The Northern Caucasus in Downward Spiral

The Northern Caucasus remains in trouble and Russia is not quite sure what to do about it. The region, notoriously ruled by clans, has seen a steady rise in violence, with Dagestan (gearing up for a change in leadership) and Ingushetia increasingly stealing the spotlight from the better-known bloody insurgency in Chechnya.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has suggested a government post in charge of the region, however that looks more like a propaganda move than one that will actually garner results. Though Medvedev’s solution seems to be superficial, the motivation for it is real. The leader has acknowledged that an unstable Northern Caucasus means an unstable Russia.

Georgia’s former Foreign Minister Salomé Zourabichvili agrees. In her talk on Monday at Columbia University, she attributed the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 to Russia’s scrambling for security in the region. Zourabichvili says Russia needs territories in the Southern Caucasus to contain the North’s instability. She also says this point of weakness has not gone unnoticed by Georgian leadership.

A greatly weakened Georgian government led by President Mikheil Saakashvili has plans to launch a Russian-language television station whose audience will be neighboring countries in the Northern Caucasus — an attempt to further unravel Russia’s hold on the region.
Zourabichvili is skeptical that diminutive Georgia can pull off such an aggressive attack on Russia. According to her, Russia is already dealing with a massive problem in the Northern Caucasus, and the Saakashvili administration’s attempts to exacerbate it will hardly make a dent in a decades-long issue.

Zourabichvili attributes a great part of the Caucasus problem to Russia’s ambiguous relationship with the region. Since the dismantling of the Soviet Union, Russia’s attitudes toward the area have wavered. Moscow’s interest has primarily been expressed by usurping the region’s mineral and energy resources and quelling violence with force. Experts think a real effort to stabilize the region must begin by investing in state-building institutions that embrace its clan mentality, instead of pitting competing groups against one another in a way that will only propagate violence.

A more cohesive, stable Georgia could have a productive role in helping to secure the region, Zourbichvili said, but for now, leaders in Tbilisi are more interested in undermining Russia’s influence than in contributing to a long-term solution.

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