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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Caucasus Don't Secede

One of the main arguments used by opponents of the peace deal in Chechnya that was worked out between Security Council chief Alexander Lebed and the Chechen rebel leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, is that independence could set a "bad precedent" for the rest of the North Caucasus. Chechen independence, they argue, could ultimately lead to the secession of all the North Caucasus republics and Tatarstan from Russia. That argument was repeated by Russian Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov at a recent Federation Council session. But is there any real threat of this happening in the near future?


The interior minister is not the only one to believe there is. With the exception of the president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, who never concealed his sympathy for the Chechens and their leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, the presidents of the North Caucasian republics have also speculated on the "ultimate collapse of Russia" in the wake of a withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.


Valery Kokov, the president of Kabardino-Balkaria, a Caucasus republic near Chechnya, said at the Federation Council: "The task of squeezing Russia out of the North Caucasus, which Western intelligence services inspired, is now being carried out by [Chechen] separatists." Kokov even went so far as to claim that "there are mercenaries from Britain in the separatists' ranks."


But even the region's staunch proponents of "Caucasian identity" admit that separatism has very little chance of spreading. Zaur Naloyev, a Kabardinian leader of the "pan-north Caucasus" nationalist movement, the Confederation of Caucasian Peoples, said in an interview that "there is no question of any popular uprisings in Kabardino-Balkaria. The old-style Soviet mentality of the people and authoritarian nature of Kokov's leadership have made it impossible."


Indeed, several demonstrations that were organized by the confederation over the past year against the actions of the Russian authorities in Chechnya have either enjoyed little popular support or were quickly dispersed by police. But the reasons for this lack of support are not limited to a Soviet mentality and to police repression.


The real reason is that during the two to three years that the Confederation of Caucasian Peoples had held real power in the region, the North Caucasus had gone through three major armed conflicts: the wars between Georgia and South Ossetia from 1989 to 1993; between Georgia and Abkhazia from 1992 to 1993; and between North Ossetia and Ingushetia in 1992. Tens of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. Yury (Musa) Shanibov, the leader of the now-weakened confederation, blames "Russian imperialism" and the "inhumane chauvinist policies of Georgia" for what happened. But not everyone in the North Caucasus shares his view. The people tend to side with the Soviet-style communists if they provide stability rather than with the extreme nationalists.


The legacy of Stalin's cunning nationalities policy is another reason why the small, North Caucasus republics are unlikely to attempt to secede. Acting by the old Roman principle of "divide and conquer," Stalin deliberately placed different and even hostile ethnic national groups in the same republics. The Karachay people, for example, are ethnically close to Balkars, and the Kabardinians are close to the Cherkess people, but Stalin purposely created two republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia.


In 1944, the Turkic-speaking Karachay and Balkar mountain people were exiled to Kazakhstan, and the Cherkess and Kabardinians were encouraged to settle in their homes. The Caucasus tradition requires the people to live on the land of their ancestors, so when the Balkar mountaineers returned from exile in 1957, there was bitter conflict between them and the Kabardinians who had since moved into their homes.


Today, nationalists on both sides think more about fighting one another than ridding themselves of Moscow's control. The Balkars declared their own republic at a national congress in 1991 but, unlike the Chechens, who took advantage of the 1991 August coup and Yeltsin's confrontation with the parliament, they failed to act on their declaration.


Similarly, Ossetians were encouraged to take the homes of the exiled Ingush. That was one of the reasons for the bloody Ingushi-Ossetian conflict in November 1992, when North Ossetians evicted the Ingush from their settlements in the republic, killing 475 and leaving about 200 still missing.


Checheno-Ingushetia -- the Soviet autonomous republic that legally existed until 1992 -- was the only "blunder" in Soviet policy, which left two more or less ethnically close ethnic groups to live together in one republic. That helped further the fight for Chechen independence that began in 1991. Ingushetia stayed in the Russian Federation but did not bar the Chechens from leaving it and has openly showed its sympathy for the Chechens since the beginning of the war.


In exchange for its relative loyalty, Yeltsin gave Ingushetia all kinds of economic privileges and financing. As a result, in the next two years the Ingush will get an international airport for a nation of only 200,000 and a new capital, which will be called Magas. The city is being built in the open field for the exclusive use of some 16,000 bureaucrats.


Today, Ingushetia is by far the richest republic in the North Caucasus, and Aushev is widely seen as the Caucasus' most successful president. This is in striking contrast to Chechnya, which has de facto independence, but is devastated and unpredictable, with sharia laws and gangsters. So, if there is a model for the people of the North Caucasus, it is Ingushetia rather than Chechnya, and fears of the "collapse of Russia" that might ensue after Chechen independence are groundless. Unless another power crisis in Moscow helps the separatists.





Dmitry Babich is a correspondent in the political department of Komsomolskaya Pravda. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.