Beyond Beslan, The Caucasus's Fissures Run Deep


Analysis. Prague. Gunmen with links to Chechen separatists seized a school in Russia's autonomous republic of North Ossetia on 1 September. The three-day hostage crisis ended with the death of more than 330 people, nearly half of them children.

The tragedy -- for which radical Chechen field command Shamil Basaev has claimed responsibility -- sent a shockwave across the small northern Caucasus republic, which more than a decade ago saw predominantly Orthodox Christian Ossetians clash with minority Muslim Ingush. Although the conflict lasted only six days, it claimed hundreds of lives.

Moscow's initial claims that some of the Beslan hostage takers were Ingush have sparked concerns that the crisis could rekindle interethnic and interreligious strife in the North Caucasus region.

Convinced that their Ingush neighbors bear responsibility for the Beslan bloodshed, some Ossetians have vowed to retaliate for the death of children and other relatives. Others fear Moscow's apparent reluctance to shed light on the tragedy might prompt the Ossetians to simply look for scapegoats. As for Vladikavkaz resident Ruslan Bzarov, he believes Ossetians on both sides of the Russian-Georgian border are being victimized.Whatever the consequences of the Beslan tragedy, it will remain a milestone in the Caucasus's troubled history.

"We Ossetians feel depressed and paralyzed by humiliation," Bzarov tells RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. "We understand that what happened did not happen by chance. We are in the center of the Caucasus. For 15 years now, we've been struggling so that our people are reunited. First, there were attempts to bring South Ossetia to its knees, then this tragedy in North Ossetia. We were hit because we're Ossetians. The pain we're enduring, I think, will force us to assess the situation and stick together," he adds.

Whatever the consequences of the Beslan tragedy, it will remain a milestone in the Caucasus's troubled history.

Home to speakers of over 50 languages, this mountainous area had a long record of unrest before the Bolsheviks imposed their rule in the early 1920s. The breakup of the Soviet empire in the late 1980s brought new disturbances and armed rebellions that, for the most part, continue today.

The region, in part, owes its past troubles to its strategic location at the crossroads of civilizations.

Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Khazars, Huns, Mongols, Persians, Seljuks, Arabs, and Ottomans have throughout history partly dominated the Caucasus, giving the region its ethnic, linguistic, and religious complexity.

Then, in the 18th century, came the Russians. And with the Russians more conflict.

Marie Bennigsen-Broxup is a leading expert on the Caucasus and the editor of the London-based "Central Asian Survey" quarterly. She tells RFE/RL that the arrival of the Russians marked a turning point in the region's history.

"Historically, I think, a first event that would kind of set the tone for future developments was the uprising led by Sheikh Mansur at the end of the 18th century, during the reign of Catherine the Great. Sheikh Mansur was a Chechen and it was under him that for the first time a coalition of northern Caucasus peoples made up exclusively of Muslims fought the advance of Russian troops," Bennigsen-Broxup says.

"Then, with Georgia asking to join Russia [as protection against the Ottoman Turks], we see a first real cleavage emerge between Muslim and Christian Orthodox nations. It is also around that time that Russia started relying on the partially Christianized Ossetians to expand its territorial conquests [in the north]," she adds.

Sheikh Mansur's uprising was ruthlessly quelled in the late 1780s-early 1790s and its leader imprisoned in the Schlusselburg fortress.

Unrest resumed a few decades later under the guidance of a Daghestani-born Sufi mullah, known as Imam Shamil. It took Russia nearly a quarter-century to defeat the new rebellion and become the unrivaled power in the region.

Thornike Gordadze, who teaches Caucasus history at the Paris-based Institute of Political Studies, argues Russia's military power is not the only reason for Shamil's failure.

"Shamil is the only leader who ever managed -- though imperfectly -- to unify the North Caucasus against the Russians. But [paradoxically], by dividing its territory into separate regions and trying to impose his own lieutenants at the head of each region, he was also, in a way, responsible for the division and feudalization of the Caucasus. In the final analysis this is what precipitated his political and military end," he says.

Whatever his errors, Shamil's legacy remains vivid in the North Caucasus, especially among Chechens.

The aforementioned Shamil Basaev was reportedly named after the legendary Daghestani mullah. Born in Vedeno, near the place where Imam Shamil eventually surrendered to Russian troops in 1859, Basaev reportedly claims ancestry from one of the imam's Chechen lieutenants.

For most Russians, Basaev is nothing more than a terrorist. But, despite his fighting alongside Moscow-backed Abkhaz separatists in the early 1990s, he is seen by many in the North Caucasus as a symbol of Chechnya's struggle for independence against Russia.

In December 1994, Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered troops to invade Chechnya and bring the breakaway republic back into the fold.

Confronted with a series of military setbacks, the Kremlin agreed to sign a peace agreement in 1996. But war resumed three years later.

The two successive conflicts have already claimed tens of thousands of lives -- mostly civilians -- and, despite President Vladimir Putin's assurances, nothing suggests a quick end to the fighting.

For nearly 10 years separatist fighters have been scoffing at Russia, raiding military positions in areas nominally under federal control, and carrying out attacks outside of Chechnya.

Separatist movements had stirred the Caucasus even before Chechnya declared its independence.

In June 1988, Azerbaijan's predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh demanded to join Soviet Armenia, triggering war between Yerevan and Baku.

Further north, Abkhazia and South Ossetia seceded from the government of Georgia's nationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia before forcibly winning de facto independence.

Experts believe the Karabakh conflict could have been easily prevented were it not for the Soviet leadership's failure -- whether deliberate or not -- to correctly assess political developments in the region.

Moscow, which lent military and political support to both the Abkhaz and South Ossetian separatists, is similarly blamed for Georgia's separatist conflicts.

But for Ronald Grigor Suny, who teaches Georgian history at the University of Chicago, things are not so clear-cut.

"During the Soviet period, the Abkhaz went through a number of different levels of control over their republic, always, of course, under the ultimate authority of Moscow. Up to the 1930s Abkhazia was a union republic but then, gradually, as you move into the 1930s and on, it lost power [over its territory] as control was taken over by the Georgians and there was a kind of 'Georgianization' of Abkhazia.

This, of course, led to bad feelings and antagonism and when the Abkhaz had a chance, eventually, they asserted their rights. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Abkhaz became fearful because the empire -- the umpire -- was gone. They felt they had to reassert their control and they very radically took over their little republic, throwing the Georgians out," Suny says.

Ethnic and religious diversity is often cited as the main source of unrest in the Caucasus. Georgians and Russians have, in the past, blamed religion for their conflicts with the Abkhaz and Chechens, respectively.

Yet, Suny argues cultural diversity is not enough to spur violence. During the 19th century, Armenians were the predominant ethnic group in the Georgian capital Tiflis and dominated the city's economic life. Yet, as he points out, peace between Armenians and Georgians prevailed.

"What you have in the Caucasus, even more acutely than almost anywhere else, is a combination of ethnicity, political power, and territorial control. In other words, each little unit is contested by a particular ethnicity that considers that unit to be its national homeland and it doesn't want interference, or it fears control by another. So you've got this very intense struggle where ethnicity, politics, and territory all match -- or want to match -- each other and you have problems with other peoples who wish they had sovereign control over that area," Suny says.

Soviet rulers are responsible for what historians call the "ultimate ethnicization" of the Caucasus.

"In the 19th century, especially in the North Caucasus, ethnic borders were extremely blurred and ethnicity was not the most salient identity. People were defining themselves with regard to a particular clan, or village, or 'cemaat' (religious community) -- as in Daghestan for example -- or even to a vague Caucasian or [Circassian] identity. Someone living on the territory of Chechnya was unable to define himself, or herself, as a Chechen, Ingush, or Kabard. Today, ethnicity is really what helps Chechens define themselves and the current ethnic borders that exist [in the region] have been drawn up by the Soviet administration," Gordadze said.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin further encouraged divisions in the Caucasus by sponsoring scientific studies and population censuses that promoted ethnic identity among its various peoples.

He notably drew an artificial line between Adygeis, Kabards, and Cherkess, who were actually various subgroups of a single northwestern Caucasian people.

Stalin's "divide and rule" policy culminated in the deportation of entire ethnic groups for alleged collaboration with Nazi occupation troops during World War II.

In 1943 and 1944, hundreds of thousands of Karachais, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Kalmuks, and Meskhetians were forcibly sent to the deserted Central Asian steppes, where many of them died.

Most of these "punished peoples" -- as late historian Aleksandr Nekrich once called them -- were rehabilitated and allowed to return home after Stalin's death. Others, like the Meskhetians, are still fighting for rehabilitation and remain scattered throughout the former Soviet Union pending their hypothetical return to southern Georgia.

In parallel to the deportation of entire populations, the Soviet leader ordered that the administrative borders of the Caucasus be redelineated.

The Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Republic was abolished and part of its territory given to neighboring North Ossetia. When Ingush returned from exile in the late 1950s, many of them discovered that their property had been sold to Ossetians following the transfer of the territory to North Ossetia.

A similar pattern was followed in the Karachai Republic after its predominant ethnic group was deported and parts of the autonomy given to other regions.

Bennigsen-Broxup says that Stalin -- by ordering some communities deported while sparing others -- sowed ultimate disunion among regional peoples.

"In Kabardino-Balkariya, for example, there is a cleavage between the Kabards and the Balkars. The Kabards consider themselves privileged and 'morally superior' to the Balkars because they haven't been deported. The same goes for the Cherkess and the Karachais. One can also notice the same phenomenon in Daghestan, where people often say the Chechens are 'bad,' otherwise they wouldn't have been deported. Thus I would say the Soviet period turned into enemies peoples who earlier had been governed by some sort of cultural and historical unity and ruled by a common code of honor."

Demands by the Ingush that Ossetians return lands and houses appropriated during the war paved the way for the 1992 interethnic conflict.

In the restored Karachayevo-Cherkessiya autonomy, tensions brought the republic's two main communities on the verge of civil strife in the early 1990s.

Stalin's policy, it could be argued, also had a positive effect since disunion among people in the Caucasus prevented the Chechen war from spreading throughout the region.

Ingush and Daghestanis have resisted Chechen attempts to draw them into the conflict -- partly out of fear of a Russian backlash, partly because they did not have particularly warm feelings toward their neighbors.

Yet, the conflict created new fault lines in the region.

Soon after the first Chechen war broke out, radical Salafi preachers arrived in the North Caucasus from the Arab Peninsula and elsewhere to fight Russian troops. Only a few of these clerics are believed to remain in the region today.

But they have left an imprint, especially on young people.

"Starting from the early 1990s, there has been a religious revival which is not a repetition of the traditional religious cleavages of the years 1800-1850 that lasted up to the Soviet period. This reform movement is represented by a few extremely radical groups which have broken away from both the region's Islamic traditions and the older generations and who believe that the ethnic divides that exist in the region have been imposed upon them by outsiders and must be abolished," Gordadze says.Stalin -- by ordering some communities deported while sparing others -- sowed ultimate disunion among regional peoples.

Both economic hardship and social exclusion have helped radical Islamic organizations spread throughout Chechnya, Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkariya, and Karachayevo-Cherkessiya. However, Gordadze believes these groups remain marginal and do not represent a serious threat to the region's traditional clan-based societies.

"Political Islam somehow remains a minority movement," Gordadze says. "It is not powerful enough to impose itself upon the North Caucasus society. Yet this movement exists and, of course, the war and the behavior of Russian troops in Chechnya can only add fuel to it. But, as of today, it does not represent a predominant ideology and most people in the Caucasus do not share the world view of these groups."

Yet, political infighting may prove an additional factor of instability in multiethnic Daghestan. Local leader Magomedali Magomedov has hinted he may retain power -- in violation of the constitution that calls for a rotation among representatives of various ethnic groups -- this amid a series of political assassinations in Daghestan in recent months.

"We may soon see in Daghestan a combination of ethnic and religious problems. In addition, we should keep in mind that, traditionally, Islamic groups there are much more radical than in Chechnya," Bennigsen-Broxup says.

Recent wars have already had such devastating effects that restoring peace in neighboring Chechnya looks to be nearly impossible.

"In 1996 I would have certainly said that [peace was still possible]," Bennigsen-Broxup says. "But now we have a situation that is similar to that of Afghanistan. The war has been going on for 10 years almost without interruption. There is an entire generation of Chechens who know only war and that will have devastating consequences even if Russia were to agree to [separatist foreign minister] Ilyas Akhmadov's plan to deploy an international peacekeeping force. One cannot create a generation which knows only war and hope everything can go well."

Political developments in Abkhazia, where ailing, pro-Russian leader Vladislav Ardzinba is about to step down, are also a source of concern, as are Georgia's possible moves to restore control over both the Black Sea province and South Ossetia.

Last month fighting broke out between Georgian troops and South Ossetian armed militias, threatening to degenerate into war.

The Georgian leadership blamed Russia for the unrest, accusing its peacekeeping forces of siding with the separatist leadership and demanding that they leave South Ossetia.

But settling Georgia's separatist conflicts requires more than just Russian neutrality.

"It is wrong to believe that provided [Tbilisi] manages to strike a deal with Moscow these conflicts will be automatically settled. Separatism is a real issue in Abkhazia. It is, of course, supported by Moscow. But it is also largely founded on the experience of the 1930s and 1940s. Georgia has often in the past denied the existence of the Abkhaz as a distinct people and nation and this is a major concern for the Abkhaz," Gordadze says.

"Unless the Georgians critically reassess their history and stop being obsessed with Moscow, they will be unable to find a durable solution to these conflicts," he adds.