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In this section, we publish the weekly analysis of the major events taking place in the Caucasus and beyond. The Caucasus Update is written by our Senior Editor Alexander Jackson. Click here to subscribe.

Unrest in the North Caucasus, CU Issue 4, September 29, 2008

The South Caucasus this week saw ongoing controversy in Georgia over the precise course of events in the August war, the latest round in the geopolitical waltz in the wake of the conflict, and a slightly exaggerated statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which declared that President Saakashvili of Georgia was a threat to global peace.

The North Caucasus, meanwhile, was rocked by the death, on September 24th of Ruslan Yamadaev; rival of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, resistance fighter turned Russian ally, elder brother to a recently-dismissed commander of Russian intelligence’s paramilitary Vostok battalion, and a recipient – from then-President Vladimir Putin – of the Hero of Russia award. Numerous theories about the motives and identity of the killer already abound, mostly suggesting that the mastermind behind the killing was either President Kadyrov himself, or unnamed parties attempting to destabilize the republic by casting suspicion on the president and initiating a blood feud between Kadyrov and the Yamadaev clan.

Chechnya has become one of the more stable provinces in the North Caucasus following years of violence and near-anarchy. Huge amounts of federal money, a massive security clampdown and the concentration of power in the hands of the federally-appointed President Kadyrov have driven the separatist movement into the mountains and, more importantly, the other North Caucasus republics. As violence has decreased in Chechnya, so it has risen in Dagestan and Ingushetia. However, as the murder of Ruslan Yamadaev illustrates, Chechnya is still the scene of internecine power struggles and murky politics. The Yamadaev brother’s Vostok battalion was controlled by the GRU intelligence service, and was one of the only security forces in the republic not answerable to Kadyrov. The Chechen President’s determination to crush the organization was manifested in April, when his militia engaged in a gun battle with Vostok; the unit’s commander, Ruslan’s younger brother Sulim Yamadaev, was subsequently dismissed and declared a fugitive.

The death of Ruslan Yamadaev could herald a new round of violence in Chechnya; Sulim Yamadaev has sworn revenge against Kadyrov, whom he holds responsible, and he may use disaffected Vostok members and other anti-Kadyrov forces to intensify pressure against the President. Although it is unlikely that the situation could deteriorate to the point where it resembles the Chechnya of the 1990s, the possibility of more factional fighting is another depressing portent.

Across the border in Ingushetia, the security situation has gradually deteriorated to the point where it is probably appropriate to view Ingushetia, rather than Chechnya, as the centre of the North Caucasian insurgency. In September alone, the president’s compound has been attacked, his cousin assassinated, and dozens of police and security forces killed or wounded. Members of the human-rights watchdog the Moscow Helsinki Group, according to the BBC, told reporters on September 23 that human rights abuses by federal forces in the republic could ignite a full-scale civil war. Dagestan, to the east of Chechnya, has also been scarred by lawlessness, banditry and a low-level Islamist insurgency which, in late August, spilled over the border into northern Azerbaijan.

In the aftermath of the Georgian conflict, parallels have been drawn between Russia’s recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence and its refusal to contemplate anything similar for its own North Caucasus republics, and it has been suggested that this double standard will increase separatist sentiment in the region. This tendency should not be overstated; the spiraling violence in Ingushetia, and to a lesser extent Dagestan, was already significant before the August war. But it cannot help Russia’s case in the long run to have so flagrantly disregarded the notion of territorial integrity on the doorstep of its independence-minded republics. The precedent of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be a powerful argument in the toolbox of separatist movements in the future.

Some separatist forces among the Lezgin population of northern Azerbaijan, for instance, have on occasion expressed their desire to form a single political entity incorporating the Lezgin population of southern Dagestan just over the border. The recent appearance of North Caucasian resistance cells around the Dagestan-Azerbaijan border suggests a potential synthesis between nationalism and Islam, as in Chechnya. If this is the case, then it is another sign that the concept of fixed frontiers between states and regions is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the North Caucasus - and Russia’s actions in Georgia will not help. If a Lezgin separatist movement mobilises, Moscow’s attempts to quash it may seem deeply hypocritical. In this regard, Azerbaijan cannot help but be concerned about Russia’s policy towards the Lezgins of Dagestan.

The issue of South Ossetian integration with Russia is also problematic. South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity said in early September that the province would join Russia, but later backed down from the claim, probably down to pressure from Moscow. Nonetheless, the process of integration is clear; Russia is establishing military bases within the provinces, and on September 26th Prime Minister Putin announced that Russia would ‘liquidate the border’ with South Ossetia. The process of gradual integration is also inevitable; the province has been economically reliant on Russia for years, and will increasingly become so now that the option of economic cooperation with Georgia is off the table.

South Ossetia’s potential incorporation into the Russian Federation will probably not be welcomed in Ingushetia, where tensions with North Ossetia over the disputed Prigorodny district flared up into a brief war in the early 1990s and still simmer today. A sense of historical grievance amongst the Ingush will not be helped by the doubling in size of the territory of their ethnic rivals, especially if refugees or migrants from South Ossetia decide to move into the disputed region.

The South Ossetian war is clearly not responsible for Ruslan Yamadaev’s murder, or most of the other problems afflicting the North Caucasus. Factional fighting in Chechnya and the insurgency in Ingushetia long predate August. But by expressing a willingness to alter borders and recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow has opened a Pandoras box. It has emboldened separatists, undermined its own talk of territorial integrity and created the conditions for even more instability, something the region could certainly do without.

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