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Putin Tries New Approach To Imposing Order In North Caucasus

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) meets with the two newly appointed presidential envoys for Siberia, Nikolai Rogozhin (left), and the North Caucasus, Sergei Melikov, in Sochi on May 12.
In a tacit admission that the situation in the North Caucasus differs radically from that elsewhere in the Russian Federation, President Vladimir Putin has made a series of personnel appointments clearly intended to strengthen Moscow's control over developments there.

Putin has dismissed Aleksandr Khloponin, whom then-President Dmitry Medvedev had appointed in January 2010 to head the new North Caucasus Federal District, and named to replace him Interior Ministry Lieutenant General Sergei Melikov, the commander of the Combined Group of Forces in the North Caucasus.

Khloponin in his capacity as a deputy prime minister will, however, oversee a new ministry for the North Caucasus. Paradoxically, Putin has appointed to head that ministry a man with no previous experience of the region: Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Lev Kuznetsov. (Khloponin too once served as Krasnoyarsk Krai governor, a coincidence that has led some analysts to conclude that Kuznetsov is Khloponin's protege). Putin commented that Kuznetsov "will be called on to use all his skills" in his new post.

The North Caucasus is not the first Russian region to have its "own" ministry. A separate ministry for the Far East was established two years ago, and one for Crimea in the wake of that region's incorporation into the Russian Federation in mid-March 2014.

Most Russian analysts construe the creation of a ministry for the North Caucasus as reflecting a decision to separate responsibility for socioeconomic development from the ongoing campaign to stamp out the Islamic insurgency. Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic head Rashid Temrezov predicted that the move will make possible "a more active approach to resolving socioeconomic problems."

Professor Natalya Zubarevich, who heads the regional program at the Independent Institute for Social Policy, pointed out that the creation of a separate ministry was logical insofar as the office of the federal district head has no financial functions and is thus not empowered to allocate budget funds. Zubarevich and other analysts see the focus of the new ministry confined to attracting investment and monitoring the spending of subsidies allocated from the federal budget.

The new ministry is, however, in an unenviable position insofar as projected funding for the new long-term Federal Program for the North Caucasus has just been cut by a further 13 percent. Consequently, analysts predict that grandiose plans for developing tourism will be quietly shelved to free up scarce funds for constructions of schools, kindergartens, and medical facilities. (In Chechnya alone, 52 schools with a total of 14,000 students work in three shifts due to the shortage of school buildings.)

Khloponin's replacement as presidential envoy was not entirely unexpected in light of a series of articles in the Russian press in mid-February criticizing his track record. As summarized by former Russian Nationalities Minister Vladimir Zorin, they painted "an alarmist picture" of what lies ahead as a result of Khloponin having pinned his hopes for socioeconomic development on huge injections of funds from the federal budget that were not forthcoming. At the same time, according to his critics, Khloponin failed to devote adequate attention and energy to combating the North Caucasus insurgency.

It is presumably the latter failing that Putin hoped to rectify by selecting Melikov as Khloponin's successor. On the other hand, Putin simultaneously named a second Interior Ministry general, Nikolai Rogozhkin, to head the Siberian Federal District.

Melikov, 48, was born into a military family. His father is a retired Interior Ministry forces colonel and, to judge by his given name and patronymic (Alim Nurmagamedovich), a Lezgin. A brother, Mikhail, is an Interior Ministry forces major general.

Melikov entered the Interior Ministry Higher Military School in Saratov in 1982, and from 1986 spent his entire career serving in the Interior Ministry Internal Forces. In 2011, Putin appointed him commander of the combined group of forces engaged in "counterterrorist" operations in the North Caucasus and first deputy commander of the North Caucasus regional division of Interior Ministry Interior Forces.

Whether the two structures -- the office of the presidential envoy and the new ministry -- will function harmoniously in tandem or whether, as Konstantin Kazyonin of the Gaidar Institute of Economic Policy has suggested, they will find themselves in competition, is impossible to predict at this juncture.

Similarly unclear is what kind of accommodation Kuznetsov and Melikov will come to with what the independent Daghestani weekly "Chernovik" terms "the new regional political union" comprising Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov; Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov; Sagid Murtazaliyev, who heads the Daghestan administration of the Federal Pension Fund; and State Duma Deputy Rizvan Kurbanov. Kadyrov has welcomed the appointment of Melikov, whom he described as "our comrade in arms, a man of honor and of his word," and who has an in-depth knowledge of the situation in the region.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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