February 7, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The North Caucasus: In The Shadow of Sochi

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A Region Overlooked

The North Caucasus provides the geographic backdrop for the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia. It is a region known for violent extremism, territorial disputes, rising nationalist sentiments, and as a key hydrocarbon energy distribution network that feeds much of Europe. The main geographic entities comprising this volatile region are: Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Stavropol Territory, Karachay-Cherkessia, and North Ossetia. The area is a patchwork of cultures and ethnicities, where language and traditions differ from one village to the next. Among its multitude of ethnicities is the Circassians, an ethnic group that once lived in the entire region and was expelled from its lands in the Russian-Circassian war in 19th Century. Today Circassians are resentful of Moscow and are believed to have separatist aspirations for a new homeland that includes Sochi. 

The North Caucasus is also the region where, in 2007, Doku Umarov, a little known regional political figure and the ex-president of the unrecognized Republic of Ichkeria, declared the establishment of the Caucasus Emirate and named himself the emir (ruler). In sharp contrast to the nearly $50 billion spent on the Olympics in Sochi on the other side of the mountains, the North Caucasus remains the poorest region in the entire Russian Federation and is still largely rural. It lacks basic infrastructure such as clean water, natural gas, and modern transportation infrastructure.

The region has consistently produced Islamic extremist groups that have attacked its energy infrastructure, mass transit, theaters, and even hospitals. Some of their members have also moved to strike at their targets in other regions—mainly in Western Europe and Central Asia. Umarov, arguably the most wanted man in Russia today, has declared the US, UK, and Israel as sworn enemies of Muslims. According to Caucasian Knot, a news site that covers the North Caucasus, in 2013 nearly 1,100 people fell victim to terrorist attacks in the region, including 34 people killed in December of last year when a suicide bomber struck a subway station in Volgograd.

Cognizant of the security challenges facing a global event like the Olympics in Sochi, the Russians have practically cordoned off the entire 3,500-kilometer square city with a security wall to ensure that Islamic extremists won’t strike during the Olympics. The unprecedented security measures at Sochi are, in a sense, a reflection of Russia’s failed economic and social policies in dealing with the North Caucasus.


Strategic Analysis

The collapse of the Soviet Union raised the hope for gaining independence among the republics of North Caucasus, similar to what their counterparts in Central Asia achieved. But the fading optimism gave way to a small but potentially lethal extremist element. Its motivations stem from nationalist feelings combined with radicalized religious ideology—inspired by internationalist jihad philosophy of al-Qaeda—against what they view as their Christian oppressors.

The Islamic extremist groups in this region are not unified and don’t share a well-articulated strategic vision. They are generally disparate with little local support and operate underground with limited ability to coordinate their efforts due to the fear of being identified and dismantled by security forces. The Muslims of North Caucasus are generally known for their moderate outlook on religion and its role in politics. Therefore, extremists do not stand a great chance in convincing the locals to join their cause on a large scale.

Poverty, lack of good education, impoverishment, and the absence of civil institutions hold greater potential to pose a long-term threat to stability in the region. The situation is compounded by the Kremlin’s consistent appointment of ethnic Russians as leaders of the republics of North Caucasus, as opposed to holding local elections. This policy has proved to be a strategic blunder as it fuels public resentment among locals who perceive Moscow’s treating them like second-class citizens. Adding fuel to the fire is Russian security forces’ heavy-handed measures and corruption among Moscow-appointed leaders, which have resulted in suspicious arrests and deaths of locals.

To demonstrate goodwill toward the locals throughout the region, in 2010, Moscow established North Caucasus Federal District (with the addition of Stavropol, a majority ethnic Russian republic). The goal of creating the District was to boost employment in the North Caucasus and provide incentives for the young to stay away from Islamic extremists and their violent ideology. Four years after the creation of the Federal District, there are no signs of major improvement in the local economy and many continue to leave the region in search of a better life and a more secure future.

Russia faces two broad challenges—and fears—in its backyard: the first is the emergence of China in Central Asia as the single biggest investor in a region that brings economic prosperity. The second is an ideological predicament of a disparate Muslim population, in general, and those in the North Caucasus in particular. While the first impacts Russia’s ability to exert geopolitical influence over the region’s untapped energy resources, the second poses a challenge in multi-culturalism and religious tolerance in a federal system that does not currently—nor have a tradition of—respect for determination at the local level.

In the absence of civil institutions and a meaningful federal system that delegates decision-making power to the locals, identity is becoming a powerful tool in the North Caucasus. Identity is used to fill the gap between the ignored and the elite ruling class. Lack of a strategic direction on how to embrace Russia’s Muslim population and their religious identity could intensify the tensions between Moscow and its Muslims. But Russia, especially under President Putin, has state institutions that are unresponsive, weak, and unlikely to acknowledge the need for change of strategic direction. Therefore, the road to economic prosperity and religious pluralism in North Caucasus will continue to be bumpy.

 .        • Russia will continue to overlook the region’s socio-economic needs and treat its Islamic extremists with a heavy-handed approach as it sees terrorists as unlikely to earn large-scale support

• Europe will be increasingly concerned with potential disruption of North Caucasus energy flow due to the threat posed by violent political Islam

• Nationalist sentiments and the perception of being treated as second-class citizens could be a driving force in seeking independence from Moscow.



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