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Caucasus/Russia: Analysis From Washington--Ethnic Conflicts: Explanations, Exploitations

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 6 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The deteriorating situation in the North Caucasus reflects a "fight for interests" between the Russian Federation, on the one hand, and the United States and Western Europe, on the other, according to a senior Russian official.

Speaking at a Moscow press conference on Monday, Russian Nationalities Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailov said that outside powers were promoting interethnic conflicts there to consolidate their influence in the Transcaucasus and extend it northward at Russia's expense.

Without providing any evidence for his assertions, Mikhailov suggested that the efforts of outside powers had created an explosive situation in which Moscow now faced the existential question: "Will Russia stay as a single state and a great power?"

Such dramatic language -- and it has been echoed by several others in Moscow and the North Caucasus itself this week -- has led some Russian observers to speculate that President Boris Yeltsin may be planning a new campaign against Chechnya in order to declare a state of emergency, postpone elections and remain in office.

But while such predictions may prove to be true, there are compelling reasons to think they may in fact be overblown. Polls suggest that most Russians have no stomach for renewed hostilities there. Russian assistance to the North Caucasus is rising.

Moreover, many other senior Russian officials - including Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who was involved in Moscow's earlier campaign against Chechnya - have stressed that Moscow has no intention of taking that step. Indeed, Stepashin said on Wednesday that "one should not joke" when dealing with the North Caucasus.

Why then did Mikhailov make this statement now? There are at least three reasons. First, polls suggest that tough rhetoric against Chechnya and the other North Caucasian republics remains very popular among Russians, even if tough action is something most of them clearly oppose.

Second, lashing out against the West in general and the United States in particular on this issue offers an occasion for Moscow to reassert not only its claims to primacy on the post-Soviet space but also its continuing nervousness about Western involvement there.

And third, claims that ethnic conflicts are being orchestrated by foreign powers not only serve to deprive these groups of the legitimacy they seek but also put pressure on them to settle on Moscow's terms and warn the West against supporting these groups.

In approximately two weeks, Russian President Boris Yeltsin is scheduled to meet with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov to discuss the future of relations between Moscow and Grozny.

Given their timing, Mikhailov's remarks appear intended to provide Yeltsin with a justification for taking a harder line against Grozny than he has in the past, to force Grozny to agree, and to warn the West against attempting to lobby for a more balanced outcome.

Such a reading of Mikhailov's comments seems particularly compelling precisely because other Russian officials, such as Stepashin, have adopted a more conciliatory line. Yeltsin will thus be in a position to offer Maskhadov carrots as well as sticks.

But even if this strategy does not yield the results that Moscow hopes for and even if there is no evidence of outside involvement in the North Caucasus, Mikhailov's words have the effect of calling attention to an important aspect of ethnic conflicts.

Repeated references to "ancient ethnic animosities" notwithstanding, ethnic conflicts, like all other struggles, have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Indeed, as the late American ethnosociologist Myron Wiener pointed out, few of them last longer than a single generation. And as he demonstrated, most of those that last longer share a common feature: both sides enjoy outside sponsorship.

Implicitly understanding that fact, Moscow clearly hopes to win in the North Caucasus by frightening off any outsider who might support the North Caucasians and to do so by suggesting that North Caucasians already enjoy precisely that kind of backing.