How the North Caucasus became one of Russia’s arms for imperial policy in Ukraine

The Memorial to the Victims of Repressions of the Balkar People in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria. Photo by an anonymous author. Used with permission.

As of March 2024, around 300 Chechens, 70 Ingush people, 900 Dagestanis, 120 natives of Karachay-Cherkessia and 130 natives of Kabardino-Balkaria have died in the current Russian–Ukrainian war, according to publicly available data. All of them come from Russia’s North Caucasus region. It is unknown how much these numbers differ from the real ones.

The natives of the North Caucasus have been disproportionately mobilized for the war. For example, the mortality rate, which is the number of deaths per 10,000 men aged 16 to 61 years, in Kabardino-Balkaria is 4.4, and 5.5 in Karachay-Cherkessia. This coefficient is 1 and 2.5 in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, respectively, although six times more people live in Moscow than in these two republics combined. Their participation in this war appears paradoxical given that it was the Caucasian people who were subjected to the bloody expansionism of the Russian Empire, the forced deportation of the Soviet authorities, and the current repressive policies of the Kremlin.

The North Caucasus was conquered in 1864 after the hundred-year-long Caucasian War, the longest in the history of the Russian Empire, ending with the massacre and expulsion of about a million Circassians. The next tragedy in the Caucasus occurred in the 20th century. On November 2, 1943, the Soviet Union’s secret police forcibly deported 69,000 Karachai people to distant and unfamiliar Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which were part of the Soviet Union at the time. This was followed by the deportation of 500,000 Chechen and Ingush people to Central Asia on February 23, 1944. The last act of the three-part tragedy was the deportation of the 45,000 Balkar people in just 24 hours. Their descendants still live in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. However, most of them returned to the North Caucasus after being rehabilitated.

The North Caucasus remains Russia’s “heart of darkness,” because its modern history begins with Chechnya. In December 1994, the First Russian–Chechen War began, during which the Russian army attempted to invade Ichkeria, a self-proclaimed independent Chechen state that arose after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Having defended its independence in 1996, the sovereignty of Ichkeria was liquidated by the Russian army in 1999. The Second Russian–Chechen War was rhetorically justified by the Kremlin as part of the global “war on terror,” turning the region into a zone of “counter-terrorist operations” for a long time. The final “pacification” of the region came only a few years ago. The region may may seem loyal to the central authorities, but it took the Kremlin about a hundred years of repression and killing tens of thousands of locals to achieve this.

Photo of Murat Temirov. Used with permission.

On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the deportation of the Balkar people, Global Voices spoke with a well-known journalist and human rights activist in the North Caucasus, Murat Temirov, to explore how the Kremlin subjugated the region. Through the examples of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia, Temirov explained the methods the central authorities employed to secure the region's loyalty to its new imperial policy and achieved their consent to participate in the implementation of large scale crimes from the likes of which the region has repeatedly suffered in the past.

Ramil Niyazov-Adyljan (RNA): What do you think about the political situation in Kabardino-Balkarian Republic (KBR) and Karachay-Cherkessian Republic (KCR) over the past 25 years?

Мурат Темиров (МТ):Политическая обстановка в КБР и в КЧР последних 25 лет, характеризуется постепенным нивелированием всех признаков суверенитета, которые уже практически исчезли, а также любого национального элемента в этих республиках. 25 лет назад это были довольно весомые субъекты федерации, влиявшие, в том числе, и на центральную политику, но с приходом к власти этих чекистов (нынешних кремлёвских властей – GV) идёт наступление на все права регионов, особенно национальных регионов, под предлогом того, что сепаратизм является главной угрозой существованию России. Так что под предлогом наступления на сепаратизм были, по сути, ликвидированы любые признаки суверенитета и национальной самобытности: ни в документообороте, ни в деловой практике, ни, тем более, в государственных учреждениях национальные языки не используются, хотя они закреплены как государственные. 

Вторая причина ухудшения положения населения – все эти 25 лет под предлогом антитеррористической борьбы велось наступление и на религиозные свободы, и на национальные, и это наступление велось не просто в политической плоскости, но и в буквально вооружённым путём. В КБР, если мы вспомним восстание 2005 года, под предлогом которого впоследствии был, раскручен маховик репрессий против молодёжи, на данный момент было убито несколько тысяч – по моим сведениям – представителей т.н. подполья. Причём, в Кабардино-Балкарии была широко распространена практика КТО (контртеррористическая операция – GV), в ходе которых уничтожались разного рода «террористические ячейки». Под этим предлогом уничтожалась молодёжь, активная пассионарная молодёжь. 

В Карачаево-Черкесии была более принята практика отстрела отдельных представителей такой молодёжи без КТО – я не знаю почему, но местное руководство ФСБ решило, что такая практика более эффективна. Или у них хуже связи с Москвой, чем у КБР – «кбровцы» имели большую поддержку в центре, в МВД, в центре «Э» (Главное управление по противодействию экстремизму МВД России – GV) и прочих структурах, и они отстреливали – многие-многие сотни ребят были убиты в ходе таких одиночных отстрелов. В Карачаево-Черкесии некоторые горные районы Карачая были объявлены «ваххабитским гнездом» – была целая медийная компания, и под этим предлогом начался накат, наезд на религию, аресты имамов и прочее. 

Murat Temirov (MT): The political situation in these republics over the past 25 years is characterized by the gradual removal of all signs of sovereignty, which have practically disappeared, and any national elements. Twenty-five years ago, these republics were quite significant subjects of the Russian Federation, influencing, among other things, central policy. However, with the arrival to power of these security officers [the current Kremlin authorities], there has been a continuous attack on all the rights of the regions, especially national regions, under the pretext that separatism is the main threat to the existence of Russia. Under this pretext, any signs of sovereignty and national identity were eliminated. For example, national languages are not used in document circulation, business practice, or government institutions, although they are enshrined as state languages.

The second reason for the deterioration of the situation of the population is that during all these 25 years, under the pretext of the anti-terrorist struggle, both religious and national freedoms have been attacked. This attack was carried out not just on the political plane but also literally by force of arms. In the KBR, in the case of the 2005 uprising, under the pretext of which the flywheel of repression against youth was subsequently spun up, several thousand of representatives of the so-called underground were killed at the time.

In KCR, the practice of shooting individual representatives of such youth without CTO was more accepted. I do not know why this has been the case, but the local leadership of the Russian Federal Security Service decided that this practice was more effective. It may also be because they have worse connections with the Kremlin than the KBR, whose members had great support in the center, in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in the center “E” [the Main Directorate for Countering Extremism of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia] and other structures. Hundreds of guys were killed during such single shootings. In KCR, some mountainous areas of Karachay were declared a “Wahhabi nest.” There was a whole media campaign about it, and under this pretext a crackdown began with an attack on religion, arrests of imams, and so on.

RNA: What about the current social and economic situation in these republics?

МТ: Если говорить о социальном положении, то это одни из самых бедных регионов России, причём, стараниями, конечно, центра. Даже тех скудных ресурсов (природные, туристические), которые имеются в регионе, было бы достаточно, чтобы население жило в достатке – можно сравнить с положением, которое было там в 90-е, когда несколько миллионов голов скота было только в одной КЧР. Но усилиями центральных властей там бедность, которая преодолевается невероятным трудолюбием местного населения, которые выживают как могут. Поэтому социальное положение тяжёлое: там зарплаты одни из самых низких в стране, пенсии одни из самых низких. Тем не менее, хотя бы, уровень жизни, там, в сравнении с какими-нибудь центральными регионами России, значительно выше только потому, что местные не пропивают те немногие крохи, которые им достаются.

MT: If we talk about the social situation, these are some of the poorest regions of Russia, and, of course, due to the center's efforts. Even those scarce resources, which derive from tourism and natural sectors, available in these regions would be enough for the population to live in abundance. For example, the current situation is drastically different from the 1990s, when there were several million heads of livestock in the KCR alone. Due to the efforts of the central authorities, there is poverty there, which is overcome by the incredibly hard work of the local population, who survive as best they can. Therefore, the social situation is difficult: wages and pensions are among the lowest in the country. Nevertheless, at least the standard of living there, in comparison with some central regions of Russia, is significantly higher only because the locals do not drink away the few crumbs they get.

RNA: What did the central authorities’ policies ultimately lead to in these regions?

МТ: Такая ситуация привела к тому, что сперва это радикализировало молодёжь, потом часть молодёжи уехали в Сирию (когда началась гражданская война в Сирии, то вдруг всем начали спокойно выдавать паспорта заграничные и дали свободно выезжать), кто-то в Турцию, а тем более с началом мобилизации очень много молодёжи бежало из этих республик. Кто остался – это или совсем лояльные, или полностью отбитая «вата» (негативно окрашенное прозвище для лиц, поддерживающих современный политический режим в России, пейоратив и дисфемизм — GV): те, которые готовы охотно за эти 200.000 руб в месяц или даже бесплатно идти воевать. Сейчас эти республики – это сугубо фасады. КБР и КЧР превратились в обыкновенные российские регионы с какими-то компрадорскими представителями власти, которые выполняют любой каприз из Москвы. 

MT: This situation led to the radicalization of the youth. Some part of the youth left for Syria, when the civil war began there. At that time suddenly everyone began to calmly issue foreign passports and youngsters were allowed to travel freely. Some left for Turkey. Especially after the start of the military mobilization in September 2022, a lot of young people fled from these republics. Those who remain are either completely loyal, or completely repulsed “vata” [a negatively connoted nickname for people who support the modern political regime in Russia, pejorative and derogatory]: those who are willing to go to war for RUB 200,000 per month or fight even for free. Now these republics are purely facades. They have turned into ordinary Russian regions with some kind of comprador government officials who carry out any whim from the Kremlin.

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