RUSSIA: FROM CHECHNYA TO KONDOPOGA

07.09.06
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Yuri Filippov.)

The recent outbreak of violence in the Karelian town of Kondopoga, where an ordinary restaurant fight resulted in several murders and all but escalated into a large-scale conflict between the local population and newly arrived Chechens, coincided with the anniversary of another serious conflict that took Russia years to settle. Fifteen years ago, in September 1991, the independent republic of Ichkeria was proclaimed on the territory of Chechnya, giving rise to a long and exhausting confrontation between North Caucasian separatists and the federal authorities, a confrontation where war soon became inextricable from politics.
Now the conflict with the rebellious republic has been settled. The Chechen constitution was approved by a referendum which stated that Chechnya was an inseparable part of Russia. The republic has held two presidential elections and has recently elected a bicameral parliament, where the pro-Kremlin party United Russia has a solid majority. If, despite obvious differences, the Americans managed to make similar political changes happen in Iraq (a pro-American president supported by the population, a responsible parliament and well-defined political parties), they would have every right to say that a political settlement in Iraq had been achieved, and it would be hard to dispute that.
Still, neither in Iraq nor in Chechnya can all problems be resolved by politics. In the latter case, it is clear that a political settlement, understood as bringing the republic's political order in line with the Russian Constitution, is just the beginning of another long and difficult path.
The fight against territorial separatism is a thing of the past in Russia. Chechen separatism, which began fifteen years ago with a declaration of independence, actually ended in 1996-1997, when hundreds of thousands of Chechens suddenly understood that it was much better and more profitable to do business in other Russian regions than in their native republic, which had quickly been divvied up among feuding gangs. After all, in other regions capitalism was developing fast, new untapped markets were emerging and new activities were appearing that were not always taken advantage of by the local population.
It is well known that for mountain people (not only in the North Caucasus), moving down to the plains and doing business with neighbors has always been the most acceptable alternative to war and theft. This is perhaps because it is hard to do business successfully in the mountains. What trade can there be in your native village, when almost all the residents are related and where all resources, including the few available land plots, either were divided up long ago or are owned by the community, and where community traditions are a thousand years old?
Russia knows how well Chechens are doing in the gambling business. Not so long ago, millions of Russians played the Russian Lotto, a TV game invented by Chechen businessman Malik Saidulayev. However, having a similar Chechen Lotto would be impossible. When the Chechen authorities decided to nip the republic’s gambling industry in the bud, they did it decisively and immediately, with the full support of the majority of the population.
Gambling is one of many examples. It is no coincidence that multinationals that are actively opening production facilities in the European part of Russia avoid the North Caucasus. If the former has a long tradition and ingrained culture of hired labor, in the latter such activities have always been poorly developed and almost disappeared in recent years, when industrial production fell significantly across Russia. Lately it seems that new jobs have been appearing in Chechnya. But for whom? Mainly for state officials and in law-enforcement and security bodies. A job at a private corporation that would make other Russians proud would be viewed as "corporate slavery" by Chechens. This is not a joke, but a cultural, social and economic problem that is not easy to solve.
The above is enough to understand why it was inevitable that whole communities of North Caucasians would migrate to other Russian regions and set up private companies. These processes will be further encouraged by the government's new demographic initiatives seeking to improve the birthrates in the country. These are traditionally high in the Caucasus (Chechnya has the highest birthrate in Russia) and will be even higher in the future. Where will the North Caucasus's demographic expansion be directed? Although their communities are now growing in Turkey, Europe and even in the United States, most of them still move to the Russian plains.
How peoples and cultures mix there will influence the future interethnic peace and the general situation on the huge Eurasian continent. Russian megalopolises such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as other large cities, have learned to absorb different communities almost painlessly, integrating them into the local economy. But this is a normal feature of megalopolises. They have almost no local or district interests, or at least such interests are so insignificant that they cannot lead to a serious outbreak of conflicts between groups. In addition, the ethnic composition of large cities is so diverse that it is impossible for a community to become subject to persecution. Confrontations between locals and outsiders, as was the case in tiny Kondopoga with its population of 35,000 people, are impossible in megalopolises. But in Russian provinces, which live exclusively on their local interests (and there are about 100 million people scattered across the provincial parts of
the country!), the appearance of a new, strange ethnic community, especially if it isolates itself from others and gives preferences to its members in local businesses, can easily escalate inter-ethnic tensions.
Of course, this malady is not incurable. Although the echo of the "clash of civilizations" can sometimes be heard not only in the Greater Middle East, but even in Europe and the United States, people of different ethnicities are mostly able to get along. Mass migration is not something new for Russia, which occupies a huge territory between the Baltic Sea and the Pacific Ocean. However, it has never before witnessed such large-scale mass movements of ethnic communities that take their customs, culture and insularity with them.
The events in Kondopoga are a wake-up call for the Russian authorities. While strengthening the Russian state, improving its status in the world and helping large exporters to enter foreign markets, they have somehow overlooked local problems, which might one day become their main headache because Russia is a multinational and multi-religious country.
Getting back to the Chechen issue, I would like to repeat that political separatism is a thing of the past in Russia. Now it is cultural, economic and social integration that is on the agenda. This does not just mean the integration of Chechens and Russians, but a broad, comprehensive assimilation. The struggle for this integration may be longer, harder and more exhausting than the relatively short episode of the so-called “Chechen War”, which ended with a fairly successful political settlement. –0–