The North Caucasus Conflict and its Implications for Russia

By
Jodi Koehn

Russia is currently facing its worst security crisis since their defeat in Chechnya three years ago. Furthermore, the Kremlin fears it will not be regarded as a great power if it loses Chechnya and Dagestan, remarked Mikhail Alexseev, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Appalachian State University and former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar at the Kennan Institute at a 18 November 1999 Kennan Institute lecture. However, Alexseev continued, this is a misperception.

At the center of this misperception is a "domino theory" based on the collapse of the Soviet Union, Alexseev stated. According to this theory, if one republic leaves the Federation, the Kremlin fears others will also break away--resulting in a Russia consisting of nothing more than a group of ethnically Russian regions surrounding Moscow. According to Alexseev, the "domino theory" is incorrect and Moscow's indulgence in the theory--along with its determination to be seen as a "great power"--is a more serious threat to Russia than regional separatism.

Alexseev gave several reasons for his argument that the "domino theory" is incorrect and why Russia would not breakup as the Soviet Union did. According to Alexseev, the eighty-nine regions comprising Russia have never had the sovereignty held by the fifteen Soviet republics or the attributes that would help them to be recognized as independent nations.

Russia has no state ideology such as communism that united the Soviet Union and any breakaway movement would have to draw solely on ethnic anti-Russian sentiment, Alexseev argued. However, ethnic Russians comprise more than 80 percent of Russia's population and broad popular support for anti-Russian separatists is unlikely even among non-Russians. In addition, Russian regions lack the popular movements that existed in the former Soviet Union--such as the Sajudis in Lithuania or the Rukh in Ukraine--that fueled Soviet disintegration in the late 1980s.

Finally, no regional leader in Russia could play the role that Yeltsin played in the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, stated Alexseev. Other than Chechnya, Russian regions lack a charismatic secessionist leader. For example, the leaders of Dagestan, Alexseev contended, are basically Soviet apparatchiks who support the Kremlin even in the current conflict. The leaders of regions such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Sakha briefly raised the issue of separatism, but quickly withdrew in favor of economic incentives such as lower taxes and federal subsidies.

When Chechnya sought independence in 1994, the other Russian republics did not join in the movement, Alexseev continued. Unlike secessionist leaders in the Soviet republics who had the support of anti-Soviet constituencies in the West, separatists in Russia are on their own. Additionally, Yeltsin has had better success in negotiating with regional leaders than Gorbachev had with the Soviet republics. Except for Chechnya, Yeltsin has established mutually acceptable agreements and has ignored sovereignty declarations as long as they did not undermine Russia's federal agencies. In 1996, Yeltsin allowed the regions to directly elect their own governors.

Alexseev then turned to the costs of Moscow's determination to be a "great power." In both 1994 and 1999, Moscow pledged to quash Chechnya's secessionist government within a few hours. Both times, the Kremlin has overestimated their capabilities. Symbolic acts such as sending paratroopers to Kosovo have allowed Moscow to feel like a "great power," but have diverted "attention and resources from preventive action in Dagestan and from peace negotiations with Chechen leaders," Alexseev argued.

According to Alexseev, Moscow's illusion of power is pushing the country toward "unwinnable military solutions." The seemingly imminent massive attack will trigger another protracted Chechen war. Furthermore, the Kremlin's vow to defeat the rebels at all costs will result in Moscow having fewer--if any--resources to help Chechnya's and Dagestan's struggling economy. Ironically, this will further the goals of Islamic radicals by creating more instability in Dagestan, Alexseev commented. This instability will also undermine Moscow's control of westward routes for Caspian Sea oil. Alexseev pointed out that the pipeline carrying oil from Azerbaijan to the West can bypass Chechnya, but not Dagestan. In addition, the conflict's drain on Russian monetary resources has caused Moscow to neglect steps to relieve Russians in general from years of economic decline.

Alexseev stated that Moscow's military campaign in the Caucasus has not demonstrated its ability to compromise or wisely make use of resources. It also encourages Russian regional leaders to "fend for themselves and be wary of the Kremlin." Some regions have considered strategies such as trade embargoes and regional security forces. Tatarstan has passed a law which forbids Moscow to send local residents to the North Caucasus. Other republics with large non-Russian populations, Alexseev argued, are likely to adopt similar laws--which could lead to a broader center-periphery conflict.

Alexseev concluded that continued conflict in the Caucasus, will lead to "a weaker economy, regional fiefdoms, and social unrest." This is obviously not the path the majority of Russians would choose for themselves.

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