The choice is not yet made
By Valery Dzutsev, special to Prague Watchdog
Reply to Sergei Gligashvili
The intellectuals of the North Caucasus have an obligation to offer a democratic alternative to the fanatical cult of Moscow’s rule that is practiced by the regional elites, as well as to militant Islamism in North Caucasus. Neither an unreservedly pro-Moscow loyalist position nor the pursuit of jihadist ideology are in the long term interests of the region’s peoples, and they are leading to a dead end.
In his article The choice of unfreedom, Sergei Gligashvili puts his finger very neatly on the point of contact between the jihadism of Dokka Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate quasi-state and the version of post-Ichkerian Chechnya headed by Ramzan Kadyrov. The dilemma for neutral Chechens who have not yet made up their minds about their political allegiances is indeed not an enviable one. The choice is restricted to two systems: one is that of Kadyrov, who has proclaimed Moscow as a universal fetish, and the other is the Caucasus Emirate, which preaches a radical jihad that is not accepted by a significant part of the region’s population which has been educated in secular traditions and culture.
It is not only in Chechnya that the matrices of loyalism and jihadism have become the dominant political systems – in the past few years they have been reproduced in the other republics of the Northern Caucasus. The youth of the North Caucasus is faced with a bed of Procrustes: an ineluctable choice between two value systems that are equally unfree and totalitarian in their outlook, and this is the case in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachai-Cherkessia. A similar tension is felt to a somewhat lesser extent in Adygea and North Ossetia.
Like Mr. Gligashvili, I believe that were Russia to leave the North Caucasus today, this would not automatically lead to the establishment of a just and free political system in the region. Moreover, it is quite possible that of the two evils – Kadyrov and Umarov – the people of Chechnya would choose Kadyrov, as Islamist theocracy, at least in its Umarov form, is ontologically incompatible with any civil freedoms, public or private. While at the same time Kadyrov’s dictatorship may potentially evolve into a more flexible political system through being unified with Russia as a whole.
Other regions of the Caucasus, which have obviously experienced fewer hardships than Chechnya during the past ten or fifteen years, follow Russia with little complaint. For this there are several explanations – on the one hand, the longstanding and relatively successful antireligious propaganda and mass secularization which took place in the Soviet era, and on the other the Westernization of a significant part of the North Caucasus population. In other words, an average person living in the North Caucasus views the Western lifestyle as a norm and even an ideal, while relatively few see Saudi Arabia or Iran as exemplary societies with regard to their political systems. It is worth mentioning that the vast majority of refugees from Chechnya, including manifest Salafis, have settled down not in the countries of the Middle East, but in Europe. They have done so despite declarations of adherence to “pure Islam”. This indicates the real preferences of the fighters for the faith, who when comparing the living conditions in the Islamic countries and the countries of the West have chosen not only Europe’s higher living standards but also the kind of protection that democratic governments provide, as well as their opportunities for the active practice of free speech.
Moreover, the attempts to present Ramzan Kadyrov and Dokku Umarov as antagonistic figures look a little artificial. If closely examined, the differences between them are not all that significant. Kadyrov also imposes strict state control on morality, justifying it either by Chechen tradition or Sharia law. Not even Dudayev and Maskhadov, who also attempted to improve the morality of their compatriots, ever dream tof the scale of control over society that Kadyrov exercises. Kadyrov is a successful dictator, skillfully lobbying his personal interests as well as Chechnya’s interests in the Kremlin. He has convinced the federal authorities of his loyalty and his ability to break the armed underground movement. In addition, the idea of independence is perhaps not completely alien to him, even though he is postponing it until times are better. Compared to Kadyrov, Umarov looks a pale and faceless figure who has opted for a program that will require an unprecedented scale of violence to win control over the territory, as it will encounter strong opposition not only from the Moscow-backed authorities but also from a large part of the region’s population.
The ideological gap between the supporters of the Caucasus Emirate and the official government is certainly greater in the other North Caucasus republics than it is in Chechnya. This is on the one hand because Kadyrov and Umarov are competing for the title of true Muslim ruler and interpreter of Sharia, and on the other because in the other republics the people are less religious and are therefore less inclined to support the jihadist movement. Thus, if the Caucasus Emirate’s chances of victory in Chechnya are small, in the other parts of the Caucasus they are even smaller.
This would be good news, were it not for two circumstances. First, the cause of the Caucasus Emirate attracts young men and is provoking a civil war in the North Caucasus (let us call things by their proper names), while in no way contributing to the development of civil society, to the expansion of civil liberties or to progress in general. Second, the alternative to the Caucasus Emirate – pro-Moscow loyalism – cannot be seen as a way out. Loyalism is the other side of the same coin, for although it is a more flexible version of unfreedom than jihadism, its rejection of democracy is just as aggressive. And there are also more fundamental problems.
Until the late 1990s, Russia could have been considered a source of inspiration for political freedom in the North Caucasus. However, with the end of the Yeltsin era, the consolidation of the Putin political elites and the dismantling of civil society and civil institutions, as well as the undermining of political freedom that followed, it became clear that Russia had become a barrier standing in the way of the North Caucasus’s political development. The abolishment of elected regional governors, the restrictions on civil liberty, the isolation of the region from the outside world and the economic stagnation are only some of the features that accompany loyalism. Moreover, as paradoxical as it may seem at first sight, I recognize that the North Caucasus has also become a barrier that stands in the way of Russia’s own development.
In his lecture “From the Russian Empire to the break-up of the CIS” the Russian sociologist Dmitry Furmanov gives an excellent description of this bidirectional negative impact. According to him, the democratization of a continental empire like the Russian one, unlike its European counterparts in the past, cannot but have an effect on its colonial margins. As a result of the democratization which took place in the 1980s and 1990s Russia first lost its constituent republics, and then its ethnic provinces began to show the same centrifugal drift. Of the latter, Chechnya is the most glaring example. Russia’s reply to this process was to roll back democratic reforms in order to avoid the state’s collapse. The problem with that rollback was though the fact, that it took place not only in the North Caucasus, but also in Russia itself.
Despite this outcome,Dr Furman’s argument leads to at least one optimistic conclusion: not only does the democratization of the North Caucasus depend on Russia’s democratization, but also vice versa. Which means that it is possible to abandon the dichotomy of the “zero sum game” which stipulates that either the North Caucasus becomes independent or that Russia completely subjugates the region. Because democratic development in both Russia and North Caucasus are bidirectionally dependent on each other, there is a viable chance for peaceful and constructive interaction. This opens up a theoretically huge space for fully fledged cooperation between the civil societies of the North Caucasus and Russia, as well as for local democratic projects.
But what would a “third way” – an alternative to loyalism and jihadism – look like in practice? I believe there are many options. Perhaps it would be wise to set very specific and limited goals at first, focusing on several or even one particular civil liberty like freedom of speech. There is only one way in which freedom of speech can be attained, and that is by exercising it. Let us suppose that today the ideas of separatism – under the flag of nationalism or Islamism – not only continue to have relevance, but actually draw more supporters. In that case it should be possible to have a free debate about the peoples’ right to self-determination. When it becomes acceptable freely to express the view that the region’s republics have the right to secede from the Russian Federation, the opponents of separation from Russia will inevitably become appear too. The participation of supporters of North Caucasus independence will widen the scope of the public debate that is presently dominated by loyalists and jihadists. When it becomes possible to peacefully express the views that are currently appropriated by armed groups, the level of violence will inevitably subside to acceptable levels. The outcome of such a discussion might be a shift in the paradigm of North Caucasus development – from civil war to a respectful dialogue between the citizens and the state.