Vladimir Putin took Russia to war to keep the North Caucasus Russian. “The collapse of the Soviet Union ends in Grozny,” said the Kremlin. Moscow was torn. Liberals said let the rebellious regions go. Russian nationalists said not one centimeter more of Russian land would be let go after 1991.
Over a decade later Putin has won the war but not the argument. In 2011 the Russian flag flies in the North Caucasus. There is a Vladimir Putin Avenue in Grozny. Russian troops control all major towns and roads. Yet something has changed. More Russians than ever are beginning to ask themselves if they actual want the region in Russia – and if letting it go could make them stronger.
Russia has been badly hit by the financial crisis. Twenty years has gone by since the collapse of the Soviet Union and mentalities have started to shift. Russians are asking themselves if they should be paying for influence abroad or the North Caucasus with tax-payers' money that is desperately needed for modernisation.
The reason is that Putin’s victory is seen as superficial. Russians increasingly think of the North Caucasus as ‘internal abroad’ and an unwinnable war. Terror attacks continue in Moscow and scores of Russian servicemen continue to die on tour in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. In 2009 more representatives of the Russian state were killed in Chechnya than US soldiers in Iraq.
The public is fed up - in March 2011 an opinion poll suggested that 51% of Russians felt the government had just a small amount of control or none at all over the region, 80% felt the situation was tense or explosive and 79% expected it to get worse or remain unchanged next year (all according to the independent pollster Levada). The region may already be lost demographically: In Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia the Russian population has dropped below 5% - it is higher in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Russian nationalists used to be ‘imperialists,’ standing for expansion abroad. Almost unthinkable ten years ago – most Russian nationalists are no longer imperialists – they want a smaller, purer Russia.
“Stop Feeding the Caucasus,” is the new nationalist slogan. “Stop feeding the Chechen crocodile,” demanded small gathering regularly assembling in Moscow under the aegis of the ‘Russian Civil Union.’ In Moscow 80% of those asked by pollsters said they feel an increase of tension in society (56% specified inter-ethnic tension). Amongst those living in the capital 58% felt anger or hostility to North Caucasians living in Moscow whilst just 1% said that they liked them.
This is a rising trend. Extremists violently protested in Moscow last December under the Kremlin walls. Red square was closed and the Kremlin was reinforced by thousands of troops. Moscow has felt rising ethnic tension between Russians and North Caucasians. Street fights are regular features. Europe is experiencing a similar wave of populism, xenophobia and introspection – but in Russia this has important consequences for the fate of the North Caucasus.
Rejecting the Caucasus
The manifesto of the ‘Russian Civil Union’ – that has organised ‘Stop Feeding the Caucasus’ argues that:
“The price which Russia pays for the retention of these areas is very high. Despite huge subsidies the economy continues to deteriorate in the North Caucasus, driving out the remnants of the Russian population. The region remains a hot-bed of extremism, terrorism and ethnic tension. Therefore it is necessary to gradually minimise the subsidies that at the expense of other Russian regions and revise the boundaries of the North Caucasus to bring them into line with the areas of predominantly Russian population, evacuating remaining Russians on the other side, then creating a system of strengthened border control on the other side.”
The manifesto also calls for the end of Russia’s open door policy across the ex-USSR – a crucial source of influence for Moscow as a pole for the post-Soviet space.
“The influx of unskilled workers is creating social tension and destroying the labor market, lowering wages and efficiency and paving the way for corruption. It is now necessary to introduce a visa-regime with the countries of Central Asia and immigration quotas should strictly reflect the real needs of the state.”
Such a stand is popular in post-crisis Russia. Vladimir Zhirinovsky - the prominent leader of the Kremlin controlled far-right ‘Liberal Democratic Party’ (with forty seats in parliament) - has made similar calls to cut funding to the North Caucasus. The febrile mood does not just affect nationalists. The liberal opposition co-leader Vladimir Milov says the situation needs to be “reviewed” and the popular opposition blogger Alexander Navalny has called for the region to be turned into a “Gaza Strip.”
Pavel Salin, the mainstream Moscow-based political analyst told me by email:
“In Russian public opinion for both subjective and objective reasons there has gradually been the adoption of a view that Russia has more to profit by distancing itself from the Caucasus and its problems, though formally maintaining territorial integrity.”
Salin believes that this mood has been produced by the coming together of Russian liberal and nationalist currents. Russian liberals want to let the region go as it is blocking correct democratic development and nationalists want to let it go as it is sucking funds and exporting migrants.
The Kremlin has yet to react to the growing public mood, despite nodding in the nationalist direction. The mood will not immediately affect policy but a long-term shift in paradigm. Its full affects will only be seen after Putin – whenever that may be.
Russia’s new nationalism is a mixed blessing for Europe. The chances of an expansionary ‘Weimar Russia,’ feared during the Georgia War are minimised – but the danger of a Russia that is more racist and at risk of a bloody divorce in the North Caucasus should keep Europe awake at night.
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