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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Birmingham]On: 02 October 2013, At: 19:35Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House,37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    An Empire's Fraying Edge? The North CaucasusInstability in Contemporary Russian GeopoliticalCultureVladimir Kolossov a & Gerard Toal ba Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciencesb Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State UniversityPublished online: 15 May 2013.

    To cite this article: Vladimir Kolossov & Gerard Toal (2007) An Empire's Fraying Edge? The North Caucasus Instability inContemporary Russian Geopolitical Culture, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 48:2, 202-225

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    Eurasian Geography and Economics, 2007, 48, No. 2, pp. 202225.Copyright 2007 by Bellwether Publishing, Ltd. All rights reserved.

    An Empires Fraying Edge? The North Caucasus Instability in Contemporary RussianGeopolitical Culture

    Vladimir Kolossov and Gerard Toal (Gearid Tuathail)1

    Abstract: A Russian and a U.S.-based political geographer explore how geopolitical culturesand traditions function in imagining and discursively framing events in specific regions withina particular state. More specifically, this paper undertakes a focused examination of competingelite storylines in Russian geopolitical culture about the North Caucasus during an eventfulyear (October 2005September 2006) that encompassed the large-scale terrorist attack againstthe city of Nalchik, the change of leadership in Dagestan, and the assassination of the promi-nent terrorist Shamil Basayev by federal forces. The paper first summarizes Kremlin, left/Communist, national-patriotic, and liberal storylines on the basis of a content analysis ofmajor periodicals representing each of these viewpoints, followed by a survey of the opinionsof ordinary citizens in the North Caucasus (n = 2,000) regarding the validity of thesestorylines. Journal of Economic Literature, Classification Numbers: H11, I31, O18, P30. 7tables, 66 references. Key words: Russia, North Caucasus, geopolitical culture, geopoliticalstorylines, critical geopolitics, international terrorism, corruption, criminality, Chechnya,Putin, public opinion, modernization, economic growth, separatism.

    ritical geopolitics argues that the study of geopolitics requires the study of geopoliticalcultures and the interlocking networks of power that condition how these cultures oper-

    ate and function ( Tuathail, 2006). Within this nexus, explanations for political instability,such as that characterizing Russias North Caucasus region, for example, are primarilydependent on the prevailing power structure at the center of the Russian state and hegemonicways of representing, narrating, and emplotting the meaning of events, personalities, andprocesses in the North Caucasus. Where vigorous open political debate exists, explanatorystorylines can be deeply contested and hegemonic meanings can be illusive. Geopoliticalmeaning is also dependent upon the narratives beyond Russia within the international com-munity that can affirm or challenge dominant Russian storylines. The Economist, for exam-ple, used the narrative image of an empires fraying edge to enframe a special report onpolitical instability in the North Caucasus, a conceptualization that most Russians would

    1Respectively, Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences, Staromonetnyy perulok 29, Moscow119017 Russia (email: and School of Public and International Affairs, Virginia Polytechnic Insti-tute and State University, 1021 Prince Street, Alexandria, VA 22314-2979 (email: This research wassupported by a grant from the Human and Social Dynamics Initiative of the U.S. National Science Foundation, grantnumber 0433927, and by a grant from the National Geographic Societys Committee on Research and Exploration.The authors thank Alexei Grazhdankin of the Levada Center, Moscow for coordinating the public opinion survey ofthe North Caucasus, Edward Holland for translation assistance, and to PI John OLoughlin for comments and settinga Stakhanovite pace for field work in Russia.

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    reject (An Empires, 2005). Finally, geopolitical meaning is also dependent upon localstorylines from the region, which can constitute an alternative form of narrating the meaningof processes and the causality of events in the North Caucasus. Understanding political insta-bility in the North Caucasus, in other words, is not something that can be established objec-tively and independently from struggles within and across geopolitical cultures over politicalmeaning. It is not a singularity but a contested field of meanings and power, pitting compet-ing interests at the state center against each other, the state against other international actors,and the state center against localized meanings.

    Critical geopolitics provides a series of concepts by which we can study the contestedgeopolitical meaning of regions like the North Caucasus. Tuathail (2006) distinguishesbetween geopolitical culture and, within geopolitical cultures, between more popular geopo-litical imaginations and elite geopolitical traditions. He defines geopolitical culture as thepractices by which states make sense of their identity, position, and role in a world of states.This culture is formed not only by the institutions of a state, its historical experiences, andgeographical embeddedness, but also by networks of power within society and how these con-dition debates over national identity, prevailing geopolitical imaginations, codified geopoliti-cal traditions, and the institutional processes by which foreign policy is made in the state.Geopolitical imaginations include the prevalent images, conceptualizations, and discourses inpopular culture and among the general population of where that state is positioned and locatedwithin the worlds community of states. Geopolitical imaginations are a mix of popular cul-ture geopolitics and the geopolitical orientations of a states population. Geopolitical tradi-tions are the range of relatively formalized and competing schools of geopolitical thought thatcomprise the high culture of a states geopolitical culture. Each tradition is a canon ofthought on state identity, the national interest, and normative foreign policy priorities.

    Russian geopolitical culture has long been distinguished by a generalized split betweenWesternizers, who promote Western modernization of Russia, and Slavophiles, who arecommonly associated with national exceptionalist narratives about Russian identity. Severaldistinctive geopolitical traditions have been identified in post-Soviet Russia: liberal-Westernizers, democrats, democratic-statists, neo-communists, and Eurasianists (Smith,1999; Kolossov and Mironenko, 2001; OLoughlin, 2001; Tsygankov, 2002; 2003; OLough-lin et al., 2005). Simplifying greatly, liberals hold Western liberal democracy as the beaconfor Russia. To them, Russia should be part of an alliance of democratic states confrontingauthoritarianism and human rights abuses across the world. Russias national security isthreatened not by the West but by its own backwardness. Statists, by contrast, are politicalrealists who view international relations as characterized by self-seeking power-accumula-tion by state actors whose interests require constant balancing. The interests of the Russianstate are served by it remaining an independent civilization capable of resisting the hege-monic ambitions of other states and their allies. Neo-Communists believe in the need torestore Russias role as a great power. The main threat to Russias national security is the mil-itary, political, economic, and cultural expansion of the West. Ironically, far-right radical-expansionists, often called also national-patriots, share the vision of the neo-Communistsbut adhere to a Darwinian view of world politics as a constant struggle for territory betweenempires seeking to expand their spheres of influence (OLoughlin et al., 2004b).

    How geopolitical cultures and tradit