Early Warning of Violence in the North Caucasus

A Russian-American humanitarian worker who went through the war in Chechnya now expects big trouble this fall in other nearby regions of the Caucasus, and suggests ways of assisting victims

by André Kamenshikov

Less than two years after the end of the Russian-Chechen war, there is again a growing danger of wide military activity in the North Caucasus. Tensions between a number of ethnic and religious groups in the region have been growing over the past year. Unlike during the past two military conflicts that shocked the region, the situation today is more complex and it is difficult to predict future events. But the area where violence is most likely to break out is the ethnically diverse Republic of Dagestan.

Dagestan is home to over 30 ethnic groups, none of which constitutes a majority. On one hand, the ethnic diversity of Dagestan, the interconnection of cultures of the various peoples, living side by side for many centuries, produced certain norms of behavior that helped prevent major armed conflicts, even when tensions ran very high. On the other hand, it is precisely this diversity, combined with traditional cultural expectations and a troubled history, that create serious contradictions and tensions among some groups.

Economic and political power in Dagestan are linked to ethnicity. A person who reaches a powerful position is expected to confer benefits on his extended family, his clan, and his ethnic group. Certain sectors in the economy are perceived as being controlled by particular ethnic groups. Obviously in such an environment the struggle for power may easily transform into an inter-ethnic conflict, as various political leaders try to mobilize their support bases.

It is possible to identify the following areas of tension as most important :

In the Novolak (former Auhovski) district, relations between the Chechens and the Lak are troubled over the contested ownership of property on which the formerly de- ported peoples were re-settled.

Along the Dagestan-Chechen border there are ethnic tensions;

In an area divided by the Russian- Azerbaijan border, there are conflicts involving the Lezgin people.

In the area divided between Dagestan, Chechnya and the Stavropol region of Russia, there are problems involv- ing the Nogai people and the Terek Cossacks. The Cossacks demand that some land along the north bank of the Terek river which in 1956 had been attached to Chechnya be re- turned to Stavropol.

An extremist group of Muslims - the Vahhabi movement - is expand ing throughout the northern Caucasus, creating inter-religious tensions. Others see the Vahhabi group, not as a religious movement, but as a struggle for power.

Because of its extreme diversity, Dagestan is governed, not by a president, but by a State Council. The chairman of the Council is elected by the People's Assembly, consisting of 121 elected deputies and 121 district and city leaders. A representative of any one ethnic group may be elected Chairman of the State Council for no more than two consecutive terms. These regulations are now being debated, and it is possible that the People's Assembly will decide to alter the present political system, possibly creating a presidency. An election of a new People's Assembly must take place no later than June 26.

Post-Election Power Struggles?

Whether or not the current political system is altered, it is obvious that this summer there will be serious changes in the political power held by representatives of various ethnic groups. One may expect unpredictable but serious consequences to arise from the power struggle that takes place during the elections. However, there is a high probability that precisely because of this obvious danger, some groups may behave with restraint during the election process itself. Nevertheless, tensions may increase rapidly a few months after the elections, as the new elite tries to use their new powers for the economic benefit of the factions they represent, re-dividing the shrinking economic pie.

The unemployment rate is high and there is a growing feeling of hopelessness and desperation among the people. The region is flooded with arms. Almost every household has weaponry. Under these circumstances it may not take long for violence to be ignited in one of the districts. This may create a chain reaction elsewhere over other issues. Former resistance fighters from neighboring Chechnya, many of whom have not been re-integrated into the local economy, will certainly become involved.

A New War Worse Than Chechnya

If such a war emerges, in some ways it will be even worse than that in Chechnya. That was not a typical inter-ethnic conflict, but one between the political powers in Russia and the Chechen resistance, which had widespread support among the Chechen population.

If armed conflict begins in Dagestan, it will soon acquire the features of an inter-ethnic struggle, such as ethnic cleansing. This means that the number of refugees and the amount of time they will be forced to be away from home will be greater than in the case of Chechnya. And if Chechen refugees flee mainly to neighboring Ingushetia and Dagestan, refugees from Dagestan might begin to move to the predominantly Russian Stavropol and Volgograd regions.

Such an influx of refugees from a culturally different region will contribute to the growth of nationalism among the Russian population. It is already high, largely as a reaction to the crime and nationalism in the republics of the North Caucasus that have created a massive outflow of those whose first language is Russian. Demands will increase for organizing self-defence units and militarizing the Cossack movement. Local authorities in these regions, most of which represent the communist opposition to Yeltsin's government, will be tempted to support such demands of their constituencies and may begin to act in this direction, even without the formal approval of the Federal government. If this happens it will create a chain reaction in other nearby regions.

A new military conflict in the North Caucasus will blow away hopes for an economic stabilization in Russia and it will put in jeopardy the fragile democratic gains of the past decade. This danger must not be overlooked by the international community. Today the question is: What, if anything, may be done about this from outside?

First of all, it is obvious that any Western involvement must be strictly within the humanitarian dimension and will have only a limited effect. This makes it important to pinpoint the areas where international involvement and support will be most useful and where it has a chance to alter somewhat, in a positive direction, the chain of events. In the likely case that violence breaks out, it is important to prevent a chain reaction in the neighboring regions. This means paying special attention to such regions today, trying to ease tensions in them and to increase their capacity for handling disasters.

Developing new approaches toward humanitarian assistance

Foreigners, including the staff of international humanitarian organizations, have become the primary targets of criminal activity in the North Caucasus. Murders, robberies, and kidnappings of foreigners became so widespread that this put an end to international humanitarian activity in the region. Regardless of what new crisis develops, international organizations will not be able to resume their activities in their traditional forms, no matter how essential their help may be. One possible way to overcome this problem is to rely heavily on local organizations for implementation of humanitarian assistance programs. I shall suggest some practical suggestions about measures that may be implemented today in order to pursue these goals.

Planning should begin now for assisting large numbers of refugees, in case of a new military conflict in the North Caucasus. One of the tasks is to try to re-locate refugees to areas that are culturally similar to theirs. For example, it is important to be able to handle refugee flows from some of the districts of Dagestan to other places in Dagestan and to try to prevent another major refugee flow into the neighboring, predominantly Russian, regions. It is important to increase the capacity of both governmental institutions and NGOs in Dagestan for handling emergencies and disasters. We must establish links and develop co-operation with the leaders of ethnic communities of the republic.

Russian regions that border on the republics of the North Caucasus should be helped. This aid must be focused toward developing an inter-ethnic dialogue among various communities within these regions, and toward integration programs for refugees - including support for migrant income-generating projects and NGOs.

Let us create a network of NGOs and individuals who are already working in the region. Already there are a number of such groups, especially in areas that suffered from military conflict. They were created as a human response to the occurring tragedies, and they will be more effective if regular communication is established between them.

Andre Kamenshikov, Profsouznaya St.., h.98 cor.10 apt.55 Moscow, Russia, 117485 Tel/fax 095-336-5323 Tel. 095-206-8618 e-mail: <omegaandre@glasnet.ru>.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1998

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1998, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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