however, was accomplished via decades of using state-sponsored terrorism, including killing anyone who became troublesome and shipping off many people to prison camps who seemed like they might become troublesome. It was brutal, unfair, and it worked. But these policies were unpopular throughout Russia, to ethnic Russians as well as all the “others.” So the new government got rid of the terror apparatus (prison camps, secret police, and the nasty attitudes that made it all work) in the 1990s.

For the people of the Caucasus this new freedom from terror meant they could revert back to their ancient ways. This was a problem because outlaw behavior had been endemic to the region for thousands of year, especially among the Chechens. The region is similar to Afghanistan, in that for thousands of years survival was a matter of hiding (from armies moving between the Middle East and the great plans of Eurasia) in the mountain valleys, depending on clan organizations for survival, and doing whatever it took to make a living. Russia has controlled the region (or most of it) for nearly two centuries now and the locals (especially the Chechens) had developed new traditions that are based on ripping off the Russians. This always made the Russians nervous because the Chechens were quite good at conning the czar's officials, and their communist successors, and the Russians never came up with a way to avoid being taken advantage of by Chechens.

Russia tried to walk away from Chechnya in the early 1990s, after an uprising there proved too difficult for Russian troops to put down. That just enabled Chechnya, which quickly fell under the rule of a coalition of clan based criminal gangs, to become gangster central for the region. Chechen gangsters lived large via smuggling, robbery, and kidnapping. The Russians threatened to come back and the Chechens ignored the threats. But then the Russians did return in 1999, after the Chechen crime wave and Chechen Islamic radicals caused a growing public outcry throughout the Caucasus and southern Russia. This effort was popular in Russia, the aftermath less so.

Using the traditional tactics of overwhelming force, determination, and ruthlessness, the Russians regained control of Chechnya. As was their custom they appointed the most powerful and reliable clan to run the place and hoped for the best. But passing out jobs and other goodies to the most pro-Russian clans didn't stop the majority of Chechens from trying to make a living the traditional way (from anyone who didn't belong to their clan, especially non-Chechens). Attacking the Russians, and the pro-Russian clans, remained a favorite activity.

With legitimate jobs hard to come by (the official unemployment rate is over 50 percent) and a long tradition of improvising and ignoring laws and rules, the Russians have peace with the Chechens (by local standards) but not much order. Violence and intimidation are still the most common forms of communication between the clans. The Russians are reluctant to pull out the non-Chechen police (Interior Ministry troops) and soldiers because of the risk of Chechnya once again becoming gangster central.

The situation is somewhat better in the rest of the Caucasus but the trends are similar. While the media likes to play up "terrorism in Chechnya," the main problem is that the Chechens (and their fellow Caucasians) have always been difficult to rule, much less control. This "Chechen Problem" has been on Russia's agenda since the 18th century, and nothing has really worked. Even Stalin deporting most of the Chechen population to Central Asia during World War II (when it was feared the approaching Nazis would find welcome allies among the Chechens) didn't fix the problem. This merely gave Chechens opportunities (usually criminal) throughout Russia. Many Chechens illegally moved to other parts of Russia, where they remain an unwelcome presence. In the 1950s the Chechens in Central Asia were allowed to return to Chechnya, where they did not get along with the Russians, and others, who replaced them after the removal. Chechnya is not a new problem, it's an old one that won't go away. What is going away is the non-native population of the Caucasus, which makes it even more difficult to keep the peace in the region. While the Russian government still insists on maintaining control of Chechnya and the rest of the Caucasus, most Russians have given up on that idea.

 

 


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