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The Kremlin’s Yugoslavia

Conflict Zones: North Caucasus and Western Balkans Compared. By: Janusz Bugajski. Publisher: Jamestown Foundation, 2014.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin pushes to establish dominion over Crimea, Russia’s control over the North Caucasus is growing ever frailer. Current Russian policies in the restive region, their historical precedents in Yugoslavia and the region’s potential futures are the subject of Conflict Zones: North Caucasus and Western Balkans Compared, a new monograph by Janusz Bugajski that has been published by the Jamestown Foundation. The author, a veteran foreign policy analyst and fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, analyses the current situation in the restive region by making a detailed comparison with the Balkans, noting that “this volatile region increasingly resembles the Western Balkans in the 1990s before and during the collapse of Yugoslavia.”  

April 7, 2014 - Luke Rodeheffer - Articles and Commentary

ConflictZones Jamestown Web

The book begins with a useful overview of the weak federal structure of the Russian state and its failure to establish a supranational rossiiskii civic identity, a dilemma that is increasingly apparent as Russian nationalism enters the political mainstream. Bugajski notes that the each of the autonomous republics of the North Caucasus possess the attributes of statehood, with their own national languages and parliaments, while often lacking substantial ethnic Russian populations. The constitutions of the republics give these territories a legal basis for secession from the Russian Federation.

Conflict Zones argues that the Kremlin’s desultory attempts at maintaining control over the region, especially Putin’s “power vertical,” which allows Moscow to directly appoint republican chiefs, have only sown the seeds for further instability. While establishing increased control over the local leaders themselves, these policies have dramatically increased venal behaviour and created a gulf between the leaders of the republics and their citizens. The budgets of the North Caucasus republics are very heavily subsidised by Moscow, yet little of the money actually ends up being spent where it should be, instead feeding rent-seeking clan structures. Increasing resentment felt by the rest of Russia concerning Moscow’s profligate spending in the region echoes the grievances of Slovenians and Croats, who felt they had to shoulder the financial burden of the other Yugoslav republics.

The appointment of a presidential plenipotentiary to oversee the region has also done little to increase regional stability, given that Alexander Kloponin, the plenipotentiary since the creation of the North Caucasus Federal District in 2010, has faced serious criticism in the press for failing to implement effective economic development projects for the impoverished region. These failing attempts, Bugajski notes, are very similar to those pursued by Belgrade in the late 1980s. Proposals by Moscow to amalgamate ethnically diverse regions in order to centralise control follow a pattern that proved deadly for Yugoslavia.

Beyond questions of the Kremlin’s failing regional policies, the book offers an insightful analysis of Islam and its role in the Caucasus’ myriad insurgencies. Despite the propensity to view the region’s conflicts through the lens of radical Islam, Conflict Zones demonstrates how these insurgencies are often as closely tied with local grievances as international jihadist networks. These Islamist insurgencies could easily spill over into neighbouring Georgia and Azerbaijan, presenting a serious threat to regional stability. Bugajski also devotes a chapter to the often-understudied ethno-territorial disputes that exist between the autonomous republics themselves, which could serve as additional catalysts of conflict following a collapse of Russian rule in the region. Most of the territories are not ethnically homogenous, as was the case in the former Yugoslavia, setting the stage for ethnic cleansing.

There is no easy way out of the unfolding regional crisis, as Conflict Zones demonstrates. The North Caucasus is one of the most militarised regions of the world, and authorities seem determined to pursue methods that only feed local resentment, from grievous human rights abuses to recent Duma legislation allowing the confiscation property from the families of suspected rebels. Other strategies by Moscow to maintain dominance are certain to soon fail. Exploiting ethnic rivalries only sets the stage for further conflict, and maintaining stability in Chechnya by propping up Ramzan Kadyrov has allowed the Chechen strongman to pursue an increasingly nationalist agenda while recklessly pursuing political assassinations abroad.

The attention brought by the Winter Olympics to the historical grievances of the Circassians, who are spread across several regions in the North Caucasus, has only strengthened their resolve vis-à-vis Moscow. The invasion of North Ossetia and Abkhazia during the 2008 war with Georgia may even prove to be a catalyst for regional independence movements: if Moscow recognises the independence of these disputed territories, why should it not allow the republics of the North Caucasus to seek self-determination?

The author notes that as NATO became involved in the Western Balkans in the early 1990s out of fear that the alliance would be discredited by the mass slaughter taking place, it simultaneously turned a blind eye to Moscow’s vicious campaign to crush Chechnya’s yearning for independence. Two decades later, the eyes of the world turned briefly to this forgotten corner of the world and its mutually destructive conflict with Moscow as a result of the 2014 Winter Olympics, and this insightful book demonstrates aptly that there is little reason to doubt that the international community will be able to avoid the North Caucasus for much longer.

Putin’s policies in the region are leading to the disintegration of Russian control over the North Caucasus, and the potential collapse of Moscow’s frail hegemony would not only create a major source of regional instability but threaten the territorial integrity of the world’s largest country. Although this monograph was written for US policymakers, Conflict Zones contains a wealth of useful information that deserves a wide audience among western observers and anyone concerned about the uncertain future of Russian control over the North Caucasus and the structure of the Russian Federation itself. The Balkans still cast long shadows over the former Soviet Bloc.

Luke Rodeheffer is a graduate student and analyst at Global Risk Insights. He has written for a variety of publications, including Business Insider, The Interpreter, and Open Democracy, and tweets @LukeRodeheffer.


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