A Guide to Conflict in the North Caucasus

The Northern Caucasus. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Northern Caucasus. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Caucasus are restive. In the North Caucasus conflicts, according to International Crisis Group: “Overall in 2011, more than 750 security personnel, insurgents and civilians were killed and at least 628 were injured in the region. In the first nine months of 2012, 574 people were killed and 422 wounded.” There are active terrorist groups, border skirmishes, insurgencies and post-conflict zones, all in a fairly small, compact area. Historically, the North Caucasus are the meeting point of the great Empires – the Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey), the Persian Empire (present day Iran) and the Russian Empire. Since the Russians began to encroach on the region in 1556, they have continuously found themselves embroiled in conflict with the regions’ inhabitants.

Putin’s choice to hold the Olympic Games so close to the North Caucasus in Sochi suggests to this author that he wants to demonstrate that he is in control of these conflicts. Putin wants to show that this region, with its myriad secessionist ambitions, interstate conflict and Islamist insurgencies, cannot best Putin’s international ambition. The world continues to watch Sochi – chances are it’ll be a ‘success’ (as in no inarguable disasters) – but one that comes at the expense of human lives and human rights.

There are a number of conflicts in the larger Caucasus region – some very high profile, such as the Russian-Georgian War of 2008 and the frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, many of these conflicts, particularly the conflicts of the autonomous republics of Southern Russia/the Northern Caucasus are off the media’s radar 90% of the time. Here’s a quick look at the ‘where and why’ of the conflicts:

The Islamist Insurgency: Perhaps for Western readers, this is the most-discussed conflict. The Caucasus are a predominately Muslim, but culturally and ethnically mixed.  When the Islamist insurgency is discussed in the Caucasus, it is generally in reference to a group called the Caucasus Emirate, considered to be the leading player. The Caucasus Emirate also encompasses a number of smaller terrorist groups in the Caucasus, and is referred to as an ‘umbrella’ terrorist organization (Al Qaeda is another example of an umbrella terrorist organization. It refers to the globally ambitious terrorist group known as Al Qaeda, but encompasses many smaller local conflicts and organizations).

The Caucasus Emirate was originally a Sufi (a denomination of Islam) nationalist group, rooted in the Chechen struggles for independence in the 1990s, the first of many overlaps between secessionist conflicts in the region. It formed in 2007, led by a man named Doku Umarov. Ultimately, it is now aligned with a more global movement though its struggles continue to be mostly local. Ideologically, it appears to subscribe more to Sunni Salafi Islam than its Sufi roots. Its’ goal is to establish an Islamic Emirate in the Caucasus, rooted in Sharia law. Their most well-known attacks are on transit hubs – the 2011 attack on a Moscow airport, and the 2010 attack on the Moscow Metro.

Local Conflicts:*

Author’s Note: While this post deals with conflict in the region, I’d ask readers to keep in mind there’s much more to the region than that. It’s a beautiful part of the world with a long and fascinating history. While there isn’t much footage of it easily available, Russia Today offers a series of tourist videos in some of these locations. They’re worth viewing for the scenery and an understanding of what visitors can do in these interesting, ancient republics – rock climbing, hiking and winter sports being the least of it.

Chechnya: The most famous of the Separatist conflicts, two wars were fought over Chechnya’s right to be an independent state from Russia. The roots of much of today’s Islamist insurgency are found here, and the devastation in the wake of the Chechen wars spread instability to other autonomous areas.

Dagestan: Dagestan is considered Russia’s secret war, but there are near-daily attacks by militants on police or vice versa. Russian counter-terrorism operations occur regularly. The reports from Dagestan, which are scarce, indicate that the territory is increasingly struggling with Islamist insurgency, but it cannot be separated from anger at Moscow and local authorities over pervasive corruption, human rights violations and ties to criminal organizations. To call the conflict in Dagestan merely an  ‘Islamist’ conflict is to gravely oversimplify the issue (Taken from a previous CES post).

Mount Elbrus

Mount Elbrus

Kabardino-Balkeria: Kabardino-Balkeria is extremely poor, struggles with severe corruption, low living standards, no reliable economic income except subsidies from Russia. In this combustible mix, there are tensions between the two ethnic groups that make up the region – the “mainly-Muslim Kabardins, as well as minorities of Turkic-speaking Balkars – around 10% of the people – and Russians. There is friction between the Kabardins and the Balkars, and in 1992 the Balkars voted for secession (BBC).” Additionally, the Islamist insurgency is active in Kabardino-Balkeria, adding another layer of tension to the small Russian republic. In 2011, Islamists attacked ski resorts, stoking Russian fears about attacks on the Sochi Olympics. It is worth pointing out how beautiful the mountains there are, containing the region’s highest peak, Mount Elbrus.

North Ossetia: North Ossetia is the location of some of the most violent acts committed as a result of the spillover from the Chechen conflict. It is the location of one of the worst terrorist attacks by the Caucasus Islamist/separatist groups, the massacre at a school in Beslan where 330 people were killed, over half of them children. That incident sparked a divide in the terrorist groups in the Caucasus, as many of the members found the act repugnant and thought it went too far. In 2010, a bomb blast in the capital killed 17, also connected to the Islamist insurgency.

North Ossetia also felt repercussions from the 2008 Georgian-Russian war. Many of the affected South Ossetians (ethnically closer to North Ossetia than Georgia, where South Ossetia is located) fled into the North, likely contributing to further instability.

Additionally, North Ossetia and another Russian republic, Ingushetia, went to war shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hundreds died, and many Ingushetians fled North Ossetia. International Crisis Group states “The Ingush-Ossetian conflict led to full-fledged war in 1992, as both groups asserted claims over the Prigorodny district. Though Russia invested large sums to return displaced persons and rehabilitate their communities, the Ingush in Prigorodny remain unintegrated in the rest of North Ossetia.”

Ingushetia: Ingushetia suffers some of the worst violence in the region, with regular attacks on security forces and government officials. These attacks lead to brutal retaliation from local officials and Russian security forces, contributing to continuous tensions. Ingushetia’s problems are primarily related to separatist conflicts and spillover from the Chechen insurgency, which took on a life of its own in Ingushetia after the second Chechen war. In response to the rising insurgency in Ingushetia, Moscow tripled the number of special forces in 2007.

Karachay-Cherkessia: Karachay-Cherkessia is a beautiful republic that experiences less of the Chechen spillover and Islamist violence of other areas of the Caucasus, but still has its own troubles, mostly relating to internal instability. Like other republics, it has ethnic tensions between its two main groups, the Karachay and Cherkes. It also suffers from corruption and poverty, though it is a popular destination for winter sports and the local government is working to increase tourism.

Stavropol Krai: Stavropol Krai is the most multiethnic of the Northern Caucasus Federal Districts, though predominantly ethnic Russian. Likely, because of this ethnic tie to Russia proper and its geographic location on the frontline of the border between Russia and the other, more violent autonomous zones, Stavropol Krai is seen as ‘the last bastion of Russia in the Northern Caucasus.’ The xenophobia against ethnic Caucasians (meaning people specifically from the Caucasus region) felt in the larger Russian cities, such as Moscow, can cause problems here – ethnic and racial confrontations seem to be increasing in violence and there was a movement to push ethnic Caucasians out of Stavropol. This reflects the larger theme in Russian politics of the Russian Federation struggling with how to integrate (or if they should continue to try to integrate) the Caucasus republics into Russia. Putin’s insistence on holding the Olympics so close to the Caucasus seems to indicate, however, that he has no intention of ceding any territory from Russia.
Trying to make sense of various conflicts in the Caucasus can be difficult, particularly when many of the places are mostly unknown outside the region. The usual disclaimers apply – fitting a conflict into 3-5 sentences does oversimplify it, but our goal is to show these are not all ‘terrorists’ and give our readers an idea of the nuance and complexity of the region. With the world watching the Olympics in Sochi, we wanted provide a quick look at (many) of these conflicts, in the hopes of providing a bit of clarity on the region as the world turns a closer eye towards the Caucasus.

*If you think we left something crucial out, we welcome your feedback at centraleurasiastandard@gmail.com.

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9 comments

  1. Nice round up guys, I honestly wish more people were aware of the situation in the area. I feel like so much of the media coverage in Sochi is about nonsensical hotel complaints and fails to provide any exposure to the real issues of the region.

    1. Thanks Stephen! Much appreciated. I felt like the coverage of hotel problems in Sochi could have been a great opener to discuss infrastructure issues there, but it turned into a very frivolous discussion.

      1. Yea, indeed. The bits I saw were focused more on ‘woe is the reporter’ than on the possible implications for the region itself.

        To be entirely honest though I was only familiar with half of these, so I could see where people with no knowledge of the area might not immediately assume the connection.

      2. Agreed. It’s such a little known area. Do you have any other interests in the region that would appeal to a reader learning about it? I love getting new ideas for posts!

      3. On these specifically I’d be keen to know more of the background to the less well-known conflicts. From that same area, too, I’ve read only a little about the divide between North and South Ossetia and Georgia, and the practicalities for how that affects life for inhabitants of the area.

      4. That’s a great idea! We’ll work on that one.

  2. Very nice analysis and very timely, too.
    Why is it Kabardino-Balkeria though? Isn’t it Balkaria?

    1. It’s listed as Kabardino-Balkeria, presumably to recognize the two bigger ethnic groups there.

  3. […] Central Eurasia Standard has a useful roundup of conflicts in the North Caucasus. […]

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