South Ossetia and Abkhazia may have grabbed the world’s attention this fall, but Russia’s North Caucasus should not be forgotten. A variety of forces including political, economic, and cultural ones are changing the region and reigniting tensions. The Russia-Georgia conflict has already had a destabilizing influence and is likely to continue to influence the north Caucasus region in the near future.
Carnegie’s Alexey Malashenko presented his findings on the general trends in the region, and concluded that if the situation proceeds on its current trajectory, there may be open conflict. Currently the most dangerous tensions in the North Caucasus are between Ingushetia and North Ossetia.
Some of the change-provoking dynamics that Malashenko discussed include:
Ramifications of the Russia-Georgia Conflict
The official Russian government position is that it's conflict with Georgia had a positive effect on the North Caucasus. They point out that the conflict has reaffirmed that Russia is strong and can act as it pleases. Malashenko believed the consequences of the conflict were not positive.
He noted that despite the Russian victory terrorist acts in the region have not ceased and the security environment in the North Caucasus has not improved. Second, in as early as September, Ingush citizens had already begun questioning why Russia chose to help South Ossetia rather than providing support to national communities in Russia’s own North Caucasus republics.
Redistribution of Russia’s Funds
In recent years, tensions in the North Caucasus have been kept at bay in large part by the vast sums of money the Kremlin sent to the republics. Currently 70 to 80 percent of North Caucasus republics' state and local budgets come from federal coffers; there is little likelihood that they can be weaned off their dependency anytime soon. Both the financial crisis, which has impacted Russia hard, and the increased official Kremlin support of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are likely to reduce this funding. With no self-sustaining economies of their own it is unclear how the North Caucasus will manage with this decreased funding.
Malashenko also stressed that the younger generation in the North Caucasus differs significantly from the older one. Islam, although not in radical form, is increasingly more important in the region. Sufi religious orders in particular are becoming closely entwined with local governing authorities. These changes are creating a new cultural zone in the area and are further separating the identities of the North Caucasus’ youths from their non-North Caucasus Russian counterparts.
The Ingush-Ossetian conflict is currently the most serious one in the North Caucasus. With families settled in disputed regions, and borders still not conclusively defined, conflict between the two groups is very likely.
Fueling tensions even more is the proclamation of new independence for South Ossetia. Because South Ossetians helped North Ossetians in the 1992 war, the Ingush are very wary of a possible unification between the two groups.