Dec 27, 2006

Possible New Directions in the North Caucasus
EU Involvement in the Problem Region Offers Solutions As well As Raising Problems

Comment by Sergei Markedonov

The European Union remains an active political player in Russia’s North Caucasus. Despite what advocates of “sovereign democracy” and of Russia’s absolute independence in internal policy regarding the North Caucasus might say, it is this region that continues to attract attention from experts and politicians in the West, and primarily Europe. And it is in this region that Russia’s internal political stability largely depends. But not just its stability, at issue also is Russia’s viability as the state that is “United Europe’s” largest neighbor. Solving existing problems – both ethno-political and social – in Russia’s North Caucasus as a whole will help not only to entrench the sovereignty, but also predictability, of Russia. And whereas many in Europe – especially central and Eastern Europe – see a powerful Russia as dangerous, then a predictable Russia is seen as a benevolent factor for European security.

In the first half of 2007 Germany will assume the presidency of the European Union. As early as spring 2006, diplomats and experts from the EU’s largest nation cited issues like the Europeanization of Central Asia and the Caucasus as priorities for the German presidency. «German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her cabinet are trying to carry on the ostpolitik of Gerhard Schroder’s government, but there are several different aspects as well,» says Roland Goetz, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, which acts as a consultant to the German government. «The Caucasus and Central Asia are becoming one of the most important themes for Germany’s upcoming presidency of the European Union. The Caucasus is being called a ‘special region’ that has for a long time been out of Europeans’ focus of attention.» German politicians and experts, like their colleagues in other European states, suggest that Europeanization should not be limited just to “frozen conflicts” and independent states in the South Caucasus. Russia’s North Caucasus is also of significant political interest to the EU.

«As part of its partnership with Russia, the European Union is trying to create conflict-free zones,» Goetz says. «To a significant degree this refers to the Caucasus, which today is the least stable region and most dangerous region of Europe from our point of view. We don’t mean just Chechnya, but the whole of the North Caucasus. The European Union is trying to solve local problems – like lack of social protection, the drugs trade, terrorism and so on – jointly with Russia. There has not been much real progress, though, and perhaps this is one reason for a new eastern policy from Germany and the European Union.»

Nevertheless, Germany and Europe really want to make a contribution to peaceful conflict resolution in the Caucasus. In the first half of 2008, the EU presidency will pass to Slovenia, whose priority is close to those of the Germans – guaranteeing security in the Caspian region, a large portion of which is also in Russia’s North Caucasus (Daghestan is the largest of Russia’s North Caucasus regions). In August of this year Slovenia hosted a forum called “The Caspian Outlook,” at which politicians and experts brain-stormed on the topic of how the Caspian and Caucasus regions should ideally look.

Thus, European influence – and attempts to provide helpful advice – in the North Caucasus will not disappear as sovereign democracy is strengthened. Russia’s peacekeeping role in South Ossetia and Abkhazia will even undergo a North Caucasus revision. Here the Russian authorities face a serious task to make the most of such cooperation. A positive European opinion of Russia’s internal situation in the North Caucasus is vitally important to Russia, given its special interests in the Caucasus. Such an opinion will help Russia to further promote its’ interests in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In this situation Russia will be seen not as an outcast, but as a reliable partner that proposes efficient models within the country, and further prepared to offer them to its neighbors in the Caucasus. On the other hand, excessively following European advice and plans (many of which are far from adequate) will lead not to the desired democracy but to connivance at nationalist and extremist groups. From another standpoint, for purely pragmatic considerations it is impossible not to take into account a lot of advice from European bodies. For realpolitik the main thesis is not the target of a proposition or advice, but the content.

Yet to what extent is European philosophy in Caucasian politics appropriate, and which concrete proposals and recommendations from European bodies like the Council of Europe and PACE could we reasonably apply, and which to ignore? Before trying to answer these questions, we should accept the following as given. However extravagant or simply inappropriate European ideas regarding the North Caucasus might seem to us, it is obvious that Russia’s authorities should work with the Europeans, enlighten them and inform them about the real state of affairs. Holding on and keeping others out will work against Russia and her interests; it is another question whether we should accept or reject European ideas.

The last visit by a PACE delegation to Chechnya suggests that European ideas about Russia’s North Caucasus – and Chechnya in particular – are undergoing substantial changes. Today no-one talks in romantic terms about “Chechen resistance fighters,” and no-one contests Russian sovereignty in Chechnya. Andreas Gross, who heads the PACE committee on Chechnya, said that «positive changes have happened in the republic; we can see progress, and the security situation is getting better.» Gross also said that the peace process in the region should not be limited just to economic rebuilding, but that it would also be positive if «critics of the authorities in Moscow, Berlin or Grozny took part in that round table.» According to Kommersant, Gross was referring to Akhmed Zakayev, who was foreign minister under former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and now lives in London. Yet this idea found no support among the current Chechen authorities, or from Zakayev himself. The reasons for this were obvious. Nevertheless, the idea of a round table including all political movements in Chechnya is very popular among Europeans. They are unlikely to drop it, even given Zakayev’s complicated relations with Russian law.

But could Russia accept such an approach? For Russia – regardless of who is head of state – accepting such an approach would mean only one thing: Acknowledging its own political, constitutional and administrative non-viability, which would put it in the same rank as Georgia. Why should Russia today hold talks with separatists? What should these talks be about? After Beslan, and especially after the death of Aslan Maskhadov, the Ichkerian movement has undergone a serious crisis, and has splintered without in fact suggesting separation from Russia. Even while Maskhadov was still alive, the idea of talks with him was a European utopia, since the reality of Chechnya was such that no separatist political leader was recognized among the others. After Beslan this was acknowledged by many American experts. Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution, while comparing Maskhadov to Yasser Arafat, also recognized that the Chechen president did not represent the interests of Chechnya. Today, the European view of the North Caucasus is an amalgam of outdated ideas from the mid-1990s (i.e., the time of violent military clashes between the federal center and the separatists). In this context the very idea of a round table seems ill thought out. Today the problem of a separatist opposition is unimportant, to put it mildly. All the most active separatists have already been absorbed into the regional government, and only a hard core now continues to resist. Their political role is not that great. Incorporating them into a legislative body would in fact legitimize the terrorist activity of these groups. The last visit by a PACE delegation showed once again that Europeans are simply too lazy to reconsider the methodology of the Chechen issue. As in the 1990s, they want talks with the militants, but they do not see that no conflict exists between Chechnya (as an unrecognized republic) and Russia.

Yet the North Caucasus today is producing challenges of a different sort, including Kadyrovite systemic separatism, the formation of an Islamic terrorist international, and an ineffective regional administrative system. These problems are primarily problems of Russian personnel policy, as well as problems of the formation of Russian identity as a whole. In other words, they are exclusively internal problems by nature that no-one can solve for Russia. And nor should they solve them.

It is another matter that some European assessments could be extremely useful for the Russian authorities. Not in terms of following them assiduously, but in terms of pragmatic assessing their own policy. For example, the meeting between PACE delegates and Chechen President Alu Alkhanov took place in a warmer and friendlier atmosphere than their meeting with regional Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov. One participant told the Yuzhny Reporter newspaper that «this is because Kadyrov and his people have a very equivocal reputation in Europe.» This reputation is not just the result of the Chechen premier’s authoritarian style of leadership. The equivocation is the result of Kadyrov’s unusual – to put it mildly – actions, statements and pretensions. And these actions in turn create the impression that Kadyrov is running his own policy independently of the Russian authorities, that he is indeed a leader who ignores the authorities, not only at a federal level but also in neighboring North Caucasian regions. Thus, this “equivocal reputation” backs up the thesis that Russia’s position in the North Caucasus is not as strong as Moscow would like. Thus, by taking into account observations such as this, the Russian authorities can pragmatically assess how far such independent activity is in tune with the country’s sovereign interests.

Sergei Markedonov is head of the International Relations Department of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow. He contributed this comment to Russia Profile.

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