Putin’s Caucasian knot

Grozny Attack Is Another Headache for Putin

Arbi Zubairaev / Reuters

The terrorist attack in Grozny on Dec. 4, the day of President Vladimir Putin’s state of the nation address, was a brutal reminder that the problem of unrest in the Muslim republics of Russia’s North Caucasus remains a mortal danger to the stability of the country in general and Putin’s regime in particular. Fifteen years ago, Putin rose to the presidency pledging to “restore constitutional order” in the then-breakaway republic of Chechnya.

The nine gunmen on Dec. 4 arrived in the center of Grozny in the dead of night, where they were stopped by a police patrol and forced to take refuge in nearby buildings. All were eventually killed, at the cost of 14 police lives and 30 wounded. The fact that the group did not succeed in killing a large number of civilians is testimony to the effectiveness of the security regime of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, which relies on a blanket police presence and ruthless hounding of dissidents.

In the wake of the assault, Kadyrov announced that family members of those who took part in the attack will be expelled from Chechnya, and their houses will be leveled. Such punishments are not allowed under Russian law, but that has not proven an obstacle to Kadyrov’s actions in the past.

Evidence thus far released suggests that this was a locally recruited gang, part of the Caucasus Emirate, and not loyal to a more far-flung terrorist network, such as Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. The last major attack sponsored by the Caucasus Emirate was the suicide assault on Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in January 2011, which killed 37.

However, it seems clear that large numbers of young men from the former Soviet Union have been drawn to the fighting in Syria and Iraq — just as they have been recruited from Britain, Canada, France and elsewhere. There are reportedly 1,000 Russian-speakers fighting on the side of Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria — split among the various rival factions — including many Chechens.

There has been some speculation that Ukrainian radicals might try to make common cause with anti-Russian Islamist terrorists. Chechens have been fighting on both sides in eastern Ukraine — some among the Russian “volunteers” supporting the separatists, and others supporting the Kiev government — such as a group led by Isa Munayev, a veteran of the Chechen independence wars. This development is manna to Russian propagandists and their narrative of the evil intentions of their opponents in Kiev.

However, the more serious problem that the Grozny attack highlights is domestic rather than international — the risk that the pro-Moscow rulers in the North Caucasus will lose their ability to control the situation in their respective republics.

It is not only that threats of terrorist violence emanate from the North Caucasus: The financial subsidies that Moscow pays to keep the republics in line are a drain on the Russian federal budget. Russian oppositionists complain that in return for Moscow’s support, the leaders of the Caucasus republics shamelessly rig elections to deliver absurdly high votes for Putin and United Russia.

In December 2011, Chechnya delivered an implausible 99.48 percent of its votes for United Russia, while the national average was 64 percent. In neighboring Ingushetia 91 percent voted for United Russia, and in Dagestan 83 percent. In the March 2012 presidential election, Chechnya voted 99.76 percent for Putin, while Dagestan voted 92.8 percent and Ingushetia 91.9 percent. The millions of votes in the North Caucasus could prove decisive in ensuring a Kremlin victory in a future close-run federal election.

With the Kremlin under strain from a declining economy and unsettled standoff in eastern Ukraine, instability in the Caucasus is the last thing they need, since it brings attention back to the thorny question of whether the North Caucasus will in fact remain part of the Russian Federation in the long run.

The politics of nationalism in Bangladesh

The undergraduate students in the Nationalism class that I taught this past semester all prepare a 10 minute i-movie on a topic of their choosing.Saarim Zaman prepared this report on Bangladesh, showing how since independence the two rival parties (the Awami League and the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party) have adopted differing narratives of national identity: ethno-linguistic Bengali nationalism versus territorial and religious Bangladeshi nationalism.

Scotland: reflections on the referendum

The week before the September 18 referendum saw high drama, due to the release of a yougov poll on September 6 suggesting that the Yes vote had a 51% to 49% lead. The surge was in part due to a lackluster performance by Better Together’s Alistair Darling in his second debate with Alex Salmond on August 25. Salmond had answers to Darling’s economic questions about currency and the NHS, while Darling failed to come up with any arguments to appeal to Scots’ sense of belonging and identity.

The Yes surge triggered a flurry of activity from the Better Together campaign, with the leaders of all three Westminster parties heading north of the border to plead their case. On September 15 David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband signed a pledge promising more powers for the Scottish parliament if full independence was rejected. Downing Street placed calls to business leaders urging them to speak out, and a string of corporate leaders made statements in the final week warning of the dire economic consequences of a Yes vote.

But the most noteworthy development was the extraordinary speech delivered by Gordon Brown’s in Maryhill, Glasgow two days before the referendum. It was Gordon Brown’s finest hour: Scotland’s version of the Gettysburg Address.

Brown reiterated some of the economic arguments against secession. But his speech was remarkable for the passion with which he laid out the Better Together case on identity grounds. He eviscerated what he referred to as “the nationalists” for claiming to speak for Scotland, with some followers calling their opponents “traitors.” He argued that the institutions of which the nationalists are most proud, such as the pound sterling and the National Health Service, were built together, as part of the United Kingdom. He pointed out that Scots and English had fought and died together for a common cause in two world wars. He argued for cooperation and solidarity over disparagement and division.

Seeing Brown performance raised the question of why he had not been given a more prominent role in the Better Together campaign from the outset. Veteran Scottish Labour politician John Reid explained that Alistair Darling had been chosen as the front man for the No campaign because he was a less partisan and divisive figure than Brown, and was more likely to be able to forge a common approach with the Conservative and Liberal-Democratic leaders.

Brown’s speech was probably too late to sway any voters – exit polls (see below) indicated that while some 15% of Yes voters were undecided until the final week, only 9% of No voters had made up their mind in the last week.

Curiously, neither the BBC nor any other news organization bothered to pay for exit polls on election day. So the only source we have for analysis of the demographics of the rival camps is a poll sponsored by Lord Ashcroft. It makes for fascinating reading. 73% of those over the age of 65 voted No, and women were 6% more likely than men to vote No. 57% of No voters said the pound was one of the most important factors in their decision, vindicating Alistair Darling’s focus on currency in the campaign, while the main driver for Yes voters was “disaffection with Westminster politics.” Only 27% of No voters selected a “strong attachment to the UK and its shared history, culture and traditions” as a reason for voting No, while 47% said it was due to fear of the consequences of independence.

More broadly, the whole exercise raises some interesting questions for political scientists. What is the role of history and identity in shaping political decisions? While both sides made emotional appeals to voters’ sense of identity, in the end it seems to have been bread and butter issues that won out.

The referendum drew some praise from around the world for providing an example of how to decide the fate of a country through a peaceful, rational deliberative procedure. The upsurge of public involvement in the campaign and the high (85%) turnout was taken as a sign that democracy is alive and well and can serve as a tool for resolving ethnic disputes.

However, there are also some troubling aspects to the referendum from the point of view of democratic theory. What right does a minority have to set terms for its participation in collective decision making? Under what circumstances should they be allowed to opt out of laws and policies that are applied to citizens living in other regions? Under what conditions does a group have the right to secede – and should that require the consent of the rest of the polity from which they are seceding? Most counties, including China, Russia, Spain and the United States, do not allow secession at all. Moral philosophers tend to argue that secession is only justified if some clear harm has been done to the minority seeking independence. No such direct grievances were present in the Scottish case.

Second, as my Wesleyan colleague Donald Moon has pointed out, neither side really knew what they were voting for. The Yes campaign could not provide definitive questions to whether Scotland would or would not be able to keep the pound or stay in the European Union. The No campaign also was unclear on what exactly was being promised by way of new powers for the Scottish parliament – not least because there was an immediate reaction from many Labour and Conservative MPs questioning the wisdom and fairness of cutting a special deal for Scotland without also giving more powers to England and Wales.

Ideally, one can imagine that if a referendum were to be a solid basis for dividing a functioning democracy, there should be a three-stage process. First, a vote on the principle of secession. Second, assuming the vote was positive, the convening of a constitutional convention which would hammer out the precise terms of the split. Third, a second referendum in which voters are given a chance to vote on independence, this time knowing more or less what it would entail.