BACKGROUND: On May 12, President Putin dismissed his envoy to the North Caucasus, Russia’s vice Prime Minister Alexander Khloponin. His replacement, Sergei Melikov, came from Russia’s military circles. Until his most recent appointment, Lieutenant General Melikov was the commander of the joint military force that combats insurgency in the North Caucasus. The administrative changes did not stop there. On the same day, Putin set up the Ministry for North Caucasian Affairs and Development. The governor the of Krasnoyarsk region in Siberia, Lev Kuznetsov became the head of the newly established ministry.
Alexander Khloponin was appointed to represent the President of Russia in the North Caucasian Federal District at the time of its establishment in 2010. Khloponin was known as a successful businessman and an influential governor of the Krasnoyarsk region prior to his appointment in the North Caucasus. Constructing world-class ski resorts in the North Caucasus that would resolve the region’s unemployment and eliminate the social base for the insurgency became the hallmark of Khloponin’s term. However, the government’s promises to invest billions of dollars and attract vast funding from private investors to transform the North Caucasus did not materialize. As the investment climate in Russia progressively worsened in the past several years and practically collapsed after Russia’s latest incursion into Ukraine, the central government’s ability to sustain lavish subsidies to the North Caucasus is apparently coming to an end.
Khloponin was commonly seen as a representative of Moscow’s soft-liners in the North Caucasus. However, he had very limited influence over the counterinsurgency operations in the region. Yet, Khloponin was certainly able to influence Moscow’s policies in the region via his associates in the Kremlin. For example, whether coincidentally or not, the process of dialogue between Dagestan’s Salafi and Sufi communities started at the time when Khloponin was Moscow’s envoy. It appears that the Russian government could not agree on how much discretionary power Khloponin should be granted, hence in some North Caucasian republics such as Kabardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia, Khloponin could easily reprimand regional officials. In Chechnya and Dagestan, however, Khloponin held much less sway over regional authorities and rarely said anything critical about them.
Reputedly a soft-liner, Khloponin may have been appointed specifically to offset the risks and challenges surrounding the Sochi Olympics. He embodied Moscow’s promises of grandiose developmental plans in the North Caucasus that supposedly should have impressed both republican elites and the general population. As soon as the Olympics were over, however, the changes were probably inevitable. An increasingly hardline approach is looming ahead for the region as Moscow does not need to buy local elites or the wider population, nor is it projected to have enough funds to do so in the near future.
IMPLICATIONS: Putin has essentially divided the functions of his envoy into two parts. Military control has been assigned to the newly appointed head of the North Caucasian Federal District, Sergei Melikov. Economic control has been handed over to the Ministry for North Caucasian Affairs and Development. The new system resembles the old imperial Russian rule in the Caucasus when the Russian Emperor appointed a General Governor to rule the region. Even the special ministry for North Caucasian affairs has by some observers, including the well-known North Caucasus expert Ivan Sukhov, been termed “the Ministry for Colonial Affairs.” According to Sukhov’s commentary in the Russian journal Profil, the “reconfiguration of [North] Caucasian governance looks like a demonstration of resoluteness in anticipation of bad times.” In other words, Moscow is preparing for a war in the region, rather than its peaceful development and integration.
In the beginning of May, President Putin abolished all Federal District level departments of the Russian Interior Ministry, leaving only the Interior Ministry’s North Caucasian Directorate intact. The Ministry for the North Caucasian Affairs and Development became the third such ministry in Russia, the other two being the Ministry for Development of Crimea and the Ministry for Development of the Russian Far East region. The recent acquisition of Crimea has further complicated the already complex administrative structure of the Russian Federation, prompting the revival of imperial or quasi-imperial mechanisms such as de-facto General Governors and regional agencies.
Even though Moscow’s frequent reforms in the North Caucasus reflect a level of crisis in the Russian government’s view of the region, there is also a certain rationale in its moves. The Kremlin apparently intends to establish a more direct rule in the North Caucasus, further reducing the autonomy of the republics. Instead of an outright abolishment of the republics, Moscow chose to construct another level of regional governance – the North Caucasian Federal District – that would gradually supplant and replace the republican authorities. According to Russian experts, Sergei Melikov will have the power to appoint chiefs of federal agencies in the North Caucasus. The administrative takeover is carried out under a powerful government-sponsored campaign about corrupt local elites that should be replaced with honest people sent directly from Moscow.
Russia’s plans for a hostile takeover of the North Caucasus is naturally meeting stiff, though muted resistance in the region. Melikov will find it hard to subdue Chechnya’s strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, and is certain to encounter some opposition in Dagestan and elsewhere. Despite a long-standing policy of directly appointing governors in the North Caucasus after the abolition of governor elections, Russia is dissatisfied with the type of leaders in the region. Regional governors tend to either become overly self-reliant and nearly autonomous from Moscow, like Kadyrov in Chechnya, or they are fully under Moscow’s control but cannot exercise much control in their republics, like the President of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Boris Ebzeev, who resigned from his position before the end of his first term in 2011 for precisely this reason.
CONCLUSIONS: The frequent changes of governing rules in the North Caucasus indicate that Moscow is grappling to find a solution for the unstable region. Its emphasis on control, rather than inclusion and public participation, renders Moscow’s tasks in the region rather futile and tied to the extensive use of force. The latest administrative reshuffles show that Russia’s policies in the North Caucasus increasingly resemble those implemented by the Russian Empire in the 19th century. Devising special rules for ethnically non-Russian regions will likely worsen tensions in the North Caucasus, rather than mitigate the problem of violence. While Moscow may consider the risk of violence to be an acceptable price for controlling the North Caucasus and retaining Russia’s territorial integrity, discriminatory policies reinvigorate the grievances that will make the North Caucasus less friendly to the central government.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Jamestown Foundation and Doctoral Student in Political Science at Arizona State University.