Kremlin closed Minkavaz. Is Russia changing its regional strategy?

Map of the North Caucasus Federal District. (Source: ATV Media)

by Giuliano Bifolchi

The Russian president Vladimir Putin abolished the Ministry of North Caucasus Affairs established in 2014 to support the regional development. The functions of the ministry will be transferred to the Ministry of Economic Development. The abolition of this ministry might be considered part of the political-institutional reshuffle which Putin started in the Russian Federation. This decision might be interpreted as the Kremlin’s will to be less involved in the North Caucasian dynamics.

The ministry, well-known as Minkavkaz (Ministersvo po Delam Severnogo Kavkaza), was established in May 2014 with the aim at linking the Russian and the North Caucasian institutions and supporting the ‘Strategy for the Socio-economic development in the North Caucasus to 2025’ (hereinafter Strategy 2025). In fact, the North Caucasus is one of the most troublesome and depressed regions of the Russian Federation where the Kremlin has fought two wars in Chechnya (1994-1996 and 1999-2009) and faced problems related to ethnonationalism and religious radicalization.

According to the Russian central authority, the main problems of the North Caucasus were the high level of unemployment and lack of working specialization among the young generations. Therefore, in 2010 the Kremlin decided to separate the North Caucasus from the rest of the Russian Federation creating the Severo-Kavkazsky Federalny Okrug (North Caucasus Federal District, hereinafter NCFD) and launching the Strategy 2025 to create hundreds of thousands jobs and positioning the region in the middle of the regional market.

On the one hand, Moscow has promoted significant financial investments to create regional tourism clusters know as Kurorti Severnogo Kavkaza (North Caucasus Resorts). On the other and, the Kremlin has improved the presence of military forces which have conducted special operations targetting the local terrorist group Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate). As a matter of fact, since 2010 Russian and local authorities have heavily contrasted the local militancy and terrorist groups achieving notorious successes as the killing of Doku Umarov, the leader of the Caucasus Emirate, and his associates.

In 2014, due to the fall of Imarat Kavkaz, several North Caucasians militants pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State confirmed the creation of Vilayat Kavkaz (Caucasus Province) as part of the caliphate. Although the Russian leadership has often underlined the socio-economic improvement in the North Caucasus and the increase of stability and security, the region has not been immune from terrorist and violent attacks and jihadist propaganda in the Russian language. Indeed, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the recent violent attack against a police traffic post occurred on New Year’s Eve in Magas, the capital of the Republic of Ingushetia.

The Russian opinion on the North Caucasus has often been negative because the region has been seen as the most problematic part of Russia and a ‘paradise’ for terrorist groups and political Islam. Perceived as the ‘inner abroad’ because of local customs and traditions greatly differ from the Russian one, the political opposition and some Russian parties have strongly criticized the Kremlin for having invested a huge amount of money in the North Caucasus. The critics and the negative feelings toward the North Caucasus have nourished the Kavkazophobia (fear of the Caucasus) and the slogan ‘khvatit kormit’ Kavkaz‘ (stop feeding the Caucasus).

Suppressing Minkavkaz might be one of the answers that the Kremlin needs and wants to do at the problems related to the North Caucasus and a general negative popular opinion on the Russian involvement in the regional dynamics. This decision might create a further distance between the central authority and local institutions and boost the feeling of abandon and estrangement largely diffused among the North Caucasian people.

Even though the Kremlin (and in this case the president Putin) has always decided who should have been the head of Minkavkaz, a fact that underlines the impossibility for the local population to elect the regional political representatives, the Ministry of North Caucasus Affairs was an attempt to give centrality and importance to the region and fill the gap which in the past supported the affirmation of ethnonationalism movements and religious radicalization.

With this decision, Vladimir Putin could have jeopardized the positive outcomes that the Russian government has achieved in the past years in a historical period characterized by the return of North Caucasian foreign fighters in their homeland whose result might be an increase of local militancy and diffusion of jihadist ideology which exploits local disappointment and young generations’ frustration.

Also, the abolishment of Minkavkaz might represent a transformation or change of the Kremlin’s strategy on the North Caucasian administration and local problems and the will to centralize the regional administration decreasing the role of local politicians in financial funds’ management. An approach similar to what happened in the recent past when Crimea was included inside the Souther Federal District, lost its financial privileges, and went under the management of Krasnodar administration.