BACKGROUND: Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine’s region of Crimea, which preceded the March 16 referendum and led to the annexation of Crimea and its “re-unification” with the Russian Federation, has not only re-ignited concerns over the de-facto separatist regions across the post-Soviet territory, but also given rise to debates in Russia about the possible repercussions of Russia’s policies in Ukraine for separatist aspirations within the Russian Federation. The danger of pro-independence referendums, similar to the Crimean one or the latest May 11 referendums held in the separatist Eastern regions of Ukraine, has been voiced both by the Russian political opposition and by regional experts.
In fact, the assertion that Western politicians exercise “double standards” with regard to Russia’s actions in Ukraine – increasingly popular in the Russian media and blogosphere – appear to be particularly relevant in connection to Russia’s own policies in its non-ethnic Russian regions. For instance, the new legislation approved in 2013 that introduces direct elections of Russia’s governors, has not yet been implemented in the North Caucasus – where the Kremlin-appointed leadership of autonomous republics insisted on preserving the previous system of direct appointments. Yet, even the Kremlin’s own appointees express their discontent with overly centralized policies in the region. Thus, in February 2014, the head of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov, unsuccessfully demanded from the federal government to allow his republic to administer its own natural resources. In addition, continuous denials of the Circassian genocide and the heavy-handed approach towards the ongoing insurgency in the North Caucasus demonstrate the Kremlin’s unwillingness to allocate more autonomy to its regions populated by ethnic non-Slavs.
IMPLICATIONS: Russia’s support for, if not outright involvement, in a series of referendums in the Russian-speaking regions of Eastern Ukraine, as well as in Crimea, has now set a dangerous precedent not only for other former Soviet republics, vulnerable to regional or ethnic separatism, but also for Russia itself. First to exploit the idea of regional referendums in Russia was the controversial Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Famous for his “Stop feeding the Caucasus” campaign, Navalny conducted an online poll on his blog in March, designed to gauge the popular support for the independence of the North Caucasus. 74 percent of the poll’s participants expressed their support for holding a referendum to decide on Chechnya’s independence from Russia and 67 percent of the respondents appeared to be in favor of having a similar referendum on the independence of the entire North Caucasus region.
These figures are hardly surprising. During the past several years, the popular attitude among ethnic Russians towards the North Caucasus has continued to swing in favor of separation of the region from Russia. Not only popular in Russian nationalist circles, who have conducted numerous polls to support their claims, the idea of allowing the North Caucasus to exit from the Russian Federation was notable in the all-Russian polls administered by the independent research institute Levada Center in June 2013. The results of the poll revealed that only ten percent of respondents across Russia supported the idea of keeping Chechnya as a subject of Russian Federation.
The parallels between the Ukrainian referendums and similar developments in the North Caucasus is, however, rigorously denied by the Kremlin. On May 7, the head of a pro-Kremlin civil society foundation, Konstantin Kostin, urged the public not to compare the situation in Ukraine, where Russia supports “people who currently struggle for their civil and political rights” and the North Caucasus, where Russia “is fighting terrorists.” The Kremlin-appointed leaders of the North Caucasus similarly avoid comparing the separatist sentiments in their republics with events in Ukraine. Instead, government-organized rallies in support of Crimeans and other expressions of solidarity with pro-Russian activists in Ukraine have taken place in most major cities of the region. Yet, the popular attitude in the North Caucasus toward Russia’s actions in Ukraine appears to differ from the images of solidarity promoted by Moscow. For instance, in April, a well-known Ingush human rights activist and opposition leader, Ibrahim Lyanov, suggested holding a referendum on Ingushetia’s secession from Russia and on the return to Ingushetia of lands given to other republics during the Soviet period. This last claim appears to be of much greater danger to the Russian authorities than the potential secession of the entire North Caucasus.
While it is unlikely that the Russian support for ethnic separatism in Ukraine will encourage popular anti-Moscow sentiments across the North Caucasus, or other regions of the Russian Federation populated by non-Russians, it could nevertheless lead to an increase of internal border disputes between different autonomous republics. Indeed, the first echo of the Ukrainian separatist referendums in Russia occurred in May in the autonomous Republic of Bashkortostan bordering the North Caucasus, where a minority Tartar population demands holding a referendum on the annexation of Tartar-populated areas in the republic to the neighboring autonomous Republic of Tatarstan.
According to Varvara Pakhomenko, a researcher with the International Crisis Group, the Kremlin’s policies of re-drawing borders in Ukraine have created a “danger of opening the Pandora’s Box, first of all, in the North Caucasus.” In the immediate aftermath of Crimea’s annexation, Ingushetia’s president Yunus-bek Yevkurov had to face questions from the public about the return of historical Ingush lands in North Ossetia and Chechnya. In fact, the disputed border area between Ingushetia and Chechnya has long been a source of tensions between the two autonomous republics, leading in 2013 to a bitter exchange of arguments between Yevkurov and the head of the Chechen republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. Similar border disputes exist not only between republics, for example between Chechnya and Dagestan over the Aukhovsky district – but also within republics. Nogay and Kumyk aspirations for separation from Dagestan and Balkar separatist demands in Kabardino-Balkaria are among a number of ethnic problems in the region which could potentially be reinvigorated by Russia’s willingness to back ethnic Russian separatism in Ukraine.
However, since the break-up of the USSR, Moscow’s policy with regard to border disputes, ethnic secession and autonomy claims in the North Caucasus has strongly supported existing republican or regional borders. The bitter experience of Chechen separatism during the 1990s, which has resulted in two devastating wars and the spread of an Islamist insurgency across the entire region, has until the Crimean precedent determined Kremlin’s stance against regional separatism within Russia’s borders. A further stir in the North Caucasus was caused by the decree “‘on rehabilitation of the rights of deported peoples of Crimea,” adopted in April by President Putin. The decree, evidently drafted to comfort Crimea’s Tartar minority, stands in stark contrast to Russia’s unwillingness to accept the mass deportation of Circassians in the nineteenth century and the deportations of Balkars, Ingush and other ethnic groups of the North Caucasus during the Stalin era.
CONCLUSIONS: While Moscow’s support for ethnic separatism in Ukraine and its explicit moves to re-draw the national borders of its neighboring states have given rise to hopes for secession in de-facto independent enclaves of the former Soviet Union, it has also provided a glimpse of hope for Russia’s own separatists. Russia’s policies in Ukraine offer a precedent for holding referendums and re-drawing national or republican borders to numerous non-Russian ethnic groups within the Russian Federation. Apart from the volatile North Caucasus region, still engulfed in the aftershocks of the two Chechen wars, regions with non-Russian majorities like Tatarstan and the autonomous republics of the Far East may find secession referendums to be plausible scenarios. However, in contrast to Moscow’s encouragement of referendums in the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, it is highly unlikely that the Kremlin would support similar referendums in its own non-ethnic Russian regions.
AUTHORS’ BIO: Huseyn Aliyev is a Ph.D Candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. His articles have appeared in the Journal of Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, Demokratizatsiya and Ethnopolitics Papers.
(Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons/Andrew Butko)