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Building a Greater Russia

COMMENT. In the second of a two-part series examining the roots of conflict in the North Caucasus, Shy Zakya blames the rebirth of Russian nationalist feeling for the gathering tensions
By Shy Zakya

The conflicts which have racked the North Caucasus over the past decade have, for the most part, been triggered by growing nationalistic trends in the highest echelons of Russian government.

It seems clear that the Kremlin is actively working to create a "Greater Russia" at the expense of the federation's ethnic minorities. The Russian passport no longer carries a "nationality" clause; the term "Russian Federation" has almost disappeared from the state media. Most importantly, the nation has been divided into seven "provinces" (okrugi) which coincide with the old Soviet military districts.

In fact, this is no coincidence - many of the provinces are run by governors with a military background who make no allowances for the ethnic diversity of their subjects. The idea is simple: no nationalities, no problems.

Duma deputies, government officials and the state-controlled media all conspire to promote the concept of a unified Russian state. Ethnic Russians represent the majority, they argue, whilst "people of Caucasian nationality" (popularly known as "blacks") have somehow insinuated themselves into the federation. In fact, many genuinely believe that the Caucasian tribes originally came from abroad and drove an indigenous Russian population from the region.

It is these "blacks" who won't leave Russia in peace, who should be "rubbed out even on the toilet", to quote President Vladimir Putin's immortal phrase. They are convenient scapegoats for the surrounding chaos and the ongoing economic malaise.

And so, history turns full circle. The Russian people are content to look on their president as "the good tsar" and submit themselves to his will. It is a legacy that dates back to the days of Ivan the Terrible when the vast majority of the population were serfs who imagined the tsar would bring order to the nation and provide for all.

The dignified and freedom-loving nature of the Caucasian peoples came in sharp contrast to the cowed subservience of their Russian neighbours. Naturally, the Russian empire devoted considerable efforts to stamping out their "bad influence".

Now, once again, the Russian Federation is attempting to fulfil its imperialist ambitions - even though it no longer has the strength of will or the economic resources to do so. In 1994, the state was eager to launch its "small, victorious war" in Chechnya and demonstrate the extent of its powers. The second war is being waged to satisfy the ambitions of generals who were denied victory in the first.

Consequently, the Russian people are caught in a vicious circle. The politicians and bureaucrats continue to finance imperialist wars while they secretly ransack the state till. In compensation, they give their subjects "a great idea" - the belief that they are the "chosen people" who will one day inherit a powerful empire.

Russia's imperialist policies are largely responsible for the growth of religious extremism in the North Caucasus. And, to a certain extent, Wahhabism and Islamic fundamentalism are reactions to the dramatic rise of the Russian Orthodox Church as an official state body.

In a bid to fill the ideological vacuum left by the collapse of Communism, the Kremlin has resurrected the old formula of "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality" - a belief encapsulated in the words "Holy Russia" which have begun to figure widely in speeches, newspaper reports and political manifestos across the Russian Federation.

Consequently, after 80 years of suspended animation, the Orthodox Church has finally come to its own. Now, the Church takes an active part in state politics, refusing to condemn the war in Chechnya and often sharing the public stage with Kremlin politicians.

A TV report from Chechnya on the eve of the Orthodox Christmas well illustrates the point. The footage showed a Russian artillery officer cheerily yelling, "Merry Christmas" as he ordered his battery to fire on a rebel-held Chechen village.

Equally disturbing are the falling standards in education across the Russian Federation. Many young people are being fed conflicting information about religious groups and persuasions, with the result that some later embrace highly subversive religious movements which prey on the na‹ve and gullible.

And ignorance is not confined to the darker reaches of the former Soviet Union. Recently, a television host on the programme Play the Harmony interviewed delegates from the Greek Cultural Centre. "What, are you Russian Orthodox too?" asked the TV host in astonishment. The delegates patiently explained that it was the Greeks who bought Christianity to Russia 10 centuries ago.

The situation is much more serious in Islamic religious circles where philosophy, history and culture have been severely eroded by the years of Soviet rule. Today, extremist groups have gained a wide following amongst the Chechens, the Karachai and the Balkars, especially in remote mountainous regions.

In some areas, religious beliefs have become blended with the idea of Pan-Turkism - the creation of an Islamic state which would embrace all the Turkic peoples from Siberia to the shores of the Mediterranean.

Pan-Turkism was given a new lease of life by the breakdown of the Soviet Union and today continues to inspire many disaffected North Caucasian peoples looking for new ideological banners under which resistance to Russian rule can be united.

The change in the balance of power that has taken place in Russia has serious implications for the whole of the North Caucasus. Peace and stability cannot be achieved through force or political manoeuvrings. Any diplomatic initiatives in the region must take into account the specific nature of the Caucasian peoples - their mentality, traditions and historical legacy.

Shy Zakya is a political commentator in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria

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