Not every Soviet republic gained independence when the USSR disintegrated in 1991. Indeed, in the 21stcentury Russia still incorporates extraordinary multinational diversity, including a number of internal statelets at its southern extremities in the Caucasus. While Georgia, independent from its northern neighbour, continues to resist Putin’s expansionism, it is within Russia’s own borders where some of the longest, most intense anti-Moscow struggles are taking place.
You may have heard of Chechnya. Only slightly larger than Northern Ireland, the Chechen Republic initially declared independence like everyone else, in 1991, and two major civil wars with Russia followed within a decade as the latter scrambled to preserve what was left of its constituent territories. Rebels continue their separatist struggle today, although they have little to show for it and international recognition eludes them. Nowadays, the media, too, seems disinterested in their plight.
However, the Chechens are not alone in their silent conflict. I first learned of the Dagestanis when a native of Makhachkala, Dagestan’s largest city, joined my school. The boy’s father had been a senior politician in the city, which sits on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Business and politics mix liberally in Russia and, as I learnt more about Dagestan, I realised why my schoolmate was never short of pocket money: Makhachkala is one of the oil capitals of Russia. If you’re a football buff, you might recall that Samuel Eto’o joined the city’s football club, Anzhi Makhachkala, back in 2011, becoming the highest-paid player in the world at that time; an event which announced the regional wealth of Dagestan on the world stage.
Where oil flows, so does conflict, and neither Chechnya nor Dagestan is an exception to that rule, being vital to Moscow’s energy interests. Purely a separatist movement in the 1990s, religious trends have since added another layer to the conflict. The Chechens and Dagestanis are Muslims, traditionally adhering to Sufism, a liberal branch of Sunni Islam. In recent times, however, Salafism – a more radical doctrine advocating sharia law – has made a comeback among the younger generation, influenced by the global rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Now, as calls for sovereignty have subsided over the years, militant Islamism has come to dominate commentary on the region.
Although we don’t hear about it, low-level terrorist attacks have taken place with alarming regularity in Dagestan since the turn of the century. Car bombs, shootings of policemen and ministerial assassinations are just some of the tools used by Dagestani insurgents to hit back at what they see as oppressive and corrupt local authorities, who remain loyal to Putin and Moscow. How the ongoing insurgency should be defined remains a point of contention: is it still primarily a national separatist struggle or is it just another conflict hijacked by Islamic State? The lines between such categories are increasingly blurred.
In 2013, north Caucasian militant Islamism was thrown into the international spotlight when two brothers from the region planted bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Although not directly connected to a larger terrorist cell, the men catapulted the Russian Caucasus right to the heart of conversations about the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism. Since then, Islamic State has declared holy war – albeit quietly and largely unsuccessfully – against Russia for its suppression of Salafism in the republics. Thousands of Chechens and Dagestanis have travelled to join the fight for Islamic State in Syria, many more than from anywhere else in Europe.
This is why places like Dagestan and Chechnya still matter. Islamic State, and other organisations like it, will always exist so long as they can rely on a constant supply of disaffected generations of Muslims from all over the world. Thus, heavy-handedness from central governments, like the Kremlin, fuels conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere. Even though Putin’s uncompromising approach to quashing any threat to Russian national integrity claims to have cut violence in the north Caucasus by half, in reality violence has merely been exported along with the militants who have taken their fight abroad. Boston and Syria are just two examples of why we can’t afford to forget about Russia’s constituent republics.
Image: Nakh on Wikimedia Commons.