The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
A Patchwork Puzzle
Published on May 13, 2013

The attack on the Boston marathon vividly highlighted, with anguish unparalleled in the post-9/11 period, the security challenge posed to the United States by terrorism. Unlike the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, however, these attacks were perpetrated not by terrorists from the Middle East or Southeast Asia but from the Russian North Caucasus.

It’s fair to say that not many people are familiar with the North Caucasus region. The first thing to note about it is that it is one of the most unstable and unpredictable parts of Russia. Last year 700 people were reported killed and 525 injured as the result of ongoing political violence there. The North Caucasus Federal District (an administrative entity encompassing Stavropol Kray and the Republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, North Ossetia-Alania, Karachay-Cherkessia) is plagued by chronic unemployment; it’s 14.6 percent rate last year was the highest in all of Russia. (These are only the official figures; the real figure is probably much higher.) Salaries are also much lower—less than half of the national average in Dagestan alone. The only exception to this trend is Chechnya, where the average salary has exceeded the region-wide rate every year since 2007. This is almost certainly due to the massive amount of money that has been pumped into the formerly restive republic by the federal government in an effort to revive the economy in the wake of two Chechen wars. 

Since the first Chechen war broke out in the 1990s, policymakers in Washington have been studying the North Caucasus primarily in the context of the U.S.-Russia relationship, and to a lesser extent through the lens of human rights. In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, some of these experts reverted to their thinking of the early 1990s, speculating on the separatist motivations of Chechens and ascribing some kind of responsibility to Russia for its role in fomenting terrorism by its often heavy-handed response. Max Boot was representative of the trend, writing on Twitter on the morning of April 19th: “Chechen bombers radicalized by Russian oppression, becoming Islamists wanting to target all infidels—even #bostonmarathon.”

However, the situation in the North Caucasus no longer resembles the dynamics of the Chechen conflict. Contrary to the sloppy mainstream media narrative, the insurgency in the region is not centered in Chechnya. Rather, in each year since 2005, the recorded incidence of violence in Chechnya has been less than or equal to the levels of violence observed in the neighboring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan. And although the situation in Chechnya can by no means be described as secure or resolved, the vast majority of violent incidents in recent years have taken place outside of the Chechen Republic itself. In 2012, only 82 people were killed and 92 injured in terrorist attacks or acts of sabotage in Chechnya; in Dagestan, those numbers were 405 killed and 290 injured.

Dagestan, of course, is where Tamerlan Tsarnaev reportedly spent six months last year. It is a much more complicated place than Chechnya ever was, even at the height of its wars. The Chechen conflict was easier to understand: The Russian federal government was fighting a separatist movement. Dagestan never had these kinds of problems with central authority. As the Avar poet Rasul Gamzatov quipped, “Dagestan didn’t voluntarily join Russia, and would not secede voluntarily either.” 

This doesn’t mean that Dagestan is at peace with itself. It has several different conflicts simmering in parallel, often completely disconnected from each other. It is the most densely populated of the North Caucasus republics, as well as the most ethnically diverse, with no single ethnic group dominant. Ethnic and tribal competition over territories, power in local administrations and control of businesses, especially in the context of land shortage and ongoing urbanization, is the main source of instability. Additionally, there’s a religious component that doesn’t neatly map onto ethnic divisions but rather cuts across society. Finally, various regional bureaucracies, intimately tied up with local clan structures, are also at loggerheads, often violently so. The violence in Dagestan continues because social relations are regulated not by institutions but by informal principles and customs. When people have no job prospects, no means of starting a business, and no way of building civil society, social activities become radical, and disputes get solved by murder and blackmail.

The North Caucasus, it turns out, is a much more complicated and fascinating place than the limited perspective of some of our experts admits. So what’s it really like? What follows should give an interested reader an insight beyond the easy clichés being slung around by the media.

The Islamic Rise

Islam’s influence has steadily increased across the North Caucasus since the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially in comparison to ethnic nationalism.  Although its importance is by no means a novel phenomenon in the North Caucasus, Islam has become an important factor in politics only in the past decade and has manifested itself differently across the region. Ramzan Kadyrov, the young Sufi Muslim Chechen leader backed by the authorities in Moscow, has consolidated his power by appealing to Islam as a common heritage that unites all Chechens. In Dagestan, in contrast, fissures have developed between the Sufi Muslims, who consider religion to be a part of their ethno-national heritage, the ultra-religious Salafis, who exhibit differing levels of radicalism, and the outright jihadists. 

The growing influence of the notion of jihad in the region has been particularly troubling. The Beslan tragedy of September 2004 marked an important turning point for the North Caucasus. It was around the time of this horrific tragedy that the language of opposition to Russia in the region turned away from nationalism and toward radical Islam. By October 2007, the Chechen guerrilla leader Doku Umarov proclaimed a new entity, the Caucasus Emirate, and declared himself its Emir.

In the West, many experts tend to explain the rapid growth of Islamism in the region as a response to Moscow’s centralization during the presidency of Vladimir Putin. This is something of an oversimplification. Tensions between Sufis and Salafis in Dagestan were recorded as early as 1994–95, with numerous cases of splits within and between official and state-supported Muslim structures predating Putin’s actual ascent to power in 2000. And though the Chechen separatist movement was not explicitly connected with the Salafist cause and espoused a nationalist agenda from 1991 to 1999, it did utilize political Islam to legitimize itself before average Chechens as part of their ideological campaign. The legendary Chechen guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev was by some accounts Islamized as early as 1992, well before the first Chechen war broke out.

Instead, four factors have primarily contributed to the process of Islamic revival in the North Caucasus: the failure of nationalism to secure a brighter future; the grim prospect of continuing low-grade war between mutually suspicious independent republics; the decay of secular institutions in the post-Soviet period; and radicalization by foreign fighters, including members of al-Qaeda. 

First, as political Islam has become ascendant, ethnic nationalism and separatism, the ideologies and movements that dominated the North Caucasus during the 1990s, have grown increasingly bankrupt. The nationalists that succeeded in taking power as Moscow’s influence waned in the region failed to provide solutions to a large number of pressing issues facing their populations. Cronyism became a big problem, especially in the well-remunerated civil service. Ethnic minorities lost political representation. Kinship and clan relationships ruled the day, locking into place a system of privileges for a narrow circle of the ruling elite. Political Islam tapped into the population’s resentment of these new post-Soviet arrangements.

Second, the failure of Chechnya’s autonomous existence as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria has had a lasting effect. The failure was not solely caused by the heavy-handed intervention by the Russian army, though that too did force many in the region to weigh the costs of secession. More importantly, the Chechen separatists failed to build up an effective administration in de facto independent Chechnya comparable to that in Georgia’s breakaway Abkhazia region or Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Separatist Chechnya under Dzhokhar Dudayev and then under Aslan Maskhadov adopted a belligerent stance toward its neighboring republics—Dagestan in particular. In this way, it helped create a more agreeable image of Russia in the popular consciousness, as the lesser of two evils when compared with the prospect of squabbling, warring nation-state republics. The Caucasus Islamic emirate looks more appealing than an ongoing civil war on a low boil.

Third, the decay of the institutions such as courts in the post-Soviet period has also promoted Islamization. This has been most apparent in the way land disputes have been settled. In Dagestan, the largest republic in the North Caucasus, agricultural land makes up 66 percent of the total area; 70 percent of that is made up of pasture land. Yet on a per-capita basis, the rate of available arable land in Dagestan is a third of the national rate. Poverty and unemployment are endemic, with 11.7 percent of the population jobless in Dagestan, 48.6 percent in Ingushetia and 32 percent in Chechnya. People leave the villages in droves for the cities. This creates conflicts with the ethnic groups that traditionally inhabit the plains, consider those territories their “ethnic property”, and claim authority over them. The backdrop for this is an ineffective, corrupt judicial and administrative system wheezing along from the Soviet days. As a result, many people appeal to imams, Sheikhs, and even to well-organized local Salafist groups as alternative, more effective arbiters. Of course, especially in Dagestan, the jurisdictions of the various religious arbiters are not universally recognized, which inevitably leads to further tensions and violence. Thus, the real problem that plagues the North Caucasus is not the extreme centralization of state power but rather the lack of it.    

Fourth, foreign influence has been a significant contributing factor to Islamization. At various points, members of al-Qaeda or its trainees have been engaged in the North Caucasus insurgency, including such notorious figures as Abu Omar al-Seif, Abu Omar al-Kuwaiti, and Muhannad. Anti-Western and anti-Semitic sentiments have thus become common across the region that traditionally was fairly insular and spent little time worrying about Jews and the West. Though the jihadist leaders in the North Caucasus often demonstrate a very shallow knowledge of Islam, as evidenced at times by laughable spelling errors, they have managed to utilize the Islamist discourse effectively to tap into and mobilize the extremist potential in the region. 

The New Nationalism

Despite its overall decline, ethnic nationalism still remains an important force in the region. Unlike the aspirations for independence from the Russian Federation evinced by the Chechen separatists in the 1990s, none of today’s political violence is driven by an explicitly secessionist agenda. The nationalists of the present day remain well within the Russian political and legal space and their activities are driven more by current realities than by the injustices of the Soviet past. Like the multifaceted political Islam in the North Caucasus, the ethno-nationalism in the region has also appeared in various forms. 

The most striking example of this new nationalism can be found in Chechnya in the guise of the aforementioned Ramzan Kadyrov. Going so far as to self-identify as a “solider of Vladimir Putin”, Kadyrov regularly takes pains to demonstrate his exclusive loyalty to the President and the Russian state. Under Kadyrov, Chechnya itself has become an important political symbol for Putin, who came to power promising the pacification of the Caucasus and a fierce fight against terrorism. In exchange for his loyalty, Putin has lavished massive federal financial support on the republic, allowing Kadyrov to preside over the restoration of nearly all the cities and towns that were reduced to rubble during the two Chechen wars.

Despite his closeness to Putin, Kadyrov himself seems to receive legitimate support among the Chechens. He has brought political stability to the country, and the number or terrorist attacks in Chechnya has decreased significantly under his administration. This stability has come with a price. Kadyrov has created a very authoritarian political regime in Chechnya. The Chechen leader alone controls the republic’s law-enforcement agencies, and federal interference in Chechen political dynamics is strictly limited. At the same time, Kadyrov appeals to traditional Chechen ethnic values and promotes a public image of himself as the All-Chechen leader.  His ideology is a synthesis of ethnic nationalism and Sufi Islam, and he’s even managed to co-opt the Chechen Muslim Spiritual Board to his regime, a post-Soviet institution that remains above nationalist politics in most other North Caucasus republics. Interested readers may want to surf over to Kadyrov’s public Instagram feed for a taste of what his regime looks like. 

A completely different face of this new nationalism is the Circassian variant. But unlike the strictly vertical and personalized system of power cultivated in Chechnya by Kadyrov, Circassian nationalism is much more of a grassroots phenomenon. “Circassian issues” in the region have become more prominent with the Sochi Winter Olympics just around the corner. For Circassians, Sochi holds a special historical significance, as it was here in 1861 that several Circassian tribes joined together in order to resist further Russian encroachment into the Caucasus. Sochi is also where the Russians finally crushed the Circassian resistance in 1864, culminating in the expulsion of most of the Circassian people into Ottoman territories by the Russian General Yevdokimov. As of yet, however, the emotional resonance of choosing Sochi as the site of the upcoming Olympics has not provoked anything more serious than public protest from Circassian activists. 

The first wave of Circassian nationalism appeared in the early 1990s during the Yeltsin period. Within a few years, it had gained a fair amount of currency in the popular imagination and became an important factor in the struggle for power in the North Caucasus. However, in those years the Circassian issue didn’t figure much in relations between the federal center and regions. As Dr. Zeynel Abidin Besleney of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, wrote, by the mid-1990s “former local bureaucratic elites, who by then had already adapted to post-Soviet conditions and firmly restored themselves to positions of power, absorbed these nationalist movements into the establishment.” The local intelligentsia played a role in this process. However, the alliance of the nomenklatura, new business and the intelligentsia failed to formulate a common Circassian agenda. The fact that Circassians faced very different circumstances in the various republics in the northwestern part of the Caucasus proved a further impediment. 

However, by 2005, Moscow had overplayed its hand. When it attempted to merge Adygea and the Krasnodar Kray in 2005, it provoked heated debates about the Circassians’ historical past. Some Circassian movements launched a campaign for the recognition of the Circassian genocide of 1864. Moscow basically ignored their pleas. In May 2011, Georgia recognized the “genocide,” adding an international dimension to this problem.

The issue of repatriation for the Circassian people has also become important during the recent conflict in Syria, a country that is home to 30,000–120,000 Circassians who migrated there after the events of 1864. Especially since the end of 2011, Syrian Circassians have been petitioning the Russian government, asking for the right to return to their historical homeland. It’s a fascinating aspect to the Syrian crisis that is seldom noted by Western observers.

The demands issued by the Circassian movement are non-violent, highly diversified and have not yet coalesced into a coherent ideological platform. Some groups focus on current challenges (such as repatriation) without seriously addressing the historical grievances or engaging with the Circassian cultural legacy that it tied to the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Olympic Games. Others view an official pardon for the Russian Imperial politics from Moscow as the best solution.    


The North Caucasus is likely to continue to be a part of Russia for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, there is very little evidence of an effective strategy in Moscow for integrating the region with the rest of the country. Two glaring examples: the continuing inability to leverage military conscription as a means of introducing young men from the North Caucasus into the broader stream of Russian life; and a lack of viable labor migration programs to create employment opportunities for young people outside of the overpopulated North Caucasus. 

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian army has been unable to gather conscripts from the North Caucasus. This past April, General-Colonel Vasilii Smirnov, the Russian General Staff Deputy Chief, announced that the number of young men drafted for the military from the North Caucasus will increase. In July 2012, 150 Chechens were drafted into the 249th special Motorized Battalion, which is stationed permanently in Chechnya. Back then, that news was regarded almost as sensationalist, despite the fact that there are about 80,000 people of military age in Chechnya. The debate in Russia focuses on the potential for interethnic conflicts inside the barracks that would weaken the cohesion of the armed forces. It ignores the fact that the conscript army is a critical institution for integrating different social strata into an increasingly technologically sophisticated Russian society. The army has always provided a cheap and effective way to educate and promote promising young people from economically underdeveloped regions of Russia. Moscow’s inability to see this and make use of it is troubling indeed. 

The lack of permanent employment remains persistently high in the North Caucasus, estimated at around 70 to 80 percent for all residents under thirty years of age. At the same time, areas of central Russia are facing acute manpower shortages. In one district of the Penza region, Narovchatovskiy, the population loss rate is 13.4 percent. There have been some recent attempts to address this obvious imbalance in a way that would be mutually beneficial. Alexander Khloponin, the presidential envoy in the North Caucasus Federal District, launched programs to encourage people from Ingushetia and Dagestan to move to Sverdlovsk and Penza. In 2010 and 2011, approximately 150 people gave it a try. The programs, however, were judged to be failures, leading to financial losses of more than 250 million rubles. The failure was blamed on weak cooperation between the regional authorities and lack of deeper federal engagement.

After the Penza and Sverdlovsk experiment, there seems to be little appetite in Moscow to try anything similar again. This is a pity. There are real precedents for this kind of thing working. During the Soviet period, 73 percent of the former Checheno-Ingushetia Autonomous Republic had seasonal or permanent work outside of the republic; through remittances these workers raised the standard of living of their relatives back home. It’s not hard to imagine that this kind of thing could work again.

This, then, is but a taste of the complex set of problems that the Caucasus region poses. Islamic radicalization has occurred in the region. As such, it does present a challenge both to Russia and to the rest of the world, as the Boston bombings grimly remind us. But simplistic caricatures of the roots of this radicalism, based on understandings stuck in the 1990s, do nobody any favors. Russia faces many obstacles to integrating what will likely remain one of its most problematic regions, and its role has not always been constructive. 

Fixing the Caucasus is not optional. Moscow needs to realize that many of the issues faced in one region are often experienced in the rest of the country to different degrees. Russia needs a comprehensive policy, oriented towards the formation of a new Russian political and civic identity, that addresses the issues of both domestic and foreign migration, education, state-sponsored media, and inter-religious dialogue. Without such a proactive policy, Russia will be weakened considerably. While it might maintain its territorial integrity in the formal sense, it would remain very much a de facto, highly segregated state system.


Sergey Markedonov is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program.