The problems of the North Caucasus are not only problems for Russia.
While it is certainly hard to compare the terrorist acts of April 15 in Boston with the tragedy of September 11, the explosion at the marathon finish line has nevertheless changed the world in a definite way. Above all, it has forced the West once again to pay close attention to developments in Russia’s North Caucasus. Yet the question now—to what extent the events in Boston are linked to the regional context—remains fairly ambiguous.
According to the rules of political correctness that prevail in the contemporary world, the Chechen ethnicity of the brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev should not have any significance whatsoever. One of the fundamental principles of the Western system of values is the equality of everyone before the law, regardless of ethnicity.
Yet, in this instance, ignoring ethnicity has been impossible, given that it forms a key part of the foundation on which the motive for the crimes committed in Boston was built. As the investigation quickly revealed, the Tsarnaev brothers were not just ethnic Chechens, but Chechens specifically and avidly interested in the situation of the armed North Caucasus underground.
A month after the tragedy, there remains no hard evidence that the Tsarnaevs were part of any subversive group. Instead, this was more of an outrage committed by two young men inspired by (and, to an extent, self-identifying with) the jihadists of the North Caucasus.
At this point, an argument needs to be made, one necessary to understanding the possibility of other incidents along the Boston model (and on this point, alas, there should be no doubts that such incidents are indeed quite possible). The argument to be made is this: regarding the Tsarnaevs, everything is relatively simple. Their interest in jihad in the North Caucasus was formed in connection to their affiliation with a North Caucasus ethnic group for which—whether we like it or not—jihad is a key part of its cultural context.
However, the absence of any visible, direct, or practical ties between the Tsarnaevs and North Caucasus armed groups (a lack of logistical support, if you will) speaks of an increased level of danger compared with September 11. For the 9/11 attacks, a global terrorist network was essential. For the Boston attacks, the same global terrorist network served not as an instrument of facilitation, but rather of branding—like the symbol on a laptop screen.
We can see the nature of one of the rapidly-changing threats that the world faces today in the fact that such laptops are not only in Chechen hands. Now, people anywhere on Earth, for any of a wide variety of personal reasons, can suddenly decide to start reading extremist materials on the internet, gradually coming to fancy themselves as warriors on the path to jihad.
Predicting the emergence of this kind of threat is impossible, as in our world of open information and freedom of movement modern states simply do not have the tools to prevent the heinous acts of single individuals.
To some extent, this is a result of an inherently ideological choice, one that America and the West as a whole have encountered more than once, most notably after September 11: between maintaining freedom of information and freedom to travel on the one hand, and limiting these and other rights in favour of greater security on the other. Fortunately, thus far the West has decided to adhere to its basic values; indeed, it would have been a victory for the terrorists had it chosen otherwise. This time around, the choice is somewhat easier: the severity of the restrictions on freedom needed to obtain even one small degree of security would be truly Orwellian, and their effectiveness would not even be guaranteed.
We simply need to get used to living in a world in which the sources of threats are no longer those against which one can defend oneself systematically, such as hostile enemy states or even global terrorist networks. All that we have to counter this new and decentralised threat with are the values that we are willing to work together to protect, as well as the readiness of our institutions to maintain order while providing emergency assistance to victims wherever and whenever it is needed.
Returning to the Tsarnaevs, we can say that by their actions, they also destroyed several clichés that had become irrelevant in an increasingly dangerous globalised world. First, while Russia had tried to make its war in the North Caucasus part of the global war on terror, this attempt was not very successful. In the West’s popular consciousness, the North Caucasus resistance movements continued to be viewed as the struggles of small, proud, freedom-loving peoples against a tyrannical and decrepit empire.
Public sympathy thus remained on the side of the insurgents—even after 2007, when the leader of the North Caucasus underground publicly declared solidarity with Al-Qaeda and other militant Muslim groups throughout the world carrying out an armed struggle for the establishment of an Islamic order.
While the West was suspicious of this Russian attempt at the beginning of the millennium to present events in the North Caucasus as part of a global stand against terrorism, it had reason to be sceptical. Russia has long exaggerated the role of external factors in the North Caucasus. An external enemy was needed to avoid having to come to a traumatic realisation: that the North Caucasus kasha is a dish made in a local kettle with local ingredients, with the “fire” under the pot fuelled by connivance of the federal authorities. Moreover, presenting the campaign in this way allowed Russia to respond to Western human-rights complaints by saying: “We are fighting the same enemy in the Caucasus that you face in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so you yourselves know how a little toughness with them goes a long way.”
However, to ignore completely the relationship between the recent history of the North Caucasus and the so-called global jihadi movement was wrong then and is wrong now—as Boston so tragically and eloquently illustrates. The contemporary North Caucasus underground movement is to a very large degree motivated by religion. Moreover, to a very large extent it also shares the same objectives with other armed Muslim radicals around the world: to wage a war for a system of values and principles against all those who would reject them—and to bring this war to a victorious conclusion.
This value system has spread to the North Caucasus by means of long-term illegal and semi-legal channels linking the region to the Middle East. It was in this way that religious missionaries, armed mujahedeen, foreign funding, and ideas were exchanged—with the last item on the list being more important than all the others. Thus, the key link between the North Caucasus and global jihad is the exact same as that between the Tsarnaev brothers and the North Caucasus: that is, a kind of soft power.
Islam has long been present in the North Caucasus, but its character and the strength of its influence has differed in various parts of the region. Under Soviet rule, religious traditions were relegated to the periphery of public life; thus, the secular national-democratic movements of the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the rise of separatism in Chechnya are all largely products of the Soviet period. These movements cannot of course be fairly compared with the “velvet revolutions” in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states; one needs to take into account the fact that compared to Eastern Europe, the Caucasian periphery of the Soviet empire was in a very different economic state, and had traditionally existed in a very different mental universe.
Furthermore, the centrifugal movements of the period were in many ways revolutions of the various regional bureaucracies, which sought to consolidate their areas of influence and, if possible, to make their dealings completely opaque to any “emissaries” who might come from the imperial centre. This latter point refers not as much to Chechnya as to its neighbouring republics, which have been generally successful at attaining this goal against the backdrop of the Chechen wars.
War, instability, the collapse of its economic infrastructure, and the massive exodus of ethnic Russians have all led to a feeling of disorientation in the Caucasus. Since the ties that bound the North Caucasus to Russia were forged primarily by the ethnic Russian population and by the “leading” Soviet economy, with the disappearance of the latter and the departure of the former, Russia gradually ceased to be perceived in the Caucasus as a centre of cultural attraction or a source of social norms. Since the early 2000s, Islam has more confidently played both roles. Its strengths have lain in tradition and in the fact that, in contrast to an increasingly hostile Russia, it offers a universal worldview that both ignores ethnic boundaries and links the region to the larger Islamic world, stretching from Morocco (though today it would be more correct to say “from Britain”) all the way to Indonesia.
During the second war in Chechnya, Moscow already realised that in the Caucasus, Russia’s main concern was not ethnic separatism, but instead the growing religious movements. It was accordingly decided to place a bet on so-called “traditional Islam,” which was adopted as a means of opposing the ostensibly imported radical form of Islam. This was a partly reasonable bet, based on a partially correct assessment of the situation.
Younger Caucasian Muslims, many of whom have received their theological education in the countries of the Middle East, truly do view religion differently than their older countrymen. In many cases, these dogmatic differences of opinion have become completely irreconcilable. Indeed, the war of the Kadyrov family, which has sided with Russia since the beginning of the second Chechen campaign, in large part was (and remains) a war fought by the defenders of traditional Islam against the advocates of its imported versions.
Yet, on the whole it seems that the state’s bet on traditional Islam has brought more disadvantages than advantages. By definition, the machinery of state is not equipped to participate in dogmatic debates; yet, it gives one side in these debates the chance to use force against its opponent. In essence, this means that the state is supporting intra-sectarian religious warfare.
Moreover, by choosing Islam as an ally, the government is actually magnifying the role of Islam in the public life of the region, giving the religion practically unlimited room to expand and deepen its presence. This is thus an attempt to put out a fire with gasoline: by betting on traditional Muslims, Moscow is actually yielding to Islam the one thing it is trying to protect: its position as the source of cultural influence and social norms.
Seen in this way, the difference between traditional Muslims to be supported, and other Muslims to be opposed by force (at least according to the wisdom of Moscow strategists) virtually disappears. Irreconcilable doctrinal differences can be set aside, and will be (indeed, already are being) replaced by Islamic solidarity. To assess this solidarity as part of the question already articulated here: are Islamic radicals really to blame for the crisis that has engulfed all aspects of life in the North Caucasus?
On this issue, the amount of state resources to be provided by the government to traditional Muslims—primarily comprising local judicial systems and law-enforcement agencies—are not unlimited. Moreover, these local bodies are riddled with corruption and inefficiency, are not always subject to effective central-government oversight, and most importantly, do not inspire confidence among the local population.
As a service provider and as a source (and arbiter) of the “rules of the game”, the state in the North Caucasus has functioned only with major interruptions. Thus, insofar as people—regardless of which Islamic tradition they follow—prefer to live and interact with others on the basis of some rules, they are switching to other systems of social norms. The only alternative systems available to them are adat (traditional national customs), and sharia (the Islamic code of practices). These alternatives serve as a “meeting point” for the ostensibly disparate and separate Islamic communities of the North Caucasus.
Responding to this “non-traditional Islam” with the use of force now brings with it a risk that the Islamic resistance will consolidate further, making it impossible to deal with in practice without increasing military engagement in the region to a level not seen since the height of the Chechen war. Moreover, the suggestion that Russia will return to the region as a source of social norms and values is hardly possible, especially considering that the status quo—a slow collapse of state structures—has its own beneficiaries, a group that could seriously destabilise the situation in the event that someone tried seriously to address the problem.
At the very least, any serious steps towards reviving and restoring the machinery of government in the North Caucasus are hardly to be expected before the conclusion of Sochi 2014. Before the Olympics take place, Moscow is likely to prefer either retaining those elements of the system that still seem stable, or increasing military pressure on the region so that, as they say, “the mouse does not escape.” Yet, for the reasons outlined above, such increased pressure could lead to an effect opposite to that desired.
This problem is being exacerbated by the fatal delay in land reform in the North Caucasus, as compared with the rest of the country. In most regions of the North Caucasus, land privatisation and municipal government reform were put off for years, out of fear that they would aggravate ethnic disputes (sometimes centuries-old) over land. Earlier, this did not overly worry people, at a time when Russia had not yet caught sight of economic recession and when land for a home in places like Dagestan or Kabardino-Balkaria was not yet an important economic asset for those earning money for their families in Surgut, Astrakhan, Rostov, or Moscow. Yet, it was soon revealed that in spite of pending plans for privatisation, a system of land rights had already formed de facto, and was of course generally to the advantage of local governments.
Over the last year, the groundwork for a serious escalation in instability has been laid in the North Caucasus, while corresponding preparations for a state response have yet to be made. Increasing the use of force remains quite risky; moreover, large investment projects are likely only to feed corruption without solving the underlying problems of social norms and institutions or of land reform.
It would be possible to construct a different kind of political hypothesis about how the growing problems in the North Caucasus could weaken Russia’s ruling regime, as they might distract it from the conflict zones in Georgia or from the South Caucasus as a whole—since, in the end, it would be convenient to lure Moscow away from Syria by problems in its own North Caucasus “backyard.” And on that point, surely the decisive argument in favour of limited support for the Assad regime in Syria lies in the fact that Damascus is for the most part fighting the same enemy that Moscow faces in the North Caucasus. This is not simply in nominal terms—“fighters for Islam”—but even in physical reality: in Syria many of those fighting against the government have already earned military experience fighting in the North Caucasus, or were simply “mobilised” in the North Caucasus republics.
Yet, as Boston reminds us, the problems of the North Caucasus are not only problems for Russia. The modern world is small and transparent; after all, from Makhachkala to Boston is only 10 hours by plane. Moreover, from Boston to the sites of North Caucasus armed Islamist brigades, it is only one click of a mouse. Strange as it may sound, in this situation it is appropriate to search together for common and appropriate responses to these new challenges—even when it seems that those searching no longer have anything in common. Yet, there remains at least one common thread: hatred of the enemy, a hatred whose reach extends even all the way to Boston.
Translated from Russian by Emmet Tuohy.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.