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Russia's Caucasian Knot

By Henry D’ Souza

Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, June 17, 2015


            The Caucasian knot is named after the Gordian knot, which, metaphorically, means taking a bold action to solve a seemingly impossible problem.  The Gordian knot is based on a 333 B.C. Greek legend which Alexander the Great solved by cutting through the knot.  The knot itself was a Turkish knot which involved tying cornel-bark threads in such a way that no ends were invisible. For Turkey read Islamic republics in Russia, for Alexander read Russia’s Putin and for the knot read the fate of Islamic issues in the North Caucasus, Russia.

            Russia’s strength depends on its ability to integrate its Muslim population with its Slavs.  Russia’s main strategy is to preserve the boundary which the peaks of the Caucasus demarcate as their southern boundary, between Asia and Europe.  Under no circumstances will Russia allow the Muslim republics of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachay-Cherkessia to secede.

            The Federation’s document, Strategy-2025, showed that the Government was worried that ethnic Russians were dwindling in these Muslim republics.  The Slavs had a lower birth rate than the ethnic minorities.  Consequently the strategy was to control the region from Stavropol Krai where the Slavs were in the majority.  Stavropol Krai with the six other units became Russia’s North Caucasus Federal District (NCFD), with Pyatigorsk as the capital.  In 2010, the North Caucasus Federal District became one of nine such districts in Russia.  The strategy was to steer clear of politics and religion and emphasize socio-economic development.1   For example, we know that religion and politics play a big part in North Caucasus, yet the Presidential chief Sergey Melikov told a meeting of journalists that, “there was no ethnic or religious conflict in the North Caucasus,” which was the official line.2

            The creation of a ninth Federal District by President Dmitry Medvedev (2008-12) was a way of cutting through the Caucasian Knot.  The emphasis would be on socio-economic development under a new wave manager, Aleksandr Khloponin.  Two positions were combined specially for him: Deputy Prime Minister and Presidential Representative to the NCFD.  Khloponin had experience in government, business and was a member of Russia’s ruling party, the United Russia Party.  In 1996, Khloponin was head of Norilsk Nickel Corporation and in 2002 was governor of Krasnoyarsk.  His reign from 2008 to 2012 was considered a success as there were fewer terrorist activities, and more socio-economic development.  Khloponin’s successors tried to emulate his success.

            Chechnya had been the most rebellious of the North Caucasus republics. But under Ramzan Kadyrov it became a success story though his methods were questionable.  Ninety percent of its budget came from funds transferred by the Federal Government.  Grozny, the capital, which had been devastated by two wars became a sparkling modern city, by some measures the richest in Russia.  Chechens thrived by being in demand for the Russian forces and by being mercenaries abroad.  Unfortunately for the world, they are also participating in the spread of the Islamic state.

Kadyrov managed to fulfil a Chechen goal of establishing a Muslim state, albeit a state within Russia.  Sharia prevails in Chechnya and Russian laws are paid lip-service.  Khadyrov has been able to achieve this transformation by being friendly with Putin who, Kadyrov said, saved his life.  Rumour has it that Kadyrov helped Putin get rid of some of his opponents, like Aleksey Venediktov over the issue of Charlie Hebbo caricatures.3   Kadyrov voiced Putin’s view that the West was trying weaken Russia.  Kadyrov also assisted Putin by providing soldiers for Russian campaigns, as in the Ukraine.  In return, Putin offered Chechnya huge Federal transfers.  For a time, when Russian funds were not forthcoming, Kadyrov managed to finance his republic on his own, presumably from the Levant for the Islamization of Chechnya.

Russian extremists object to these heavy subsidies for Chechnya without alluding to the fact that Chechnya was not paid compensation for the genocide and destruction during the two Russia-Chechnya wars, from 1991 to 1994 and from 1999 to April 16, 2009. Chechnya lost half its population through forced exile during Stalin’s era.  Stalin’s accusation that the Chechens betrayed the country in favour of the invading Germans was unjustified since the invasion did not reach Chechnya.

Russian extremists also objected to Kadyrov’s open declaration to “shoot and kill” any foreigners who entered the republic without permission to kill Chechens.  This was a reference to the April 19, 2015 incident when men from the FSB (Security Service) and Stavropol police entered Chechnya and killed a Chechen in Grozny.  Putin said nothing when he was publicly questioned about the principle of a republic challenging the actions of the federal government.4   Putin may not have accepted Kadyrov’s actions, but he probably understood them as the Kremlin runs Russia the same way, through the siloviki, which is a KGB-military-industrial power structure.

Since 2005, Dmitri Kozak, the “polpred” (Plenipotentiary Presidential representative), convinced Putin to withdraw steadily the 250K solviki in the NCFD.  Kozak argued that this district was the most militarized area in the world. However, the solviki was inefficient in eliminating instability in the region, and according to the populace they were corrupt. Putin’s major fear was that the local inhabitants would join the “terrorists” in gaining independence.  The appointment of locals, like Kadyrov, was one type of solution for governing NCFD.5

While some thought that the buying out of local elites to govern was a bad idea, others thought that the use of solviki was not successful.  Still others, staunch nationalists, thought that Russia should abandon the North Caucasus altogether since the cost of maintaining stability was extremely high while Russian law allowed disloyal citizens to settle in any part of Russia and earn higher wages.  Kondopoga, Sagra, and Pugachyov are examples where anti-Caucasian sentiment is unbearably high.6

The problem of governing the North Caucasus becomes more complicated when the interests of the locals in NCFD are considered.

Stalin had wrongly accused some North Caucasus regions, other than Chechnya, of cooperating with the Nazis during the Second World War.  This meant that Stalin’s punishment, the world’s worst holocaust, was etched on the minds of North Caucasians.  The Chechens led the other regions in their fight for independence.  Dagestan was spared collective exile, but since Kadyrov clamped down on rebel activity in Chechnya, the rebel movement moved to Dagestan which became the next target of the solviki.  Russian reporter Lulko cites Dagestani leader, Nadir Abu Khaled who swore an oath to join IS.7

For better control of clans, the Soviets split related clans and joined unrelated ones in an administrative group. This social engineering was the Soviet’s method of divide and rule.  When the North Caucasians returned from exile, they struggled to recreate the social cohesion that existed before 1944.  The North Caucasus has more than 50 different clans so that ethnic rivalries dominate local politics, to the extent that Putin was occasionally requested to nominate Governors, rather than elect them. 

Sometimes geography created divisions for clans to flourish.  In Karbadino-Balkaria the majority, Kabards, who tend to occupy the lowlands are pro-Russia, while the Balkars in the mountains, who are Turkic and just 10% of the population, tend to reject Russian domination.8

Ossetia, too, is linguistically divided with Iron outnumbering Digar, 5:1.  Most North Ossetians are Christian and pro-Russia.9    Ossetia is therefore treated differently from their Muslim neighbours.  

By creating a bellicose situation, Russia accelerated the balkanization of Georgia.  In August 2008, a Russia-Georgia war broke out and Russia supported two breakaway states, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  The former wanted exiled Muslims to return to strengthen the Muslim population, while South Ossetia wanted to amalgamate with North Ossetia, the most industrialized in the region.  Georgia, like Ukraine, took an anti-Russian step by wanting to join the European Union.

These internal dislocations in the Caucasian knot led to several anti-establishment groups forming the Caucasian Emirate (CE) or Imarat Kavkaz.  Gordon Hahn traces the history of CE briefly.  CE was formed in October 2007 as an umbrella organisation by Doku Umarov a former president of the self-proclaimed Republic of Ichkeria (Chechnya).  CE embraced six vilayets across the Caucasus, each headed by an emir.  Originally, the CE embraced smaller terror groups like Yarmuk Janaat in Kabardino-Balkaria, Shariat Jamaat in Dagestan, Ingush Jamaat and the Martyrs Brigade, Riyadus-Salikhin.10  In 2012, Kebekov gave the order not to kill civilians, as these insane killings drove ‘supporters’ away.

By January 2014, Muslim Fundamentalism was on the rise: the cells started with the influence of Wahhabist ideology, then developed into fundamentalist cells and matured to the CE. Russia went on the offensive by launching a continuous counter-terrorism operation in the Caucasus.  The solviki went after the leaders: in April 2015, key leaders like Aliaskhab Kebekov, Shamil Hasanov Balakhani, leader of Untsukul Jamaat, and Omar Magomedov, all backed by Al Qaeda of Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were killed while at a meeting in Gerei-Avlak, Buynaksk area, Dagestan. 

As the Caucasian Emirate declined, the Islamic State rose in the Caucasus.  By the end of 2014, six out of 11 Jamaat leaders swore allegiance to IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: Sultan Zaynalabidov of Aukhovsky Jamaat, Rustam Aselderov of vilayat Dagestan, Arslan Ali Kambulatov of Shamil Kadinsky sector, Makhran Saidov of Vedeno sector, Islam Atabiev, and Umar al Shishani. In 2014, the Amir of Ingushetia Amir Muhammad joined IS but did not take an oath.

The Islamic State cells snowballed.  Giacalone11 notes that the mosques did not play a part in recruitment.  Militant cells came from Russia, Europe and Muslim associations.  IS attracted the young and military retirees from 80 countries across the globe. Russia’s First Deputy Director of FSB Sergey Smirnov noted that there were 400 mercenaries from Russia in Syria and 1000 forces under ex-Georgian army commander Abu Umar al Sishani in the Levant.  The Chechen diaspora was supplying much of the recruits to the IS.12

Bharti Jain also notes that the IS of Syria and Iraq have entered Pakistan through the vilayat in Khurasan and had possible links with Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).  This linkage was of concern to India.13

Another reason for the decline of the CE was that the Kadyrov regime drove Chechen leaders to seek their fortunes abroad, in Syria and Iraq, where they could rise quickly in status. In 2013, Batirashvili joined IS, rose through the ranks, led in the conquest of Anbar province and became an IS Amir.  Another Batirashvili, Tamaz, a brother, operated in secrecy in Syria.  Vatchagoev14 reports a rumour that Commander Umar Sishami took over the Mining military Airport in Syria in August 2013.  Vatchagoev adds that Chechens were in demand for their bravery, experience in conducting guerilla wars, intelligence, and willingness to sacrifice their lives for Islam.

Yet another reason for the rise of IS in the Caucasus is that the Russian use of Terek Cossacks to control North Caucasus did not work.  Head of the Terek Cossack Force Alexander Zhuravsky was given posts without much power.  Many heads were not Cossacks though they claimed to be.  Some jurisdictions organized their own Cossack force, and Governors tended to exclude them from decision-making.15

Another weakness facing Muslims in the N.C. was that the Council of Muftis in Russia, subsidized by the Russian Government, was ineffective to stem the tide of IS.  The Council explained the application of the Quran to social issues, but could not deliver on independence and the protection of citizens from the ferocity of the solviki.

The IS spread its message through “information aggregators,” notes columnist Paraszczuk.  German police have taken notice that Murad Atajev (29 years) had links with Chechen-led Katibat Al Aqsa faction and with Shami Today which is owned by Chechen IS groups in Dagestan and Chechnya.  The man behind the Shami account is Mehdi Mahroor Biswas in India.  Neither Biswas nor Atajev had travelled to IS territories.16    Preachers can also be great “jihadist stimulators.”  Giacalone reports that the “fashionable” preacher of the North Caucasus, Nadir Medetov, swore allegiance to IS and appears to have moved to the Levant.

From these social media we derive the fact that the IS regarded itself as the top of the jihadist evolutionary pyramid.  It would continue with the teachings of Abu Musab al Suri and the Salafi current best exemplified by Abu Mus’ab Zarqawi in his terror campaigns in Iraq until his death in 2006.  It would accept divergent views of various Islamic cells even if they differed from IS ideology.  IS relied on dormant cells to join it.  Dr. Michael W. S. Ryan17 derives other goals from IS’s magazine, Dabiq.  The Caliphate aimed to return property to owners, offer security and stability, food for all, and a reduced crime rate.

The jihadist movement had taken a heavy toll on the Russians.  The Chechens on their own fought the First Chechen war from 1994-6 with success: 4000 Russian soldiers were killed, 2000 civilians missing, and 20,000 were wounded.  The war ended with the Khasavyat Accord which was signed by Russia’s Security Council member Alexander Lebed and separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov.  The Chechens were at this time echoing the Bosnian Muslim goal of creating a Caliphate from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea.18  

The Russians were not going to allow a victory to the Chechens.  So a second Chechen War was started in the summer of 1999 which ended a decade later.  During this period, the Chechens launched bombing attacks like the one in Buinaksk and Volgodonsk in 1999, took hostages in a theatre in 2002, and launched the Beslan attack in 2004.  The next big change came when IS went on the offensive.

Russia’s method of collective punishment by the solviki can best be illustrated by the incident in Vremeuny, Dagestan, on September 18, 2014.  Forty-two villages were evacuated, men were separated from women and children, valuables, like refrigerators, robbed, and the rest burnt to the ground.  For two months the women and children had no shelter and adequate food.  If and when compensation was paid it was grossly inadequate.  Human Rights and pro-Russian reporter Lokshina concluded that Russia was conducting a silent war against Dagestan.19

The main issue in the N.C, as in Palestine, is occupation and the feeling was best expressed by the founder of the Caucasian Emirate Doku Umarov.  He threatened to disrupt the Sochi Winter Games on the grounds it was “dancing on the bones of our ancestors.”  This expression illustrates the main bone of contention in the North Caucasus, territorial ownership.

The Caucasian knot, unlike the Gordian knot, cannot be cut by a sword but by good, skilful government. The former is woven by complex contradictions.  Russia wants peace in the region but is confronted by “a plague of violence”; Russia wants the North Caucasus (N.C.) integrated into the nation but is unwilling to offer Muslims equality before the law; the Muslim nations that form the N.C. want independence though they are dependent on Russian aid and jobs in Russia; Russia wants to take these mini-kingdoms forward while the people want to stick to their relatively primitive customs.  For example, slavery is illegal in Russia, but still prevails in the N.C.  The going price for a male slave in Dagestan is £ 23520 and there is regrettably a bride price too.  Consequently, there is a great cultural divide between traditionalism and modernism.

Paul Coyer sees another dichotomy as Russia modernizes: while the Russian world seems to disintegrate, Putin is emulating Britain by launching a holy war, an ‘Orthodox Jihad.’  The Russian Orthodox Church works closely with the state to spread Russian influence abroad.21   The use of religion to push imperialism may apply to Ukraine, but not to the Muslim republics.

Russia’s global ambitions must be seen within the framework of the West trying to clip its wings.  The West imposed sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea, when ironically the Crimea belongs neither to Russia or Ukraine, but to the Muslims, mainly Cossacks.

Polish-American geo-strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski sees the map of Russia divided into European Russia, Siberian Republic and Far Eastern Republic.22 He works on the assumption that the US has the power to re-draw the map of Russia and the Middle East.  Brzezinski backs the theory that Balkanization is a way of retaining Superpower status.

Russia cannot be allowed to dictate to Old Europe. But Vasilewkov23 observes that Old Europe is already divided, by force of circumstances, between the North (Scandinavian countries and Germany) and the 20 countries in the South with high unemployment rates and debt ratios.  However, the unification and banking union of North America and Europe should see that Russia does not overwhelm Europe. The West also states that they want Europe to be independent of Russian oil and gas.  As if to confirm that Europe is on the right track, today’s news item declared that BP and the US produce more oil and gas than Russia.  Meanwhile, the Nordic countries have started building an alliance on Russia’s borders.  Sweden’s union with Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is aimed against possible Russian aggression. Russian reporter Lulko24 notes, with anxiety, that although Sweden has been neutral for two centuries it has a sophisticated manufacturing industry for fighter jets and reconnaissance aircraft, which could be made available to the Nordic Union.

Putin timed his visit to the Vatican at a time when the G7 countries did not invite him to their meeting.  The pope gave his guest a medal depicting an ‘angel of peace’ who wins all wars and calls for the unity of all people in the world.”  Putin’s opponents will be wondering the symbolism of the gift.25 


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