How does the Russian state look from the perspective of the Northern Caucasus twenty years after the break-up of the Soviet Union? The problem is that it is increasingly beginning to not look like anything.
Many people in the Northern Caucasus initially invested their hopes in the rule of Vladimir Putin. Although the living standards have improved, the Putin decade resulted in disenchantment and disillusion. Corruption, the impunity of the security forces, widespread lawlessness and the courts bowing to political pressure – all of these elements result in the fact that the militants are fed up with the system. The armed conflict between the militants and the security forces, sometimes called a war, is regarded as the biggest problem in the region. It undoubtedly leads to instability but the outbreak of a conventional war seems unlikely. The growing disenchantment with the government does not automatically mean support for promoters of an Islamic state – the conflict is simply the most visible manifestation of a larger crisis.
However, it is not the Islamist radicals but the “dangerous indifferent ones” who may soon turn out to be the gravest problem for the local and federal authorities. They are not involved in the conflict, supporting neither the militants nor the authorities; they are invisible, yet despising the system. They increasingly are expressing their contempt on blogs and internet chats. It is possible that the widespread access to the internet may turn the fear of the “Islamic” scenario into the fear of the Arab scenario.
The peripheries of the Russian Federation
Looking from a broad perspective, the Northern Caucasus is not a strategic place. But it is a “neglected” region, with many structural weaknesses, which attract “miseries” – one of them could be a susceptibility to exploitation by large corporations, as can be seen in many former western colonies. In the Northern Caucasus, “voracious” corporations may be replaced by “voracious” elites, whose members have their particular interests and loyalties (sometimes transcending the borders of the republic), leading to the erosion of the state and to deindustrialisation. As noted by the American sociologist Georgi Derluguian, in peripheral places the elites may allow themselves various degrees of irresponsibility towards their citizens – they offer very little in terms of public service, infrastructure and the rule of law. The citizens matter very little for the elite, neither as military recruits (for there is no external threat) nor as taxpayers, for the elite makes their profits from controlling companies, large scale trade and above all the transfers from the federal budget. The unstable situation leads to a lack of external control of the distribution of the transfer and “assistance” in the fight against political opponents – people who are distressing for the authorities, exposing their illegal actions, are often accused of terrorism.
Only a few years ago open criticism was hardly ever heard in the Northern Caucasus. Every conversation about politics was summed up with the following words: “Do not think that it is so bad here, we have seen worse.” Economic growth in the entire Russian Republic and successful propaganda in the media have led people to believe in Putin and in his promises of change. They spoke about politics rarely and timidly. Just a few years later, in 2011, you could hear about the vices of the system and the events in the Northern Caucasian republics (except for Chechnya), from almost everyone, you could read about it in social media – Facebook or Vkontakte.
“I give this system no more than ten years,” said a Dagestani friend of mine, describing another case of abuse of power.
“Why this exact figure?” I asked thinking that he meant another two presidential terms of Putin.
“Because so far, not all those discontented have access to the internet.”
The system is a colloquial term for the way in which the Russian Federation is governed, especially its dark side. To be against the system does not mean to be against the state, you may be part of the state as a police officer or an official and also be opposed to the system. The system is the embodiment of such bad practices as taking bribes at check-points, government offices, universities, hospitals, giving “cuts” or protection money to the boss, who passes part of it to his superior and so on. Corrupt courts and prosecutors, detectives using illegal methods of extracting confessions are also part of the system. The system is a Russian-wide phenomenon, but in the Northern Caucasus it acquired a particularly poignant expression.
The system is gradually coming apart: too high bribes make economic activity difficult and hinder upward mobility of educated young people who do not have resources for “buying” a job, they cripple the education system and cause a severe brain drain. Corruption at check-points hampers physical mobility and trade; high “payments” make trade between regions unprofitable. The necessity of making “payments” – and the necessity of taking them, enforced by police bosses on the rank-and-file officers – leads to the fact that not only the militants but also common people and even some law enforcement officers are increasingly fed up with the system.
“You are from Poland, right? You are lucky not to live in Russia,” said a Dagestani policeman who poked his head inside our car just to share this reflection with us.
Growing apart from the state
For an increasing number of inhabitants of the Northern Caucasus, the state ceases to be a point of reference, a source of identification. A decade ago it was at least a focus of hope, disappointment, or criticism. Today more and more people, especially the youth, do not want to function in a space dominated by “sham law” and “sham justice”. They do not want to watch the tedious spectacle called “the state”.
They do not protest, they do not flood the streets, they do not vote. They support neither the militants nor the authorities. They grew up in a silent contempt for the system. They live in their own world: the world of websites, the world of mosques or discos. They are not passive, though. They are only looking elsewhere for things to do.
Experts and the authorities speak about the need to mobilise the youth, to create new jobs, to bring the youth back to the sphere of law, of “the state”. But the problem is that the youth do not want to be brought back to such a state. To a state where a new kind of patrimonialism has taken a firm hold, where the local elite is an inaccessible and corrupt caste and the central authorities support and finance this caste, receiving in return a pretended loyalty expressed in “proper” behaviour at the polling stations.
The process of “growing apart from the state” cannot be stopped by a decree, a committee, a couple of reforms, creating some new jobs, or the building of a factory. The elite are no longer trusted by society and without deeper structural changes (which are difficult to imagine without changes in the whole of Russia) the Russian Federation will enter the third decade of its existence with problems similar to those with which the rulers of Arab states had struggled. The mobilisation of residents of larger Russian cities discontented with the system gives some hope for positive changes, decentralisation and better social control of the election processes. The question remains if the Russian “discontented” and the “dangerous indifferent ones” from the Northern Caucasus will be interested in cooperating in a bloodless struggle for a humane face of the system?
Iwona Kaliszewska is the editor of the web site www.kaukaz.net, She is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Cultural Ethnology and Anthropology of the Warsaw University and a regular contributor to Nowa Europa Wschodnia. She recently co-authored the book Matrioszka w hidżabie. Reportaże z Dagestanu i Czeczenii.
Translated by Tomasz Bieroń