Violence and conflict in the Russian North Caucasus

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  • Violence and confl ict

    in the Russian North Caucasus

    International Aff airs 83: 4 (2007) 681705 2007 The Author(s). Journal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/The Royal Institute of International Aff airs


    Since 2006 there has been a signi cant reduction in the level of ghting in the Russian republic of Chechnya between federal troops and Chechen rebels, indicating a substantial weakening of the insurgency as a result of the actions taken by Russian forces and their pro-Moscow Chechen allies. However, violence in the region has not entirely subsided; indeed, it has been spreading to neighbouring regions in the North Caucasus. Today, a loose network of formally autonomous violent groups, or Islamic jamaats, has developed throughout the region, primarily in the Muslim republics of Ingushetia, Dagestan, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balka-ria.1 Over the past three years these groups have conducted many terrorist attacks against law enforcement structures, government offi cials and also local religious gures. Despite regular eff orts by security forces to subdue these Islamic terrorist networks, the situation remains highly volatile. During 2005 and 2006, the vast mountainous republic of Dagestan reported over 100 terrorist incidents, including the assassination of the Minister of Nationalities and two attempts on the life of the Minister of the Interior. In October 2005, over 100 armed militants carried out a series of simultaneous attacks on police, security and military sites in Nalchik, the capital of the western North Caucasian republic of Kabardino-Balkariarep-licating a similar attack that had taken place the previous year in Nazran, the capital of neighbouring Ingushetia. The Republic of Ingushetia has also experienced an upsurge in terrorist attacks against law enforcement offi cers and government offi cials during the past two years, including the murder of the Deputy Interior Minister. In the ethnically mixed republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, the past year has seen a series of terrorist attacks targeted not only on law enforcement offi cials but also on members of the offi cial Islamic clergy. Even in Chechnya, violence has not been entirely eliminated. Although no major indiscriminate terrorist attacks have occurred since the Beslan school siege in September 2004, rebel forces continue to in ict casualties on Russian federal troops and pro-Moscow Chechen security forces. Far from abating, the violence seems to be spreading to the neigh-bouring regions of Stavropol and North Ossetia.

    * the author would like to thank Denis Corboy and the Caucasus Policy Institute, Kings College London, for their support of the project on which this article is based.

    1 Their organizational structure, however, does not coincide with that of traditional Muslim societies in the region, which are also called jamaats, especially in Dagestan.

  • Domitilla Sagramoso

    682International Aff airs 83: 4, 2007 2007 The Author(s). Journal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/The Royal Institute of International Aff airs

    Responsibility for most of the killings and attacks in the North Caucasian republics is regularly claimed by Islamic jamaatsor communitiescalling for the withdrawal of Russias presence from the region and the establishment of an Islamic state. They strive for the separation of the North Caucasus from Russia, and the replacement of the existing secular and pro-Russian regimes by Islamic rule based on the Sharia, or Islamic code of law.2 Islamic ideals thus seem to guide and inspire much of the terrorist violence, although they are intermingled with deep nationalist sentiments, especially among rebel groups in Chechnya. However, the intricacies of the violence in the North Caucasus are much more complex, and are only partially related to the spread of radical Islam and separatist aspirations. Other underlying factors, such as the perpetuation of discredited and corrupt ruling elites, the persistence of severe economic hardship, youth unemployment and social alienation, and the absence of proper and eff ective channels of political expression are also driving the violence. By looking into the regions unsatisfactory socio-economic and political conditions and analysing the development of political Islam in the region, this article tries to elucidate the drivers of the current violence in the North Caucasus. It sets out to show that environmental factors external to Islamism, that is to say, the socio-political milieu in which Islamist groups operate, have a strong impact on the violence.3 Moreover, it argues that Islamic groups are primarily concerned with the promotion of a national or regional agenda, rather than a single universal Islamic project, although the joining of Caucasian lands to the Muslim umma might remain their ultimate ideal objective. The Islamic state aspired to by Islamic groups in the North Caucasus is envisaged within speci c territorial bounds, even though its realization might involve the uni cation of the region and its separation from Russia.

    In its analysis the article draws a distinction between those factors which are considered deep-rooted or structural, and are therefore harder to relate directly to terrorismauthoritarian regimes, relative socio-economic deprivation, rapid demographic growthbut are still very relevant to the outbreak of violence, and those elements which facilitate or make the outbreak of violence possiblethe availability of weapons technology, the existence of a network of training and support, and the spread of attractive ideologies.4 Importance is also given to those factors which motivate individuals to turn to violent methods: namely, the personal grievances that people feel as a result of abuses and repression, and which motivate them to act. Because of the diffi culties of personally interviewing individual ghters, this article draws conclusions on the basis of the existing socio-political circumstances, the regions recent history and foreign in uences,

    2 See e.g. The doors of jihad are open, 21 Jan. 2005, Kavkazcenter,, accessed 2 June 2007; Jamaat Shariat: our purpose is the restoration of an Islamic state, 31 March 2007, Kavkazcenter,, accessed 25 May 2007.

    3 Similar lines of argument have been put forward by Mohammed Ayoob in his article on political Islam in the Middle East, The future of political Islam: the importance of external variables, International Aff airs 81: 5, 2005, pp. 95162.

    4 For details on the various factors motivating terrorist violence, see Tore Bjorgo, Introduction, in Root causes of terrorism: myths, reality and ways forward (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 3.

  • Violence and con ict in the Russian North Caucasus

    683International Aff airs 83: 4, 2007 2007 The Author(s). Journal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/The Royal Institute of International Aff airs

    as well as on personal impressions from travels to the region. The article focuses on developments in Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessiathose predominantly Muslim republics of the North Caucasus where the violence has been the most pronounced.5 It must be pointed out, however, that despite some major commonalities, the local socio-political, economic and religious conditions vary substantially across the North Caucasian republics. Therefore, the several factors driving the violence carry diff erent relative weight in each individual case. This article, however, does not focus on the diff er-ences between the republics, but instead draws a general picture of the drivers of violence in the region as a whole.

    Although hardly ever reported by the western media, events in the North Caucasus have signi cant implications for Europe and the wider world. The enlarge-ment of the European Union and the inclusion of Ukraine and the three South Caucasian statesGeorgia, Armenia and Azerbaijaninto the EU neighbourhood policy have brought these countries and the adjacent areas of the North Caucasus closer to the EU. As a result, events in the North Caucasus are no longer the sole remit of countries in the region. There is a risk that instability and violence in the North Caucasus may spread into areas that are of growing signi cance not only to Europe, but also to the United States and the Atlantic alliance. NATO and the US have become substantially involved in the South Caucasus, and Georgias member-ship of NATO is no longer being entirely ruled out. The countries in the Caspian region as a whole are also highly signi cant to the West because of their vast energy resources, with important routes for supplies of oil and gas transiting through the South Caucasus to international markets. The readiness of the Russian leadership to accept EU assistance for the reconstruction of the North Caucasus has opened up new opportunities to western countries in the region. However, involvement in the region also creates new challenges for western policy-makers that need to be properly evaluated and assessed. This article aims to examine events in the region as a basis on which better responses to the challenges posed can be formulated.

    The complexities of the Russian North Caucasus

    The Russian republics of the North CaucasusAdygeia, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestanare located in the southernmost territory of the Russian Federation, on the borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan. They lie to the north of the Caucasus mountain range, which straddles the gap between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. Because of their geographical location and ethnic composition they are of major strategic signi cance to Russia, and also to the West as a whole. Not only do they provide a link between the two bodies of water, one of which, the Caspian, is land-locked, but they also hold major transport routes connecting Russia to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The republic of Dagestan is of particular importance as the site 5 The other North Caucasian republics are North Ossetia and Adygeia. Adygeia has so far been spared of Islamic

    violence, whereas North Ossetia only witnessed a few attacks in 2006, besides the Beslan school siege in 2004, which was conducted primarily by Chechen ghters.

  • Domitilla Sagramoso

    684International Aff airs 83: 4, 2007 2007 The Author(s). Journal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/The Royal Institute of International Aff airs

    of a pipeline which transports Azerbaijani oil from the off shore terminals in the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Novorossiysk. Another series of pipelines transit the South Caucasus, transporting Azerbaijani oil and gas from the Caspian Sea through Georgia to Turkish and western markets. The countries of the South Caucasus, however, remain highly unstable, facing grave challenges to their terri-torial integrity in the form of de facto separatist statesthe self-proclaimed repub-lics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.

    The North Caucasus is one of the most ethnically diverse regions of the Russian Federation. About 40 ethnic groups of Turkic, Iranian and Caucasian origin are currently living in the region, each of which has its own distinct national identity, language, history and culture.6 All groups hold a strong attachment to their national or ethnic identities, and thus potentially represent a challenge to Russias territorial integrity. Although none of the North Caucasian national groups apart from the Chechens have actually displayed a clear desire to secede from Russia, they do remain eager to run their own aff airs, thus creating a problem for Russias internal political and administrative organization. During the Soviet era, several North Caucasian ethnic groups were given either their own autonomous repub-lics or autonomous districts (Adygeia, North Ossetia, Ingushetia and Dagestan), or an autonomous republic or province to share with other titular nationalities (Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Dagestan). At the time of the Soviet Unions collapse, all these ethnically based administrative units were elevated to the status of sovereign republics within the Russian Federation. This ethno-territorial arrangement has not only created resentment among those ethnic groups that have not received their own republicsfor example, the Nogai, or the Cossack Russiansbut has also complicated the internal administration of each republic, as government positions have often been allocated according to the principle of nationality, rather than on the basis of merit, effi ciency or popular support. In addition, many linkages exist between ethnic groups in the North Caucasus and their ethnic kin across the borders in either Georgia (the Ossetians, and the Circassians or Cherkess who are linked to the Abkhaz) or Azerbaijan (the Lezgins). This creates an additional challenge to Russia, as the demands for seces-sion among South Ossetians and Abkhaz in Georgia are generally supported by their ethnic kin in the North Caucasus. Thus, potential outbreaks of violence in Georgia or Azerbaijan over the fate of these ethnic minorities risk involving their ethnic brethren in the North Caucasus.

    Some ethnic groups in the Caucasus were deported en masse to Central Asia during the Second World Warthe Chechens, Ingush, Balkars and Karachaiand this has left severe scars in their historical memories. Although they were all

    6 The various peoples can be grouped into several categories according to the origins of their language. Those speaking Caucasian languages constitute a majority, and can be subdivided into western Caucasians (the Circassians or Cherkess, which also include the Adyge and the Kabardians) and eastern Caucasians (the Chechens, Ingush, Avars, Dargins, Laks and Lezgins). Those ethnic groups speaking Turkic languages include the Kumyks, Karachai, Balkar, Nogai and Azeri peoples; those speaking Iranian languages are represented by the Ossets and Tats.

  • Violence and con ict in the Russian North Caucasus

    685International Aff airs 83: 4, 2007 2007 The Author(s). Journal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/The Royal Institute of International Aff airs

    allowed to return to the Caucasus during the 1950s, the process has involved severe problems of resettlement and border adjustments. This has created signi cant tensions among some ethnic groups, and in the case of the Ingushetia and North Ossetia it has resulted in the outbreak of violent con ict in 1992. Although no other signi cant ethnic violence has been registered in the region so far, the poten-tial for hostilities breaking out along ethnic lines cannot be entirely ruled out.

    Besides its intricate ethnic make-up, the region also hosts a complex religious con guration...


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