Author: Gela Khmaladze, Research Fellow at Rondeli Foundation
When the Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February 2022, there was initially broad tension and nervousness in the republics of the North Caucasus resulting from the unpredictability of the situation: No one knew what form the military operations would take, or how the overall political situation would develop around Russia. In the first months, the following factors added to that sense of instability among the North Caucasus population: the expectation of full military mobilization; budgetary cuts to public institutions; delays in salary and pension payments (according to widespread public opinion, though, for the most part this was due to local officials’ corrupt schemes rather than delays in transfers from the federal budget); difficulties with accessibility to banking services; inflation; rising consumer prices; and shortages of imported products.
Nevertheless, by November of 2022, the situation in the region had stabilized. People saw that the partial mobilization announced in September did not entail forced conscription. Moreover, a certain stratum of society used the service contract with the Russian Ministry of Defense, which involved participation in the war against Ukraine as a means for social uplift – to receive financial benefits and social net guarantees as an effective way to drastically improve their economic and social welfare and that of their families.
It is worth noting that all republics of the North Caucasus are subsidized. In comparison with other Russian federal subjects, these republics are ranked among the lowest in terms of economic development, according to economic indexes. Along with high birth rates, they have extremely high unemployment, especially among youth below the age of 30. As a result, compared to other regions of Russia, in the North Caucasus we saw the highest number of volunteers willing to fight in Ukraine to secure personal benefits.
A standard three-month contract with the Russian Defense Ministry to fight in Ukraine provisions a payment starting from 800 thousand Rubles (depending on military rank). In case of injury, the soldier receives a one-time payment of 3 million Rubles. In case of death, the family of the deceased receives 10 million Rubles. Furthermore, the government takes on responsibility for ensuring the employment of working age individuals of the deceased person’s family, as well as exempting its members from utility payments.
In addition, there are many who are willingly taking up temporary work in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine as medical personnel, teachers, drivers, and construction workers, as well as employees of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. For their time on these territories, the workers receive increased salaries and benefits, without losing prior employment in their respective republics. In Ukraine, they work in non-combat zones, hence there is no threat to their lives or welfare there.
Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the republics of the North Caucasus, unlike other regions of Russia, had always been weakly involved in Russia’s foreign economic relations. The products manufactured in these republics are almost never exported abroad. There are no foreign, including Western, investment enterprises there. Therefore, Western sanctions and the exit of numerous American and European companies from the Russian market had no impact on this region’s economic or social indicators. No enterprises were closed, and no logistical hubs were disrupted. As a result, the population of the North Caucasus, compared to other, more economically developed regions of the Russian Federation, feels almost no negative economic consequences of the war. Moreover, the prices of Russian-made consumer goods and food products have decreased. This is explained by the fact that many products are no longer exported outside of Russia due to the international sanctions, and there is overproduction in the country, which leads to a decrease in prices. As of 2023, the financing of public organizations is steadily increasing, especially of those agencies that are under federal authority and are therefore financed from the federal budget.
After the imposition of economic sanctions by the West and the introduction of visa restrictions for Russian citizens, as well as due to the territorial proximity of the Crimea and Black Sea resorts to the area of hostilities, there was an expectation that Russian domestic tourists would flow to North Caucasus, resulting in increased income for those living there. Yet, these hopes did not materialize due to a lack of existing tourist infrastructure in the region, which the local government and the private sector was unable to build up in such a short period of time.
Perspectives and Sentiments in the North Caucasus
Observation of public sentiment in the North Caucasus indicates that the majority of the population supports Russia’s war in Ukraine, or is neutral and indifferent to the topic. The attitude of the ethnically non-Russian population of these republics towards this war is no different from that of the regions of the Russian Federation inhabited by an ethnically Russian majority. The dominant factor in determining the attitudes of the North Caucasian ethnic groups is their shared Russian civil identity.
When evaluating the Russia-Ukraine war, the vast majority of the population of the North Caucasus avoids assessing it from the point of view of International Law. During interviews, no sympathy is expressed for the Ukrainians. Russian propaganda narrative is strong, which claims that the West aims to weaken and disintegrate the Russian Federation using Ukrainian “fascists”. The indifferent part of North Caucasians say they believe the war is an internal conflict between two Slavic peoples – Russians and Ukrainians, and the North Caucasian ethnic groups should not interfere in it.
The North Caucasian societies, given their strong clan structure, as well as rampant corruption, are mired in their own existential crises. State propaganda aims to convince the population that nearly nothing is dependent on them. The biggest fear for the majority of the population is the spread of hostilities and the destructive consequences of war to their region.
In all of the North Caucasian republics, the vast majority of the public perceives negatively the possible dissolution of the Russian Federation if it is defeated in the war with Ukraine. Such a prospect is seen as a threat rather than an opportunity, with society dominated by the opinion that the process of disintegration of the Russian Federation will bring only additional problems for them, in the form of internal conflicts, severing of economic ties, mass impoverishment of the population, and mass migration. They do not have faith in their own corrupt political elites, doubting that the elites have the necessary knowledge or skills for state building, nor the ability to properly guide the development of their republics. Thus, no one seriously believes in the prospect of these republics developing independently.
Local political elites are assessing the situation realistically and have no illusions that the Russian Federation could collapse. Therefore, at present, no one is anticipating a “post-Putin period.” They believe that President Putin’s government will remain at the head of Russia for a long time to come, regardless of how long the hostilities in Ukraine go on.
The Russia-Ukraine War: Threat or Opportunity for the Region?
Observation of political and social processes, monitoring of local mass media, as well as the analysis of periodic interviews with experts working in the region, provide basis for the assumption that a possible political crisis, mass protest movement, or social explosion in the republics of the North Caucasus can be caused by only two possible factors:
– If funding and grants to these republics from the Russian federal budget are stopped or drastically reduced. As a result, these republics will become virtually insolvent, as they do not have domestic financial or economic resources.
– If a serious political crisis begins in the Russian federal government and the Russian state loses its levers of control over the North Caucasian societies, primarily in the form of its repressive state apparatus and manageable corruption. As a result, the government bodies, and primarily the security forces, will no longer be able to safeguard public order, the economic system, or the security of the population.
So far, while the results of the Russia-Ukraine war and its impact on the Russian state are unclear, the prospect of such scenarios playing out in the North Caucasus cannot be foreseen.