The political situation in the North Caucasus – including the relationship between Chechnya and Russia is once again being thrown into question as a result of the Nemtsov murder.

A portrait of politician Boris Nemtsov duting ceremony of paying last respects to him at the Sakharov Center. Photo: RIA Novosti

A clearly marked “North Caucasus trail” is beginning to appear in the case of the murder of prominent Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. Lacking sufficient sources and reliable evidence at present, we risk turning the discussion of this critical issue into idle speculation.

Nevertheless, it is important that we take stock of the circumstances and focus on ascertaining the significance of the event for Chechnya, the North Caucasus and Russia as a whole. The “Nemtsov affair” has not exposed any specific problems of the North Caucasus, but the murder of Nemtsov has certainly shone a spotlight on their potential existence.

Over the past year, the dynamics of this turbulent region have been sidelined by events in Ukraine. The destabilization of the North Caucasus caused alarmists to run wild on the eve of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, yet their predictions failed to materialize. This major sporting event passed off without a hitch from a security point of view. Moreover, compared with 2013, the total number of victims of armed violence in the region fell by 46.9 percent.

April 2014 saw the elimination of one of the most prominent leaders of the jihadi underground, Doku Umarov, and later that fall — after a hiatus of more than two decades — ethnic Chechens were once again enlisted into the ranks of the Russian army (alongside expanded conscription quotas in other regions of Russia’s North Caucasus).

Thanks largely to Ukraine, Russian and foreign media began to perceive the North Caucasus not as a “bandit backyard” on the outskirts of Russia, but rather, as a passionate champion of the Kremlin’s hegemonic ambitions in the post-Soviet space. This had a considerable impact, too, on public perceptions of the “problem region” across Russia. According to the Levada Center, the slogan “Stop Feeding the Caucasus” in July 2014 was overtly supported by just 19 percent of respondents.

However, these achievements could not hide the flip side of the North Caucasus coin. Sometime back in the 1990s, many politicians and experts discussed the “price” that Russia’s central government would have to pay in order to incorporate Chechnya into Russia’s overall political and socio-cultural space. On the table were models and methods designed to bring the turbulent region of Chechnya (and with it the whole of the North Caucasus) closer in line with the rest of Russia, together with all its existing flaws yet shorn of some of its distinctly regional characteristics.

The present situation invites a paradoxical conclusion: Over the years the integration of this “problem child” of Russia (a label that could be applied to the region as a whole) has been less about Moscow coming to Grozny than about Grozny coming to Moscow. And that black-and-white rhetoric about “enemies” and “traitors,” which only 3-5 years ago was considered an extravagant overture from the “field” (and an acceptable price for regional loyalty and stability there) is becoming increasingly popular in by no means marginal political circles at the national level.

There are rational explanations for this about-face. The grinding external pressure (from sanctions to the effective freeze on a wide range of diplomatic contacts) is forcing a response. However, the fact remains that over the last year the line between Moscow’s respectability and Grozny’s extravagance has been considerably effaced.

And so it was that after the arrest of a suspect in connection with the murder of Nemtsov, through social media accounts such as Instagram, the head of Chechnya (Ramzan Kadyrov) continued to reflect on said suspect’s loyalty to Russia and heroism. Such assessments, as well as earlier statements on the collective responsibility of the families of members of the underground movement and unassisted attempts to reconcile yesterday’s militants, still lack a proper appraisal and response from the central authorities.

All this did not suddenly appear from nowhere. The military field management of the North Caucasus (built on the principle of “strong personalities, weak institutions”) has posed certain challenges before. In this regard, it is worth noting that the rise in popularity of Islamist sentiments in the region is mainly due not to the successful efforts of preachers, but to the dysfunctional secular systems of various spheres of life. Hence the appeal to mosques, sheikhs or Salafi and radical jihadi groups as potential arbitrators.

As a result, the “competition of jurisdictions” has led to conflict and violence, since the recognition of just one religious authority as legitimate creates problems. Moreover, globalization provides an opportunity to get acquainted with the “achievements” of radical foreign brands without having to visit the Middle East or Afghanistan. And it would be naive to suppose that the far from peaceful reflections on this matter can be kept inside the borders of one select region of the country without there being any attempts to export them further afield.

The individual responsibility and involvement of the parties to this high-profile assassination will, let us hope, be established under a competent investigation and impeccable legal process. But already there is reason to explore at least two basic theses.

First, the regional management, which has been built for many years almost solely on the basis of loyalty, has significant costs, primarily the de-monopolization of violence. In the past year we have repeatedly (and justifiably) criticized neighboring Ukraine for its privatization of law enforcement and security issues. But now it seems the time has come to pay attention to this problem inside Russia and to draw the appropriate conclusions.

Whatever form stability takes in any particular region, the strategic objective should always remain visible behind the tactical goal, namely the integration of the region into the Russian Federation according to the general rules of the game, and not the creation of a state within a state with its own notions of law, power and control. Deprived of that, the tactical achievements of recent years (minimized terrorist activity, military conscription) are not irreversible.

Second, the delegation of considerable authority to the “field” without proper checks and balances is fraught with danger, for it causes the opposition (both liberal and nationalist) to perceive the entire region (in this case, the North Caucasus) in a negative light. It is labeled a “burden” that needs to be cast off.

It is a dangerous illusion, and one that was demonstrated by the dashed hopes for speedy democratization following the collapse of the union state! But without a change of priorities in the process of integrating the North Caucasus, such sentiments will grow – and not only among hard-line oppositionists.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.