Most conflicts in the North Caucasus, Uspanov says, have their roots in the lines Moscow drew dividing up the region into republics. “We all know that there is Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria, and everyone knows very well that the Kabardins and the Cherkess are one people” just as are the Balkars and Karachays. But they both are split in two republics.
“The only unification which possibly was done correctly in Soviet years,” the expert continues, “was the formation of Checheno-Ingushetia because the Vaynakhs are absolutely fraternal peoples.”
“If we consider Karachayevo-Cherkessia, then in this republic the Karachays are much more numerous than the Cherkess; if we look at Kabardiino-Balkaria, then there is the opposite situation – the Kabardins are many times more numerous than the Balkars. Naturally this can and periodically has led to various conflicts on an ethnic basis.”
At the end of the 1990s, Uspanov notes, Karachayevo-Cherkessia was “on the brink of civil war as a result of its national composition. In Kabardino-Balkaria too periodically there break out various incidents on an ethnic basis: One can recall the conflicts” about the Kanzhal battle in 2008 and this past month.
Underlying these problems is the shortage of land, a shortage that has intensified in recent years because of population growth. Any shift in borders has the potential to exacerbate that or at least raise the specter in the eyes of some that they are about to become the losers in the exchange.
Republic officials need to respond rapidly to any outbreak of violence over land lest it become the start of something larger. They need to stress that things aren’t perfect but that everyone must learn to live together. But instead of that wise policy, Uspanov says, all too often republic leaders avoid getting involved early and the crisis grows.
Moreover, he continues, it sometimes happens that the authorities make the situation even worse either by bringing in outsider siloviki units or even sending in provocateurs who are intended to cause problems that the powers that be can then suppress – or at least they hope they will be able to.
The recent problems in Kabardino-Balkaria show that the authorities “absolutely do not understand what they are doing in the local areas.” And journalists can’t help them much because for them, that republic has become “a closed territory.” No one knows what is occurring until there is a real explosion.
“There will always be dissatisfied people – we see this also in Ingushetia and Chechnya –” Uspanov argues. “There will always be those who criticize any actions of the authorities but take the position, ‘let them do what they want and then we’ll crack down.’” Such calculations, he adds, are “the most stupid decision in all these cases.”
Given all that is going on and the coverage the region has been getting even in Moscow in the last few months, Uspanov says, ever more people are beginning to ask whether this chain of events is accidental or whether it is time to connect the dots and draw certain conclusions. No one can know the future; but one thing is clear: Some talk now is dangerous.
And perhaps the most dangerous idea of all is a radical amalgamation of republics and regions because it would bring all the land and ethnic issues to a head in a potentially violent way quite possibly beyond the capacity of anyone to cope with it without even more violence in response. That should be something that no one wants.
Window on Eurasia — New Series