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Analysis: Putin Reinvents The North Caucasus Wheel

By Liz Fuller and Julie Corwin

Addressing members of the government and the heads of the 89 Russian federation subjects on 13 September, President Vladimir Putin admitted that the Kremlin's North Caucasus policy requires "radical modernization," Interfax reported. To that end, Putin decreed the creation of a new government commission, to be headed by presidential administration head Dmitrii Kozak, who will serve simultaneously as presidential envoy to the South Russia Federal District.

The new commission will be tasked with ameliorating what Putin termed the "desolate" economic situation in the region and eliminating unemployment and other adverse social conditions conducive to the spread of radical Islam.
It is not clear whether, and if so to what extent, Putin intended the institution of the seven envoys to the federal districts to substitute for or complement the work of the federal Nationalities Ministry.

Putin's belated diagnosis of the ills that beset the North Caucasus is not new; nor is the idea of creating a government commission to improve the situation. In December 1998, Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin issued a decree on the creation of precisely such a commission that would implement a unified policy to improve socioeconomic conditions in the region. Like Putin, Yeltsin named to head that commission a man with absolutely no experience of the North Caucasus, First Deputy Prime Minister Vadim Gustov. Yeltsin did, however, name two experts as Gustov's deputies: former Nationalities Ministers Ramazan Abdulatipov (an ethnic Avar from Daghestan), and Vyacheslav Mikhailov, whose focus on interethnic relations dated back to the 1980s when he served as a functionary of the relevant department of the CPSU Central Committee.

As it turned out, the Gustov commission accomplished very little: most crucially, it proved unable to anticipate and powerless to avert the erosion of authority in Chechnya in the first six months of 1999 that paved the way for radical field commander Shamil Basaev's August incursion into Daghestan which, in turn, served as the catalyst for the second Chechen war.

This is not to deny that numerous senior Russian political figures had long been aware of the threat of a new Chechen crisis. Commenting in September 1997 in an interview with then Russan Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin published in "Granitsa Rossii," Igor Rotar concluded that Moscow still had not reached a decision on how to resolve low-level conflicts in the North Caucasus. Ethnographer Valerii Tishkov (a third former nationalities minister) wrote in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 22 January 1998 that "Russia has no adequate, thought-through scientific policy in the region, only a desire to suppress, finagle or ignore the problems that are ripe [for solution]."

Addressing the Russian State Duma in January 1999, Abdulatipov blamed the deteriorating situation in the North Caucasus on the governments of Sergei Kirienko and Yevgenii Primakov, alleging that "no one took any interest in the Caucasus between May and October 1998," and that as a result, the "considerable efforts" undertaken in late 1997 and early 1998 to implement specific development programs for the region came to nothing. Former Perm Oblast legislature Chairman Yevgenii Sapiro, a non-specialist, headed the Ministry for Nationality Affairs and Federal Relations from May-July 1998.

One factor that may have hindered the drafting and systematic implementation of either a long-term comprehensive North Caucasus policy or, for that matter, a Russia-wide nationalities policy, has been the frequent changes in status of the ministry responsible for nationalities policy. The Ministry of Nationality and Regional Policy was created in 1994, its status upgraded from that of a State Committee, and former Krasnodar Krai Governor Nikolai Yegorov was appointed minister.

Yegorov was succeeded in July 1995 by Vyacheslav Mikhailov. In 1996, the ministry was renamed the Ministry for Nationality Affairs and Federal Relations. Two years later, in May 1998, Sapiro replaced Mikhailov as minister. Then in September 1998, the ministry was split into two components, the Ministry for Nationality Policy (headed by Abdulatipov) and the Ministry for Regional Policy (headed by Valerii Kirpichnikov, formerly the president on the Union of Russian Cities). Less than a year later, in July 1999, the move was reversed and the two ministries were again amalgamated; Mikhailov was reappointed as minister, but was dismissed in January 2000 and replaced by former Russian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Aleksandr Blokhin.

In July 2000, the Federal Migration Agency was abolished, and its functions subsumed into a new combined Ministry for Federation Affairs, Nationality and Migration Policy. Finally, in October 2001, Putin abolished that megaministry but named Vladimir Zorin as minister without portfolio responsible for nationalities affairs. On 13 September 2004, Putin announced the creation of a new Ministry for Nationalities Policy, which is to be headed by yet another non-specialist, former St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, who since March of this year has served as presidential envoy to the South Russia Federal District.

It is not clear whether, and if so to what extent, Putin intended the institution of the seven envoys to the federal districts to substitute for or complement the work of the federal Nationalities Ministry. In an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 October 2000, presidential envoy to the South Russia Federal District Viktor Kazantsev, a former Russian military commander in the North Caucasus who subsequently wrote his academic dissertation on regional conflicts and how they should be resolved, focussed primarily on the need to strengthen economic cooperation between the North Caucasus republics and other regions of Russia. At the same time, he stressed that faced with a specific problem "we ask the center not for money, but to take concrete action," given that so much cash transferred to the regions is embezzled.

Commenting in October 2001 on the demise of the Ministry for Federation Affairs, Nationality and Migration Policy, "Vremya MN" suggested the rationale for that decision was to enhance the Kremlin's control over regional policy. According to the daily, "The liquidation of the ministry is explained by the fact that with the appearance of the institute of the [presidential envoys to the federal districts] and the beginning of the verticalization of federal power, all problems of federal construction fall in the sphere of competence of the presidential administration."

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