Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Window on Eurasia: Nationalism, Not Radical Islam Now Main Threat in North Caucasus, Moscow Commentator Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 3 – In the 1990s, most specialists on the North Caucasus argued that ethno-nationalism was the greatest challenge to public order and Moscow’s control in that region, but more recently and reflecting both foreign and domestic policy priorities, Russian analysts and officials have suggested that radical Islam has displaced ethnicity.

But this week, Anton Korablyov, a Moscow commentator, argues that “the greatest threat may come not from ‘Wahhabism’ but from nationalistic ideologies,” a shift in perception that regardless of its adequacy – clearly both nationalism and Islam play a role in the region – could prompt a change in Russian policy there (

Indeed, he argues, it is time to speak about “a renaissance of national social movements there, which are working in the political sphere” and using the ideas of pan-Turkism rather than Islam to form the kind of alliances among the smaller nationalities of the region that all analysts have suggested the peoples there must build if they are to have success.

And while Korablyov does not focus on this aspect of the rise of pan-Turkist ideas in parts of the North Caucasus, it is clear from what he does say that one of the reasons this ideology is so powerfully attractive to some groups is that it plays the same kind of bridging role that Islam often does elsewhere in the region.

Korablyov points out that “not one of the serious investigators of the religious situation in the North Caucasus speaks about popular support of the ideas of radical Islam being higher than two to three percent of the population.” But that means, of course, that “Wahhabism as such … is insufficient for the massive destabilization of the situation” now on view.

In a few republics – Daghestan and Ingushetia are the clearest cases – it has been possible to fill the gap between small number of supporters of Islamist ideologies and the total number of people needed for effective opposition by pointing to the illegal actions of the local interior ministries especially where those bodies work as “a state within a state.”

But in the western regions of the North Caucasus, Korablyov says, “the ‘militia’ problem’” is either smaller or “hardly sufficient so sow” serious discord in society. “On the other hand,” he continues, “another factor useful for anti-Russian forces has shown itself again – and that is the nationality one.”

There are three regions of the North Caucasus where pan-Turkic ideas are already playing a role in this regard and can be expected to play a larger one both absolutely and relative to Islamism and “militia” nationalism. These are Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Daghestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria.

In Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Daghestan, the role of pan-Turkism has been limited to local conflicts, but in Kabardino-Balkaria, Korablyov says, the situation is far more serious because in that republic “there have been attempts to construct national organizations which would be in a position to put constant pressure on everything taking place” there.

After a presidential vote in 1999 which almost led to a civil war, Karachayevo-Cherkessia was relatively quiet for most of the last decade, at least in terms of inter-ethnic conflicts. But now the selection of a new representative to the Federation Council threatens to trigger a 1999-style fight.

Five times, the local parliament has failed to confirm the man nominated to be the republic’s senator, in each case largely because representatives of the Karachays, a Turkic group, refused to vote for him and thus denied the parliament a quorum, even though, Korablyov says, there is little difference in the conditions and treatment of the two titular nationalities.

Meanwhile, in the Khasavyurt district of Daghestan, members of the Turkic Kumyk nationality have been engaged in a power struggle between the district head who is a Kumyk and the mayor of the major city who is an Avar. In the course of this fight, there have been two murders in the last year alone.

But in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, the Turkic issue is at least potentially far more serious. The Balkars of Kabardino-Balkaria (11.6 percent of that republic’s population) and the Karachays of Karachayevo-Cherkessia are “in fact one people.” In the 1990s, these two peoples, both deported by Stalin, sought separate autonomy but didn’t obtain it.

The Balkars continued to press their case, but they became significantly more active over the last two years in response to Cherkess moves to deprive them of land they considered their own through the redrawing of municipal boundaries. Some on both sides are seeking a compromise, but the role of the irreconcilables appears to be growing.

The interest of Turkish and Azerbaijani media in these developments has encouraged the Turkic groups, and that encouragement means, Korablyov insists, that “despite the widespread option, the greatest threat [to the North Caucasus] may arise not from the widely-advertised ‘Wahhabism’ but from nationalistic ideologies” like Turkishness.

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