Russia’s grip on the North Caucasus is becoming more complicated and therefore, loosening up as a consequence of recent developments.
Russia’s grip on the North Caucasus is becoming more complicated and therefore, loosening up as a consequence of recent developments. Never a stable region because of ethnic rivalries and stirrings of revolt by the people to gain independence from the iron grip of Moscow, the precarious nature of the region once again burst into the open on November 25, 2011 with mass protests in Dagestan’s capital Makhachkala. People were protesting against the brutality of state security forces. This reflects the emergence of a new force, one that holds both potential for the people but one also fraught with danger.
Keeping close watch on developments in the North Caucasus over the last two years, Crescent International has repeatedly stressed that the armed groups fighting Russian presence in the North Caucasus will not be the ones that will lead the region to independence or establish an alternative to the existing order. (Crescent, 10-2010, “Divisions in the Caucasus spell trouble” & 2-2010, “Russia’s imperial policies in the North Caucasus”). Armed groups fighting for independence from Russia that emerged from the Chechen resistance between the years of 1994–2003 degenerated into narrow-minded takfiri groups.
Over the past decade the political landscape in Dagestan and the wider North Caucasus region was dominated by the Khawarij-type armed groups as well as Moscow. The critical mass of Muslims in the region was paralyzed between the two forces battling for control and the future of the North Caucasus. It seems this paralysis might soon end.
The mass rally that took place in Makhachkala in November was guided by a group of Muslim scholars led by Abbas Kebedov, a graduate of al-Azhar University. He was joined by several civil rights groups. During the demonstration in which more than 5,000 people participated, they chanted slogans against the security forces interspersed with chants of Allahu-akbar (Allah is Great). They also clearly identified themselves as Ahl al-Sunnah. The fact that the demonstrators manifested their Islamic orientation clearly and adopted a non-Khawarij methodology of expressing their grievances shows that they represent a new emerging force.
Abbas Kebedov, the unofficial leader of the demonstrators, is a well known scholar in Dagestan who worked closely with his brother Bagauddin Kebedov (aka Baggaudin Magamadov) who organized armed rebellion in Dagestan in the late 1990s. Abbas Kebedov later distanced himself from his brother who had taken on a so-called salafi position. After the regression of forces fighting the Russian presence in the North Caucasus, Abbas Kebedov remained active as a scholar and civil rights activist. Even though Kebedov remained active through tacit approval of Moscow, in 2005 he was charged with illegal possession of arms and sentenced to one year in prison. In 2010 Kebedov was appointed by Dagestan’s Moscow appointed leadership as member of the committee for the rehabilitation of former armed fighters.
The mass rally organized by Kebedov was immediately denounced by armed groups fighting Russian presence as useless and as being against Shari‘ah. This condemnation does not only manifest their shallow understanding of Islam, but also shows that subconsciously they see the demonstrators as a threat that may undermine their limited support and expose their primitive views. The inability of the anti-Russian armed groups to create a wider Islamic framework for political inclusivity as Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did in Madinah and beyond when the noble Messenger (pbuh) negotiated several treaties with non-Muslim tribes between Madinah and the Red Sea port of Yanbu, reflects the North Caucasus armed groups’ political and ideological bankruptcy.
It seems that the coming years in Dagestan will be dominated by a power struggle between Russia, the new emerging Muslim socio-political activists and the takfir-minded armed groups. While the official Russian state apparatus in Moscow and its subordinates lack solid and widespread credibility as do the takfiri groups, Abbas Kebedov and his likes are a group to watch. If they manage to propose an inclusive and broadminded program as an alternative to the Dagestani society that is independent of Moscow, a rebirth of the Islamic movement in North Caucasus might soon take place.
In the long term, the overall situation for Russia in the Caucasus does not look promising. Moscow’s inability to pacify the armed rebellion and its usage of brutal tactics created a legitimacy void and a socio-political vacuum in the region that is yet to be filled. The Western powers will definitely get involved and attempt to fill the vacuum, especially in South Ossetia where the Russian project is on the verge of collapse. Even though South Ossetia owes its “independence” from Georgia to Russia, a pro-Russian candidate Anatoly Bibilov lost the presidential bid to Alla Dzhioyeva in 11-2011. The situation in South Ossetia got even more heated after Bibilov managed to get the voting results annulled. If Russia has a hard time controlling South Ossetia where it has significant popular support, it raises serious questions about how it will navigate through a hostile labyrinth in the North Caucasus.
The involvement of Western powers in the North Caucasus in unlikely to take an aggressive form; however, they will try to manipulate the emerging Islamic alternative to the takfiri groups through the “scholars” for hire in the Arabian Peninsula as they have done in the past. The emergence of a potentially new Muslim alternative to the takfiri groups in the North Caucasus will also depend on the ability of Muslim countries and Islamic movements worldwide to begin viewing Russia through its contemporary reality and not the outdated perception of it as a newer version of the now deceased Soviet Union.