Author: Gela Khmaladze, Research Fellow at Rondeli Foundation
After the Russian armed forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022, there was a certain expectation among the political and expert circles that the economic and social upheavals accompanying the war, as well as greater restrictions on human rights, would lead to a new wave of protests on the territory of the Russian Federation, especially in the North Caucasus and in other depressed regions populated with ethnic minorities. However, this expectation bore no fruit. Neither was the unjust war nor the tightening of Moscow’s repressive regime protested by anyone in the North Caucasus, excluding the local demonstrations of small groups of women in the republics of Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria following the announcement of plans for a general mobilization– excluding, because they were brought to the streets by the fear of losing their family members to the mobilization, and not because they had any sense of protest against the military aggression carried out by Russia against a neighboring sovereign state.
A long observation of the political process, and interviews conducted in various social groups in the republics of the North Caucasus, provide us with interesting insight into why society is so passive, despite the numerous social and political challenges in the region, and into just what is it that prevents political activity. it is also noteworthy that the current president and the ruling party have consistently had the highest support in the republics of the North Caucasus in the presidential and parliamentary elections over the last two decades compared to the rest of the federal units.
Why is society passive? What prevents political protests from being carried out?
A protest mood is created in a particular region when large social groups living there are unable to satisfy their vital interests and needs. A protest mood is a conscious dissatisfaction, when society can no longer see other ways to address important unresolved issues.
In this case, we can ask – what do the majority of the populations of the North Caucasus republics consider as “vital interests,” and solving which important issues are their priority? Is there any reason to assume that the lack of democratic forms of government in Russia, the systematic violation of human rights, and the repressive state apparatus, are actually the most disturbing for the people living there?
Through social surveys conducted in the North Caucasus republics in recent years, it has been found that the local population identifies unemployment, corruption, and low income as their most urgent problems. That is, the basis of public dissatisfaction is purely economic and, as a rule, does not go beyond existential problems. In the republics of the North Caucasus, there is an informal agreement between the local government and the public, according to which citizens can go out into the streets and protest against disorderly communal and other household problems, as long as it does not turn into political demands. There is a particularly strict ban on protesting issues that fall within the competence of the federal government, and since the start of hostilities against Ukraine, the Russian authorities have reacted even more strongly to protests about unresolved issues, suggesting a fear that such actions will spontaneously turn into protests about other hidden and taboo political topics.
The republics of the North Caucasus represent the most depressed and subsidized regions of the Russian Federation. In terms of basic economic indicators and quality of life, they share the last places among the federal units. At the same time, the level of corruption is the highest there. Corruption has acquired an all-encompassing character, in which not only the bureaucratic bodies, but also the majority of society is involved in corrupt transactions at different levels of the social hierarchy. One would thus think there were adequate grounds for social dissatisfaction and protest in this region, however, it is the totality of corruption that inhibits the expression of protest sentiments in the public space and the formation of organized protest groups. This can be explained by the fact that the majority of society feels a sense of guilt for their participation in the corrupt system, as a result of which they no longer have the civil courage to go against the system and openly challenge the existing regime.
The second reason strongly hindering a protest mood is the clan structure of North Caucasian society. In general, a clan in the North Caucasus represents an alliance of government, business, and law enforcement united by ethnic or territorial lines. Leaders of individual clans are usually high officials of local government bodies, or big businessmen. They are obviously loyal to the Russian federal government and do not deviate from Moscow’s political agenda. The vast majority of the local population affiliates itself to one or the other specific clan through some form of social tie. This gives them not only a sense of security, but real guarantees, such as not being left unemployed and without income, and not being left vulnerable in any kind of social conflict. In return, each member of the clan is obliged to take into account the interests and instructions of the clan leaders in their livelihood, social relations, and business activities, as well as when expressing their political views, especially in the case of public political activism. These interests, of course, are in full agreement with the political course of the Russian federal government.
It is also significant that it is characteristic of North Caucasian clan society, and of social groups with totalitarian thinking in general, to show public respect for those in power and authority, and to fear the government in general, thus demonstrating uncritical acceptance of its opinion. It can be said that these characteristics of this society also significantly limit the formation of protest moods and political activity in the region.
It is quite clear, then, that one of the main reasons why the Russian authorities allow the existence of clans in the North Caucasus is that those clans have become an effective mechanism for Moscow to control and manage local society.
Another reason that prevents protest activism in the republics of the North Caucasus is the deep-seated fear in the consciousness of the ethnic groups living there that any political protest on their part, or even public criticism of the internal or foreign policy of the Russian government, will be perceived by Moscow as a manifestation of separatism. In the 1990s, the unsuccessful attempt of the Republic of Chechnya to withdraw from the Russian Federation helped to create such an attitude among these ethnic groups. According to the North Caucasians, criticism of the government by ethnic Russian citizens in other provinces of Russia is less problematic for Moscow, because, as Russians, no one can accuse them of separatist sentiments or the desire to separate from Russia. While, in the case of representatives of the North Caucasian ethnic groups, such activity can result in a much stronger reaction at the federal level, including retaliatory repression. As a result, control over society takes stricter forms.
An echo of such an attitude could be seen in the famous opposition protests of Bolotnaya in 2012, which lasted for months in Moscow and other big cities of Russia, and saw several hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets, which however did not ignite the same spark of protest in the North Caucasus republics. The majority of society here considered that moving such a protest from the capital to their particular region would cause social upheavals and precipitate more repressions from the existing regime.
As a result, the fear of impending reprisals was a strong deterrent to join the protest. Society tries to distance itself as far as possible from political activism because any protest, or even an initiative related to decentralizing from the governance system or strengthening democratic institutions, is equated with extremist activity.
Where did the political opposition disappear to?
Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of so-called “informal” political parties and associations were created. Nationalism became the new ideology of development for them, although they had general democratic issues on their agenda as well, and closely cooperated with similar political organizations of the Russian Federation. In the 1990s, the beginning of the separatist movement in Chechnya and the de-facto independence of this republic for a short time caused a new wave of parallel activity among national political organizations in other republics. The main goal of these political associations was the struggle for sovereignty and maximum distancing from the federal government.
Since 2000, after the return of the Republic of Chechnya to the constitutional space of Russia, in order to prevent the further manifestation of political separatism in any form, the Russian federal authorities in the North Caucasus eliminated the legal space for political opposition and destroyed the opposition political groups in their embryonic state. One section of these groups was forced to go into political exile, while the other took on the status of illegality, joining the underground Islamic movement and continuing their activities as radical Salafi Jamaats.
Consequently, in the North Caucasus, the activities of the political opposition were replaced with radical Islamic ones, the so-called jihadist movement. In fact, with the direct or indirect support of the Russian government, the opposition’s political activity turned into an extremist struggle, with radical armed groups acting against the Russian government.
The replacement of political activity with terrorist acts was convenient for Moscow, as it is impossible for these extremist, marginal, and criminalized groups to fulfill the demands of the general public and fight for democratic values, economic reforms, or human rights. Therefore, the absolute majority of the population of the North Caucasus region made a clear political choice to support the Moscow regime. Further, the Russian government received a complete carte blanche and legitimate right in the eyes of the international community to use special and forceful methods to destroy the aforementioned armed groups operating in the name of radical Islam, as well as the small social groups sympathetic to them which represented the social base of these formations.
Currently, even with the ruling party “United Russia” dominating in the Russian Federation, and even though there are facade political opposition parties, the “United Russia” party is disproportionately strong in the republics of the North Caucasus, and the local regional structures of the aforementioned facade opposition parties exist only formally. The overarching influence of the ruling party “United Russia” in the region came due to the fact that, through “United Russia”, as the so-called ruling party, the local North Caucasian dominant clans created a solid administrative vertical and strengthened their positions in relation to the federal authority. The renunciation of separatism and complete loyalty to Moscow became the guarantee of impunity for the authorities of the North Caucasus republics, in exchange for their arbitrary disposal of budgetary funds and corruption schemes.
This factor prevents and significantly limits the institutionalization of other opposition parties in this region. The clannishness in the republics of the North Caucasus largely determines the weakness of the social base of the opposition parties and, in general, the marginalization of these parties. The end result of such a process is that there are no organizational structures or even individual popular or authoritative political leaders in the region who could mobilize people in the streets and lead a protest.
Ultimately, public sentiment in the North Caucasus region has created a new domestic political reality with the following characteristic factors:
– The dissatisfaction of the population with the existing regime has taken the form of an untargeted protest, whereby the public is protesting not the system, but individual inefficient and discredited officials at the local regional level. In order to ease the situation, the federal government can easily replace such officials, while the system itself remains unchanged;
– The political passivity of society grew into behind-the-scenes criticism of the regime, which has replaced real political activity. This peculiarity is typically characteristic of a closed and totalitarian society under the rule of an authoritarian regime;
– The vast majority of the population has come to terms with the existing repressive regime, seeing it no longer associating a change in life for the better through its own participation in political activity. As a result of such distancing from political processes, society automatically abrogates responsibility for government actions, and primarily for any illegality and misconduct committed by the government.
– The majority of the population of the region perceives the possibility for protection from social and economic upheavals and internal political stability only as a part of Russia, even if the Russian government cannot solve many of their most critical issues.
It’s crucial to highlight that both in the Russian Federation as a whole and in the North Caucasus region in particular, the ideological chimeras have been implanted by official propaganda, such as the sacralization of a strong state, identifying oneself with the aggressive and powerful “Derzhava”, as well as Russia as a state that defends family values, religious beliefs, and ethical and moral values. In the majority of the society living in the North Caucasus, the attitude was formed that, besides stability, the Russian state also insulates their national customs, traditional way of life, and Islamic religious values from globalization and Western liberal influences.