Radical Islam in the North Caucasus

Evolving Threats, Challenges, and Prospects

As Kyrgyzstan plunges into crisis and the threat of a second Afghanistan in Central Asia looms large, the situation in the “Big Caucasus” seems less pressing and thus overshadowed. The worst scenarios predicted by analysts and politicians for the period of the 2008 August war have not been realized. The Russian attempt to “replace the regime” of Mikhail Saakashvili or apply the Georgian pattern in Ukraine, expected by many in the West, has not taken place. Neither have the attempts from the West (the United States, NATO, and others) to “nudge Georgia into a rematch,” which were expected in Moscow. Nonetheless, the Caucasus region remains one of the most vulnerable spaces in Eurasia.

In the Caucasus, the first precedent of a revision of borders between the former Soviet republics was established. For the first time in Eurasia, and particularly in the Caucasus, partially recognized states have emerged. While their independence is denied by the United Nations, it is recognized by the Russian Federation, a permanent member of the UN Security Council. After the “hot August” of 2008, Moscow demonstrated its willingness to play the role of a revisionist state for the first time since 1991. Russia defines the “Big Caucasus” as the sphere of its vital interests and priorities and consequently pretends to be a key stakeholder for the whole region.

But there is a paradox in this situation. Identifying itself as a guarantor of Caucasus stability and security, Russia faces serious challenges inside its own country in the North Caucasus area. Moreover, in 2009 the situation there was characterized as the most important domestic policy issue by President Dmitry Medvedev. What challenges have turned the North Caucasus into a primary issue for Russia? Could we paint the political, ideological, and psychological portrait of the North Caucasus militant resistance? What resources do they have, and why has radicalism becomes popular? What external and internal factors determine their approaches? What mistakes did Russia, its society, and the Western observers make? And, finally, could the rise of Islamist militancy in the North Caucasus bring Moscow and Washington closer, regardless of the numerous foreign policy disputes existing between the two countries? This report is an attempt to answer these questions. It is based on open sources and interviews made during several trips to the North Caucasus republics, and it aims to promote more practical approaches to the situation there.

Sergey Markedonov