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Can Medvedev's New Vision Bring Stability To The North Caucasus?

  • Aslan Doukaev

Aleksandr Khloponin reports for duty.

Aleksandr Khloponin reports for duty.

The appointment last week by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev of Aleksandr Khloponin, an economist and former governor of the Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk, to oversee the newly created North Caucasus Federal District was one of those out-of-the blue news stories. Russia observers spent a great deal of time last week trying to explain the rationale behind Medvedev's decision. But questions remain.

At first sight, naming a man who is more of an administrator than a warrior to run a province where presidents are blown up in their cars and interior ministers are shot dead by snipers could seem like an act of sheer insanity. But martial prowess was clearly the last thing on Medvedev's mind when he picked Khloponin for the new position.

"You have achieved a lot, above all in social and economic projects, and it is this that is urgently needed in the North Caucasus," Medvedev told Khloponin during a televised meeting.

Social and economic projects are, indeed, badly needed across the North Caucasus. But that is only part of the story. Medvedev's rationale trivializes, if not ignores, the root causes of the problems in the region and, crucially, the nexus between those problems and the Islamic insurgency.

Surely Medvedev and his advisers must know what motivates the young men and women who blow up presidents and shoot interior ministers dead in broad daylight. In the unlikely case they don't, the following statement addressed to members of the European Parliament comes straight from the horse's mouth and -- regrettably -- reflects such a widespread sentiment that even some in the current Chechen leadership might subscribe to it: "The Chechens and the Russians are as incompatible as poles of a magnet. There are no spiritual or mental factors which would allow for their coexistence. Violence is the only factor which keeps the Chechen nation within the Russian space. We fight violence; we fight for our right to organize our own life in the same way you organize yours."

That declaration, by a secular nationalist, may seem innocuous compared to the proclaimed goals of the Islamic militants in the Caucasus. This is what their leader Dokka Umarov has to say about them: "We fight for the right to live according to the Shari'a, the laws of Allah, the Great and Almighty, for people not to follow the laws which Putin and Surkov have written. These are our slogans."

To reiterate: Economic projects, development, and job creation are important and may alleviate the dire situation in the region; but unless the issues of political disenfranchisement, justice, and basic rights are addressed first, those grandiose projects may not have the desired effect.

Another Motive

In addition to Khloponin's economic expertise, there may have been another reason why he was deemed to be the right man for the job. And that can be found in another line in his CV: Three years ago, Khloponin oversaw the incorporation into Krasnoyarsk Krai, of which he was governor, of the Taimyr and Evenk autonomous districts.

Moscow may be considering a closer integration of the seven territories that form the new North Caucasus Federal District, a suspicion that was substantiated last week when Russian State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov put forward an unusually radical proposal to subsume the subsidized regions into the economically self-sufficient ones. But if Medvedev’s projects are aimed at achieving long-term political stability, Gryzlov's rationale seems to be purely economic.

In the North Caucasus context, where all the constituent territories run fiscal deficits, the plan appears to be unrealistic. But if it does go ahead, it might mean that the "ethnic" republics, which are all heavily subsidized by the central government, may become subsumed into the less subsidy-dependent (and predominantly Russian-populated) Stavropol Krai.

Such a merger would be resisted tooth and nail by most, if not all, heads of those republics, who stand to lose their jobs as a result. Indeed, Khloponin will be authorized to recommend their dismissal, and word is out that both Medvedev and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have been busy looking at possible successors to Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov. Putin was until recently viewed as Kadyrov's main supporter and protector, and Kadyrov vowed in an interview earlier this month that he is "ready to die 100 times" for Putin.

At the same time, any such administrative redrawing of the map would be totally irrelevant to, and not have the slightest impact on, those who have taken up arms with the aim of ending Moscow's hegemony over the region for good.

Aslan Doukaev is director of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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