The Silence and the Voice of the North Caucasus

Photo by varlamov.ru CC-BY-SA 4.0

BY ARBAKHAN MAGOMEDOV

It is common to think that Moscow has long suppressed all social activism in the North Caucasus. Dagestan, the region’s largest republic, was virtually under siege for the larger part of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Almost up to 2014, the year of the annexation of Crimea, Dagestan was subjected to repeated special police operations. The moniker KTO, which sounds like the Russian word for “who” but which actually stands for “counterterrorist operation,” has become an eerie word, associated in people’s minds with arbitrary killings and destruction.

These policies culminated in a major special-forces operation in the mountain village of Gimry, about fifty miles from the Dagestan capital of Makhachkala, that lasted a full six years, from the late 2007 to the end of 2013. Gimry is a famous name in the region. Everyone knows it as the birthplace of two popular leaders of the nineteenth-century Caucasus, Gazi-Magomed and Shamil.

Shamil was the force behind a quasi-state that existed within the territories of present-day Chechnya and mountain Dagestan and for thirty years resisted Russian attempts to conquer the Caucasus. To many in the region, Shamil’s name is thus synonymous with ideas of national freedom and independence. This is why the counterterrorism operations around the village were seen as acts of deliberate intimidation and the methodical destruction of the symbol of Caucasian resistance.

Local residents reported cases of looting and other offenses by members of the special police force deployed around the village. The residents complained about kidnappings that were not investigated and went unpunished, but to no avail. Some spontaneous protests did take place, but few people took part in them, and none was seen as civic or political. Mostly relatives of the victims were interested.

Meanwhile, with the approach of the 2014 Winter Olympics, pressure in the region intensified. The spring of 2013 saw the last and most brutal stage of the counterterrorist operation in the village of Gimry. Silence and despair now settled over the region.

Elena Milashina, a well-known, valiant journalist with Novaya Gazeta, who last year uncovered the persecution of the LGBT community in Chechnya, wrote recently that “the years-long inhumane experiment has turned the Chechens into a nation of fear.”

I would disagree. In August 2018, Chechnya mourned the death of Yusup Temirkhanov, a Chechen man who in 2011 shot and killed Colonel Yuri Budanov. During the Second Chechen War Budanov abducted, raped, and murdered an eighteen-year old Chechen girl, Elza Kungaeva. The court found Budanov guilty of kidnapping and murder, stripped him of his military rank, and sentenced him to ten years of imprisonment, of which the former colonel served eight and a half years. Budanov was later killed in Moscow.

Temirkhanov was convicted of murdering Budanov, and died in prison. His funeral stirred the entire North Caucasus. Tens of thousands of people, not just from Chechnya, turned up to pay their respects. Even a number of Chechen officials joined the crowd. Messages calling Temirkhanov a “Shaheed who gave his life for the Chechen people” went viral on Chechen social media. Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov also attended the memorial service and tried to strike a balance between supporting the prevalent national sentiment and professing his loyalty to the Kremlin. That is probably why he officially maintained that a miscarriage of justice had occurred in Temirkhanov’s case, a cover that allowed Kadurov to attend the funeral of someone who was wrongly accused of murder, not of someone who had murdered a former Russian officer.

The next mass demonstrations took place in the small Republic of Ingushetia to the west of Chechnya in October 2018. The Ingush population took to the streets in protest after a land swap with Chechnya that was supposed to help demarcate an administrative border between the two regions. Some 5,000 to 10,000 Ingush participated in unauthorized rallies every day, as most of the population saw the border demarcation as a backdoor deal between the leaders of Ingushetia and Chechnya. Magomed Mutsolgov, an Ingush civic activist, called the events a “revolution of dignity,” recalling the language Ukrainians use to refer to the Maidan uprising in Kyiv in 2013–2014. The protests in Ingushetia continued into 2019, and clashes with the police took place as recently as late March.

But the question remains. Why was the North Caucasus silent when, for many years, the village of Gimry, the historic symbol of Caucasian resistance, was being destroyed? Why was Caucasian society quiet when the authorities drove local youths into the woods and caves while doing what most residents saw as manufacturing a “terrorist underground” narrative? It is common in the Caucasus to think that the federal authorities were purposefully presenting the Islamic-political movements that were spreading in the region as inherently “terrorist.”

Why was the Caucasus silent when the federal authorities stripped the city of Derbent, an ancient fortress on the Caspian Sea, located in Dagestan, of its status as Russia’s oldest city? Moscow needed that label for Chersones, an archaeological site in Crimea, which is now described as Russia’s oldest habitable urban area.

Russia’s oppressive policies in the North Caucasus are not the only answer to these questions. To simplify things, most in Russia’s Caucasian regions were until recently eager supporters of what might be called “Putinism.” For years, the peoples of the North Caucasus subscribed to the kind of contract Moscow concluded with all the other Russian regions: economic opportunities in exchange for an unchallenged loyalty to the Kremlin. The people in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and other regions enjoyed their new-found prosperity; they were happy to shop and stage sumptuous weddings while ignoring the counterparty to the contract.  

There are a number of theories as to why the North Caucasus suddenly became much more vocal in 2018. My take is straightforward: Moscow’s hold on North Caucasus societies somewhat loosened in recent years. Today’s Moscow is fighting on a number of fronts: in Ukraine, in Syria, against the West. Those newer causes have pushed the North Caucasus off the list of the Kremlin’s top priorities. The big question now is whether those instances of civic self-organization can grow into a broader political mobilization. This might happen if Moscow continues to weaken its grip on the region.

This is the second in our mini-series on life in Russia’s remote provinces, far from the political  power centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The previous piece was on the Voice of the Tundra, an online group championing the interests of local communities against the onslaught of oil companies, put together by a young reindeer herder in Russia’s Far North.